The first thing almost anyone will ask someone who has seen a new movie sequel, superhero or otherwise: "Is it better than the first?" By and large, it's an impossible question to answer, unless you're so in tuned with this person's taste that you feel comfortable enough in answering on their behalf. But, also, straight up, the number of sequels that are actually "better" than their predecessors are incredibly few and far between. The exceptions, like The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2 are far outnumbered by the likes of Fantastic Four: The Silver Surfer, Batman Returns and even the MCU is not immune, with Iron Man 2, not to mention the countless non-superhero sequels that fall far short of their predecessors. While a vast majority of the early reactions to Guardians 2 were positive, most believed it wasn't better than the original, but I just have to disagree. I do in fact think Guardians 2 is better than its predecessor, because it presents a highly-complex story that delivers on every emotional level, while advancing these a-holes' stories and setting up a true family dynamic that is unparalleled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Without giving anything away, I just have to get it out of the way that, after a brief yet important prologue, the movie truly kicks off with one of the best opening sequences I've seen in years. You've seen bits and pieces of it in the trailers, quite a bit of it, actually, but when it all comes together, it's truly just a wondrous sight to behold, while serving as another reminder of how brilliant writer-director James Gunn is at picking the absolute perfect songs for each scene, which he demonstrates constantly throughout this movie. I can't possibly divulge any actual details about the scene itself, but I know for me, every time I hear Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky" after this movie, I'll think of that scene, in the same way I think of either Fight Club or Observe and Report every time I hear "Where's My Mind Again" by Pixies. I could be wrong, but it also seemed to be an homage of sorts to Fatboy Slim's music video for "Weapon of Choice," which famously showed off Christopher Walken's dance moves... but perhaps I've said too much already...
Given how much attention was paid to the identity of Star-Lord's father after Guardians of the Galaxy became a huge hit, many were quite shocked when James Gunn and his cast unveiled the first footage at Comic-Con last year, which confirmed that Kurt Russell's mysterious role was none other than Ego the Living Planet, who was in fact Peter Quill's father. James Gunn would later admit that all of the footage from the trailers were scenes that happened very early in the movie, which was quite accurate. We do see quite early on that the Guardians have been hired by the gold-skinned snobs known as The Sovereign, lead by Ayesha, played to arrogant perfection by Elizabeth Debicki, to take care of that massive squid monster thing that Drax (Dave Bautista) is seen leaping into in the trailers. While their mission was a success, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) screws it up by doing something stupid, which sends them on the run from the Sovereign's massive drone fleet, and then that's when stuff really starts getting interesting, weird, hilarious and tremendously endearing.
I honestly wasn't terribly surprised to hear the early reactions about the sequel falling just short of the sequel, but after finally watching it, I just don't see it at all. Like many Marvel fans, I was "let down" by Marvel sequels like Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, but those movies had unenviable tasks ahead of them, following up the MCU's first ever movie, Iron Man, a surprise hit in its own right, and the MCU's biggest and most successful movie still to this day, The Avengers. This is just one man talking here, but both of those movies suffered from the stakes and the scope being elevated so much that it became detrimental to the story they were trying to tell. None of that happens in Guardians 2, in what might be the MCU's most balanced movie to date, delving into character arcs, juggling a complex story while still delivering the action and humor fans have come to love from the original. The only thing I could think if that critics might be "let down" by, was there wasn't quite as much humor this time around, but the story didn't call for it, and as far as I'm concerned, the continued character development of each main character more than made up for less humor, even though the humor that was there, was spot on.
Perhaps because it's literally set in a different galaxy, perhaps because it has a director who is still an indie kid at heart, but Guardians 2 never punches above its weight class, with James Gunn skillfully balancing scope with in-depth character development with as much adept precision as he has for picking the perfect song to go with each scene. The entire soundtrack is simply epic on its own, but each song paired with each scene, hand-picked by James Gunn, is honestly masterful. If you don't "catch the feels" (or whatever you kids say now) when Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" comes up, then check your pulse. Every one of the main Guardians gets a bigger and more in-depth arc, along with some wonderful insight into Yondu (Michael Rooker), including some truly insane scenes with his Yaka arrow and bonding with Rocket, much more on Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula's (Karen Gillan) sibling rivalry, even more scene-stealing brilliance from Dave Bautista's Drax and, oh yeah, Sylvester Stallone in a fantastic role, and four (out of five, apparently) post-credit scenes that present some intriguing possibilities for the future of the MCU's cosmic universe. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not only "better" than its predecessor, but it's also one of the rare Marvel sequels that doesn't suffer from bloating the scope so much that it overshadows the story.