MCU Retrospective Part 15 – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
To celebrate Spider-Man: Far From Home’s release, we’re taking a look back at the entire MCU. Entry by entry. Our goal with this retrospective is to trace the footsteps of Marvel Studios. And in doing so, to understand the decisions made along the way to becoming a Hollywood powerhouse.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is perhaps the most offbeat of all the sequels in the MCU. It’s also one of the only direct sequels in the MCU canon that doesn’t really have an impact on the larger narrative. It just doesn’t fit the mold of what a Marvel sequel is supposed to be. In the past, most of the MCU films have felt beholden to forwarding the Infinity Saga. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has no interest in that. Instead, director James Gunn uses the film to tell perhaps the most emotional and personal MCU story yet.
While the script basically boils down to a hangout movie, the fact that it’s light on plot and heavy on character ultimately makes it even more interesting. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 operates like an indie family drama that just happens to have an extremely big budget. It became the first production to break free of the Marvel Creative Committee. As a result, its development and production indicated how well the MCU worked without it.
Son of a Gunn
Marvel brought back Gunn to write and direct the sequel even before they released Vol. 1. In May 2014, Disney CEO Bob Iger expressed his enthusiasm about the film’s box office prospects, and stated it had “strong franchise potential.” While the first movie had yet to become a hit, Iger felt the studio had “another Avengers” on their hands. In the following months, Kevin Feige echoed Iger’s sentiment. Similarly, Gunn confirmed that he was already contracted for a sequel. By San Diego Comic-Con 2014, original Guardians of the Galaxy screenwriter Nicole Perlman spilled the beans that Gunn was back.
That same weekend, the Marvel Studios Panel officially announced the film , with a July 2017 release originally intended. When Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters that August, Gunn celebrated the film’s massive success by sharing news that he had already begun work on the sequel. In October, Gunn acknowledged that the original members of the team would return. A week later, Marvel held their Phase Three event, in which they moved the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 release date forward to May 2017. Throughout the next six months, most of the cast confirmed their intent to return, while Gunn crafted the story.
Even before the release of the original, Gunn seemed pretty confident about the direction of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Having already worked out the broad strokes of Peter’s backstory with his father and Yondu, Gunn admitted, “I know a lot of where I want to go.” At the same time, Gunn wanted to give the second film a unique structure, so it would feel fresh and different. Gunn hoped to expand the character dynamics of Drax, Nebula, and Kraglin while also expanding the world building by focusing on Ravager culture. Furthermore, Gunn resisted including other human heroes like Captain Marvel or even Nova. Although Captain Marvel was already in development as a solo film, Gunn noted, “Quill being the only Earthling is important. That serves the entire movie-going audience and not just the handful of Nova fans.”
The core of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 revolved around Quill’s relationship with his father. But Gunn revealed that Quill’s father would not be J’son as it was in the comics. Gunn added that he wanted to ensure “Yondu’s place in everything made sense” aside from everything else. As a result of the film’s focused narrative, Thanos’ presence would only be necessary if the story required it. Feige later confirmed that the Mad Titan’s reemergence in the MCU would be saved for a more monumental return later on. Toward the end of the year, Gunn noted that he didn’t feel beholden to setting up Infinity War, but rather to “move toward future cosmic movies.” Consequently, Gunn felt it best to set Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 roughly three months after the first film.
Freedom and Trust
With the pieces in place, Gunn revealed in February 2015 that the story for the film was nearing completion. Gunn’s script was an original one; a unique prospect for Marvel Studios that they described as “risky.” In March 2015, Gunn conducted an impromptu Facebook Q&A where he gave some insight into his creative relationship with Marvel Studios. They had given him a great deal of creative freedom on the first film, but even more so for the sequel. The filmmaker noted that “we have a really great relationship where they let me go and do my thing,” before adding that he also took their notes and ideas to heart. Additionally, Gunn mentioned that he had earned the trust of Marvel Studios after the success of the first film. This meant that he was free to do pretty much whatever he wanted.
By May 2015, Gunn confirmed that, to keep it from “getting too sprawling and too crazy,” the sequel would actually feature fewer characters. Initially, the screenplay would have added two new characters to the team – Mantis and Adam Warlock. While the former was an interesting addition, the latter is a hugely important part of the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe. Although Warlock originally had an important role to play, Gunn ultimately felt that he was one character too many. As a result, Gunn cut him from the screenplay. Still, Gunn “adored” the character, and teased his appearance in one of the film’s five post-credits scenes.
In June 2015, Gunn finished the first draft of the screenplay, which meant that pre-production could begin. By the end of the month, Gunn revealed the film’s official title, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. There were still two critical roles to cast. Although the role of Mantis eventually went to Pom Klementieff, casting Quill’s father was key. As the main antagonist of the film, Ego the Living Planet needed a certain sense of gravitas.
The role also required the audience to believe that the character could have sired Quill. Even though both Marvel and Gunn’s casting instincts are usually on point, their first choice for the role was…Matthew McConaughey. But the Oscar winner passed on the project. Surprisingly, it was Chris Pratt who suggested that Kurt Russell play his onscreen father. Although Russell would prove to be the perfect choice, Ego’s inclusion in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 nearly didn’t happen.
When Gunn first pitched the idea of Ego as Quill’s father, he thought that Marvel Studios owned the rights to the character. After crafting the entire story around Ego, Gunn learned that Fox actually owned the rights. In a coincidental turn of events, Marvel was allowed to use Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But only because Fox wanted to change Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s powers in Deadpool – and they needed Marvel’s permission to do so. Fortunately, the dueling studios agreed to a straightforward trade. Gunn later admitted that he had no back-up plan. He also noted that it would have “been impossible” to just drop another character into the story, given that the entire plot revolves around Ego.
Compared to its predecessors, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had perhaps the easiest time getting made. This became most apparent in the post-production process for the movie, in which the movie earned a perfect test screening score. Marvel’s testing process is much more secretive than other studios’ processes. However, the unprecedented score for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was more proof that the MCU didn’t need the MCC.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the sequel is that, despite significantly expanding the cosmic side of the MCU, it doesn’t really build toward Avengers: Infinity War. Regardless, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the best Marvel movie in terms of pure characterization. It’s an important part of the path even if the plot often feels inconsequential. It’s certainly not a perfect movie, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is arguably Marvel’s greatest stand alone sequel. The third Guardians of the Galaxy movie will happen eventually, but the story behind Gunn’s firing and rehiring are best left for another time.