I went out and saw “Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2” on opening weekend. I had high expectations for it because, like many people, I had very much enjoyed the original 2014 movie and was looking forward to more. But though it was colourful, and it was funny, and yes, it had some absolutely fantastic music, I came out of the theatre thinking it was… okay-ish.
It took me a couple days to nail down what was bothering me about the film, specifically what the original “Guardians Of The Galaxy” had that this one was missing. And when I finally put my finger on it, I realized my least favourite Marvel movie sequels are absent that same ingredient, while the ones I think are great have it in spades.
As far as I experienced, the main protagonists in “Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2” are not actively pursuing any goals. Most everything that happens in the movie happens to them, and they make decisions reacting to events.
In the first film, all five of the Guardians are doing things they want to do. Starlord is after the orb, Gamora is after the orb, Drax is after Ronan, Rocket and Groot are after Starlord. Once all together, they all together want to escape the prison, sell the orb, and finally, stop Ronan. There’s a lot more subtle stuff, but right from the being and very clearly, every one of them wants something and is always doing something directly to that goal.
In the sequel, I’m not sure any of the Guardians have any active goals. Once they capture Nebula right at the beginning of the film, every else happens to them. From the point Kurt Russell’s character introduces himself to the Guardians, every choice they make is in reaction to things happening or being revealed to them.
In many reviews, the stand-out character in “Guardians of The Galaxy Volume 2” is Yondo, and I’m not surprised. Unlike the first main protagonists, he does have an objective and he actively pursues it the entire film. Things that happen to him are obstacles to his goal.
The Marvel origin films I like introduce us with active main characters. Tony Stark built weapons, then after he escaped the cave, he worked to build the Iron Man suit. Thor went after the frost giants, then worked to return home after his exile. Doctor Strange tried to heal his hands, then worked to learn as much magic as possible. The antagonists in those origin films entangle themselves into those characters active pursuits, often because of what those characters have done.
In “Iron Man 2”, Tony Stark has become reactive, to the palladium poisoning he’s suffering and to the appearance of Ivan Vanko. In “Iron Man 3”, its post traumatic stress, the Mandarin, and Aldrich Killian. In “Avengers: Age Of Ultron”, its Tony’s vision of the Avengers death, then its just chasing after Ultron. If you were to remove the antagonists of these films, would the heroes be doing anything?
Contrast this with “Captain America: Winter Solider”. In the first act, Fury is the one with active goals, sending the Black Widow after the flash drive, trying to decrypt it, trying to sell Steve Rogers on Project Insight. When he gets gunned down, he literally passes the story to Rogers, giving him the flash drive and having him pursue the truth. And he doesn’t wait for something to happen; most things happen because he’s out there poking at things Alexander Pierce doesn’t want him poking at.
Or how about “Captain America: Civil War”? Steve Rogers makes the decision to go after Bucky Barnes, and Tony Stark actively tries to get his friend to see reason in regards to the Sokovia Accords. Their active, conflicting goals is what drives the entire film.
A mainstay in comicbook stories is that there’s villains after some dastardly objective. In the weaker setups, those objectives directly involve the heroes as a quick easy way to get said heroes into conflict with the villains. The heroes are reacting to the villains’ actions. In the strong setups, the heroes have their own objectives that inevitably run afoul of the villains, and those opposing active pursuits introduce the conflict.
In “Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2”, its Ego and Nebula and Yondo that all have active goals they are chasing after. Most of the main characters are literally just along for the ride.
This doesn’t necessarily make for a bad film. Nor does this specifically make “Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2” a bad film. But that’s the reason I couldn’t get more into it. The first film was a hell of a romp, with an gaggle of colourful characters all tripping over each other. The sequel… wasn’t.