One of pop culture’s truisms is that the book is always better than the movie. Anyone saying that has clearly not seen The Godfather. But there are far more examples of its truth than its counterexamples. Anecdotally, I remember the Harry Potter movies always finding the books’ fans (read: me) frustrated by everything the filmmakers had to leave out.
This is true of comic book movies too. Most people go to a comic book movie like Captain America: Civil War or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with simple measures of how they enjoyed them: they laughed, they were thrilled, they were intrigued by a plot twist or two. Fans, on the other hand, expect to recognize something special just for them. And often, they are disappointed. These characters have vast histories in continuities spanning decades; filmmakers can’t possibly pay homage to everyone’s favorite panel.
Marvel has been the best at the balancing act of combining fan service with actual quality, but even they can’t help but falter every now and then. In creating their own cinematic universe with Easter eggs and callbacks, Marvel has subtly undermined the very medium with which they create. Comics are naturally more like television in their episodic nature than movies, and Marvel (and DC, in their lesser efforts) have succeeded in making their movies more like television episodes, to their ultimate harm. Such an approach does not necessarily doom a franchise but can impede its path to greatness.
Guardians of the Galaxy did not have this problem in the slightest. The first movie had the advantage of a clean slate. Precious few were fans of the group in comics form. In fact, it was a miracle this group was getting its own movie in the first place. Upon release, it was a smash hit, mostly because it was a great piece of genre entertainment. Director James Gunn’s voice rang loud and clear through the ingenious action set pieces, the soundtrack choices, and the screenplay pitched perfectly between irony and earnestness.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not have the same advantage as the first. There are now expectations, though I’m happy to say the second installment thoroughly meets them all. It is as entertaining as the first and may be thematically deeper to boot, exploring more interesting territory through Kurt Russell’s Ego than any Marvel villain to date. If it is not as effortless as Vol. 1, Vol. 2 makes up for it with a higher level of emotional satisfaction.
Not being beholden to a beloved continuity is a benefit to the Guardians duo. It also foreshadows the future of comic book movies. Marvel has had an impressive run of fifteen (fifteen!) movies that have the trifecta of box office success, audience love, and relatively consistent critic approval. This achievement is all but unprecedented in Hollywood and is thus unlikely to continue forever. The constant after-credits stingers, the neverending waiting game of figuring out how everything is connected- the breaking point is coming, and there is no guarantee of similar success with whatever Marvel decides to do after they reach it.
And Marvel is the outlier in this business. Fox has had two solid runs with the X-Men movies, but the second chance they got with First Class is rare, and the third installment of this second run had the same problem as third installment of the first: bloat. Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man movies weren’t bad but they didn’t connect with audiences, and now they have turned to a partnership with Marvel to right the ship. Warner Brothers’s DC movies have been an outright mess ever since the Christopher Nolan era of Batman movies.
All of these movies had big ambitions to appease established fan bases with movies that embodied their characters. These characters have decades of development that cannot be packed into a couple of hours of entertainment. With Logan, Fox decided to do something different. While Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has been around since 2000, they set Logan years after the former movies in a world that looked very different. There are few if any mentions of characters or events from the past movies. Even the whole vibe of the movie is different, slower, than the other X-Men movies, with the possible exception of The Wolverine (also directed by James Mangold)./
By filming Logan as a standalone story, Mangold was freer to fill the edges of his movie with the kinds of details that give movies depth, like the Shane references or Nate Munson introducing Laura to pop music. This is in opposition to something that is now the norm in comic book movies: details that are basically commercials for future movies, like Tony Stark’s conversation with Peter Parker in Parker’s apartment in the otherwise great Captain America: Civil War or the hasty introduction of the future Justice League members in the dreary Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. These are the details of television shows, moving the plot from episode to episode, not of movies, which are self-contained stories in their ideal form.
Self-contained stories are the future of comic book movies. I am not saying that we are seeing the last gasp of franchises. Better writers than me have proclaimed the death of popcorn movies and the like. We will always have franchises- thus saith the Lord. But those franchises will not survive if they orient themselves around fan service and continuity. Avengers and Civil War (and hopefully Justice League) are exceedingly charming in their scope, but franchises need movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Logan, which are the incubators of that charm. The books may be better than the movies, but the movies can still be great as long as they remember that they are movies.