SPOILER WARNING: This piece contains spoilers for both Guardians of the Galaxy films
Ego is an important word when describing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It's not just the name of Kurt Russell's character, though that's certainly true. Ego, the selfish part of our psychological makeup that makes us look out for our wants above all (typically coded as male, and not without good reason), more than the Infinity Stones or the shenanigans of Ronan the Accuser or the Sovereign, drives the events of both Guardians of the Galaxy its successor, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
To a one, all the male characters in this franchise -- with the exception of Groot -- are pretty selfish. Rocket wants respect and normalcy to make up for his tortured creation, and Drax is a creature of passion dealing with a truly horrific trauma. But it's Peter Quill who really struggles with his ego and selfishness throughout both movies, though not without good reason. As seen in the first film, he's retreated into a lifestyle of R-rated Han Solo roleplaying to make up for the twin traumas of his mother dying and him being abducted by the Ravagers on the same night.
What's intriguing in watching both Guardians movies back-to-back is that writer/director James Gunn establishes clear types for each character, then fleshes them out more and more through dialogue as well as action. Given that character development in the Marvel Comics source material historically came through long, passionate monologues or an omniscient narrator (especially if you read X-Men), that's a pretty big feat when you consider Gunn tackled it for all these characters with roughly four hours of screentime.
That, of course, is a large part of what makes Guardians Vol. 2 succeed. Almost every character gets new things to do rather than merely rehashing what people liked from the first movie. Rocket proves that he's more than just a punchline by getting into nasty arguments with Star-Lord and openly expressing self-doubt, while Drax evolves beyond the lunkhead of the first movie to instead become the sequel's single biggest source of jokes (even if a lot of them are irksome, which we'll discuss in a bit). Yondu becomes much more fleshed out and sympathetic as his backstory is revealed, and Star-Lord develops a new confidence as team leader -- which gets completely upended when he receives the dual punches of finding the biological dad he always wanted in Ego, and learning that he's half-Celestial, essentially making him a demigod.
It's compelling, intriguing stuff that not only calls back to the beats and dynamics of the first film, but builds on them and fleshes the characters out. It's a shame, then, that Gunn couldn't do the same for the movie's female leads. Sadly, the three prominent women of the Guardians films basically end Vol. 2 as they began.
First is Karen Gillan's Nebula; Her comics history aside, the film's Nebula's main outline is that she's a bald, blue cyborg assassin with a terrible Eternal for an adoptive father. That alone should be able to inspire some kind of redemptive arc, but that's not really what we got. In the first film, she lashes out at Thanos' awfulness by siding with Ronan against him, which doesn't work. At the start of Vol. 2, she's apprehended by the Guardians and finally confronts her feelings of jealousy and anger at Gamora for constantly upstaging her in their brutal childhood, which led to her being repeatedly, brutally mechanized. But by the end of the film, she just leaves to go kill Thanos -- in short, she's exactly where she was at the beginning.
Gamora has it much worse, as she's basically presented as just "The Girl." Credit where credit is due; in the first film, Gamora was much more bitter and focused on atonement for the horrible atrocities she had committed. By Vol. 2, she's lightened up a fair bit, even developing a sort of big sister bond with Baby Groot that was lovely and could've stood to be explored more. But ultimately, she's there to have a (lack of) conflict with Nebula and "flirt" with Quill. I put "flirt" in quotes, because, as Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt play them, Peter and Gamora simply don't have any chemistry. While it's not as forced an MCU romance as Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter, it's a half-measure nonetheless. If Gamora had more to her beyond "The Girl," and she and Peter had any actual chemistry on a character-level, there'd be something to dig into, but alas, that's not the case.
Finally, there's Mantis. Poor, sweet Mantis. As discussed elsewhere, Mantis was transformed from one of the most intriguing, compelling second-tier characters in Marvel Comics history into a naive innocent whose absolute sweetness and unconventional appearance are played for broad laughs about how dumb and ugly she is. Ashamedly, some of those jokes made me chuckle since, even if the material wasn't great, Dave Bautista has killer comic timing. As a result, rather than operating as an audience POV character, or someone whose relative optimism and kindness clash with or lighten up the "bunch of a-holes" swinging around the galaxy, she's basically either a punchline or a plot device. While Pom Klementoff absolutely kills with what she's given, it's a lousy way to treat her character.
Given that Guardians Vol. 2 proved to be great at fleshing out the male characters of its roster while shortchanging the female ones, the question is, where does the franchise go next? Well, it's certainly not changing hands anytime soon, and while that's for the better (bro-y humor aside, Gunn's auteur sensibilities are what make these movies stick) there are still be some corrections to be made, and time to see them happen when Vol. 3 arrives.
In theaters now, director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 stars Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, Vin Diesel as Baby Groot, Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon, Michael Rooker as Yondu Udonta, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Pom Klementoff as Mantis, Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, Chris Sullivan as Taserface, Sean Gunn as Kraglin, Glenn Close as Irani Rael and Kurt Russell as Ego.