A superhero movie is only as good as its theme music. Christopher Reeves’ Superman, Michael Keaton’s Batman, and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man all became so beloved in part because of the iconic music fans associated with those performances. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Avengers theme is the piece of music audiences remember. “Portals,” anyone?
Ironically, the other most memorable musical element of the MCU isn’t a hero theme at all. Although composer Tyler Bates developed a stirring theme for Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn’s movies are better known for their ability to refresh and repopularize pop songs from the 1970s and 1980s. But which of Gunn’s two Guardians films has the better soundtrack?
The music of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is a character in the film
Right from its first trailer, Guardians of the Galaxy made it clear this was a much different kind of superhero movie. Prior to the film’s release, the characters were relatively obscure. So Gunn needed to find a way to entice audiences to fall for a team that included a space raccoon and a talking tree with a very limited vocabulary. The answer? Throw in a bunch of hit songs.
However, Gunn didn’t just overlay tracks like Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” and Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” into the movie. Instead, he built them into his story and rooted them in character. The songs audiences hear are often coming directly from Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) Walkman. He treasures it as the final gift from his mother (Laura Haddock).
That’s one clear reason why the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack was such a smash hit upon the film’s release. Sure, the music — an eclectic mix of soul, rock, and pop — made for an instant party. But this connection to the events on screen and particularly the lead character contribute greatly to the soundtrack’s potency.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ brought a different energy
So expectations were set high when Gunn came back for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The first film’s music had proven to be so epically linked to the movie. And fans were eager to see how Gunn would up the ante. Instead of going bigger, the filmmaker took the opposite approach. Embracing a more folk-rock focus, Guardians Vol. 2 features a more intimate touch.
While the first film featured such music legends as David Bowie and Marvin Gaye, its sequel digs a bit deeper. Guardians of the Galaxy features songs that might be new to younger fans but many of which are classics in their own right. If that first film is the greatest hits of the 1970s and 1980s, then Guardians Vol. 2 is the accompanying collection of rarities and B-sides.
This is not to say the music in Guardians Vol. 2 is inferior in any way. But tracks like George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” offer a more complicated, conflicted, and personal lens into where the story goes. In addition, many of the sequences in Guardians Vol. 2 hinge on Gunn’s song selections, a skill he has clearly honed since the first film.
But which of the two films has a better overall soundtrack?
Because the two Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks are so different, deciding which one is objectively better is a tricky proposition. The first Guardians of the Galaxy features a collection of more recognizable, more dance-able tunes. Moreover, it also established the significance of Peter Quill’s “Awesome Mix” collections in the films.
Although far more introspective, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 might ultimately prove to be a more satisfying listen in the long term. Gunn topped himself with pitch-perfect matches of emotion and songs. Yet, rather than going too obscure, he strikes a more even balance between tunes fans might kind of know and deeper cuts.
In the end, the choice between the two Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks depends on personal preference. Those looking for something familiar and comforting might “ooga-chaka” their way to the first album. But overall, we give the edge to Guardians Vol. 2. After all, where else can fans enjoy the delightfully loopy “Guardians Inferno,” featuring David Hasselhoff himself?