This post contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy, released in 2014, was an impressive feat of world-building. It faced the same challenge as most of the films in the early phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: It had to get the audience up to speed with a whole cast of characters based on a comic-book property that lacked the popularity of Spider-Man. Beyond introducing Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his merry band of alien friends, Guardians also had to expand the Marvel world into the cosmos, setting their adventures in a realm of complicated intergalactic politics.
It might be hard to remember, but there was a time not so long ago that Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Guardians were not thought particularly bankable. But now that origins have given way to sequels, the Marvel universe seems focused on maintaining the churn of its ever-growing brand, leading to films (like 2016’s Captain America: Civil War) that serve largely as advertisements for future installments. Every plot outcome seems temporary, every shake-up of The Avengers a gimmick.
It’s an approach that’s been wildly successful, imposing a coherency and firm sense of a shared universe, down to each movie’s crisp but unexciting visuals, carefully choreographed action, and samey musical scores. But until last week’s release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it had been a long time since a superhero movie really echoed the small-scale feel of classic comics. That is, the film is less worried about setting up multiple sequels or crossing over with other characters, and more focused on a tightly plotted, self-contained story arc with a proper conclusion. The only fear is, looking ahead to Marvel’s future, it seems very likely viewers won’t see another movie like it anytime soon.