Ever since Samuel L. Jackson walked out of the shadows in Iron Man's game-changing post-credits scene, the MCU has been about more that its individual movies. As the Marvel Studios' mantra says, everything is connected. And, at their best, the films manage to both work as solo pieces as well as pay off threads from the previous entries and carefully seed the future. It's a modern form of storytelling and a technique that over the past decade Marvel's evolved in increasingly mature directions.
First it was simply building to team-up The Avengers. Then it was focused having characters a part of a fully functioning world. And in Phase 3 it's reached its peak with crossovers becoming the norm - Captain America: Civil War was Avengers 2.5, Spider-Man: Homecoming will feature Iron Man heavily and Thor: Ragnarok brings together everyone who sat out Cap 3. But as accomplished as it has been overall, this latest turn has led to the question of whether Marvel is no longer capable of telling standalone, self-contained stories. If everything is so built up can the films possibly stand on their own merits? And if they tried to strip things back, could the franchise setup allow it?
Enter Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The space jackasses were already on the fringes of the MCU due to their almost complete separation from Earth, but their sequel appears explicitly designed to be standalone. There's no Thanos (just a few character-focused references), no obvious dangling threads bar a litany of post-credits scenes and the only film it directly leans on is the original Guardians. It is quite simply the closest to a standalone film since Phase 1. And, in that regard, it doesn't work.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's Story Problems
Guardians Vol. 2 is certainly fun and boasts some great moments - it's not the one to break Marvel's unprecedented streak - but almost every plus point is at odds with the fact its removed narrative can't hold them all up. The story is so slight it can be summed up in the length of a tweet: the Guardians meet Ego, Ego's bad, they must stop him. There's a lot of other things going on, sure, yet they're presented in such a random way that most subplots operate entirely independently and have minimal impact on the wider narrative.
This whole story issue is best seen with the character development. Or rather, the lack thereof. Small elements of each hero's personality are sanded down, but nobody undergoes any seismic transformation: the biggest are that Rocket gains an affection for his family and Star-Lord chooses to forsake his immortality, but both those elements - brash antagonism and being half-Celestial - were forcibly introduced in the movie itself; Gamora learns to care for Nebula, although had a similar epiphany at the end of the first film; Drax learned to care for Mantis, but in doing so took a step back (more on that later); and Baby Groot was mere cute/comic relief. The most irreversible change occurred to Yondu, who went from being alive to not being alive, although even that self-compassion arc required some careful stepping around his previous mellowing. The team is of course still enjoyable to be around, but seemingly don't have anywhere else to go.
Without being reductive, Vol. 2 is the most DCEU-esque film Marvel's produced: moments over scenes, an abstract fan-focused experience over narrative coherence, character action over development and theme raising over theme exploration. It doesn't fail completely thanks to all involved knowing the world they're playing in so well, but there's no avoiding they do very little with it.
At the core, it appears that James Gunn has been gifted so much freedom following the original's success that he's steered heavily into the Guardians' inherent weirdness at the expense of plot, and bitten off so much he's not able to tie thematic threads together in a satisfactory way. The entire Ego story is built on convenience - he finds Peter just as the Ayesha threat is being written into a dead end and the sojourn on his planet is bereft of any conflict - while the Ravager side meanders around it until a third act is manufactured from the pair. The result is a film that for all its talk of fathers and Daddy's winds up being a rather empty, aimless experience.
There's a gulf in the film, and the problem seems to be that when stripping out the Marvel formula's requisite connectivity there wasn't enough alternative weight added. Could Vol. 2 have worked better with some more MCU links to beef it up?