Most movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe take place in our real life present, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as it pertains to its place with regard to other Marvel Cinematic Universe films which necessitates covering some plot points. Be forewarned!
One of the more interesting parts of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 occurs in its opening scene. Though we don’t discover his true identity until later, Ego (Kurt Russell) is on Earth romancing Peter Quill’s mother. The date is clearly given as 1980.
When we flash forward, it’s to the Guardians’ current adventure, which the movie says is 34 years later. You shouldn’t need a calculator to know that means the film is set in 2014 in MCU terms.
That’s a bit of a surprise because until recently, most MCU films were set in the present day whenever they were released. The first film to break with that tradition was Doctor Strange, which came out last fall. The beginning of that movie took place before the events of Captain America: Civil War, which was released several months prior, and the finale of the film is said to take place after the Avengers duked it out with each other.
But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an even more dramatic departure, since it’s definitively set in 2014, MCU time, and thus plays out before Avengers: Age of Ultron. This hardly matters in the overall scheme of things since the Guardians’ adventure is taking place on far-flung world, though it’s interesting to note that Ego’s device he planted on Earth does activate and threaten a bunch of people, something you figure would have caught the Avengers’ attention (though it also ends quickly, and this wouldn’t need Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to actually mobilize).
A look at iMDB confirms that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is set just three months after the first film, which makes sense as the Ravagers haven’t caught up with the team and Groot hasn’t grown too much. Setting it in 2017 would likely have meant a full-size Groot, among other things.
Why do this kind of temporal tap dance? Simply put the MCU is getting to be an increasingly crowded place, and Marvel needs more space in which to insert some of these stories. But the really interesting part is what it means for next year’s Avengers: Infinity War. Assuming that movie takes place in year 2018 of the MCU timeline, nearly four years will have passed since Vol. 2. Along with an adult Groot, we should see Mantis as a full member of the team, much more development of the Star-Lord-Gamora relationship and perhaps even more changes.
In any case, expect this to be the norm from here on out. All of, say, Black Panther might not take place in 2018. Thor: Ragnarok could really be set at just about any time after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. We’ll do our best to help make sense of the MCU timeline as each new movie is released.