When Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters in August of 2014, it was the closest thing in modern cinema to a true surprise, breakout hit.  James Gunn was a relative unknown outside of the world of goofy niche films and the characters were largely anonymous to most comic fans.  Why was Marvel taking a risk like this?  The answer was because Kevin Feige is a genius.  Bereft of the Marvel cosmic first family, the Fantastic Four, or their entourage of villains, using the Guardians was the best way to open the universe wide into space.  Gunn’s use of popular throwback music and humor made for one of the most purely entertaining films in the entire MCU.  As Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has approached, Gunn had two challenges.  First, could he replicate the magic a second time?  Second, could he surprise viewers again?  The answer to both is mostly yes.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 returns most of the cast from the first film.  Chris Pratt continues to cement himself as the Harrison Ford of this millennium by being dashing, funny, and relatable.  In this film, his immaturity is actually more apparent.  At times it seems his adventuring yet wily character from the first installment is replaced by an eight-year-old who never had to grow up.  This regression makes some sense, however, as his comfort with his friends and joy over finding his father means he’s just being more vulnerable and honest.  Later when he discovers the true origin of his mother’s death, Pratt also shows a level of anger that demonstrates his range.  (That scene is so reminiscent to Robert Downey Jr.’s in last year’s Captain America: Civil War that Marvel should probably avoid dead mom revelations for a little while, even though both were done well.  Dead mothers could become in this phase the hand chop off of Phase 2.)

Zoe Saldana has more meat in this film, but much of it is related to Karen Gillam‘s Nebula.  While Nebula deserved more time in the limelight, it is unfortunate that again Gamora’s story is about someone else’s story.  Two films in, she is still Thanos’ daughter and Nebula’s sister and Star Lord’s crush more than any personal characteristic.  Drax and new character Mantis score the novelty of being the franchise’s new duo.  Their naivety is fun in relationship to one another but largely remains comedic.  Rocket’s action sequences are among the best of the movie.  While in the first film he looked like a raccoon, in this film he moves like one.  Him jumping between trees defending against the Ravagers helps to make his character a little more whole.  This is truly an animal, not just a person that looks like one.  Michael Rooker makes a giant leap from fun side character in the first film to an integral part of the second, and he succeeds at both with flying colors.  It is not easy for an actor to be menacing in a first film, yet still leave enough personality that the shift to anti-hero in the next film is smooth.  By the end of the film, it totally makes sense how Peter, Rocket, and Kraglin would all see him as a father, friend and mentor all at the same time.  The scene of Yondu teaching Star-Lord to shoot a gun would have been jarring in the first film (after two hours of “I’d never had Terran”) but in this film, it does nothing but tug the heartstrings.

Kurt Russell is already getting plaudits as one of the better villains of the MCU.  What makes the casting so good is that Russell looks and sounds like he could be Chris Pratt’s dad.  He mirrors the fun-loving spirit and quirky humor of Quill (“I need to take a whizz”) in a believable way. You believe that  Star-Lord would totally cruise around Missouri in the late 70’s with an earth woman blasting Looking Glass.  Ego’s turn as a villain was largely predicted but not revealed in the major trailers.  Even up until the point he goes bad, many viewers will wonder if there is a different twist coming.  The raw emotion of that reveal and then the flip Ego are powerful.  It would be easy to brush off Ego as an inconsistent character, but instead, Russell holds back just enough in his performance, making the interactions with his son as genuine as it can be, at the same time exuding a dickish bravado you’d expect from a shady manipulative fella.

The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a bit of an asset and downfall.  It is a bit more complex and twisty than the original film.  That means that it holds the interest well, but it also is more prone to confusion and plot holes. While the first movie had such a simplicity that made it fun and effortless, much of Vol. 2 has an inertness to it. A pace of events that coincidentally happen to our heroes as opposed to them actively making it happen to themselves. Occasionally Ego’s room of statues is an excuse for major exposition dumps.  Compare to the scene in the Collector’s HQ in the first film (at almost the exact same moment in the plot) and it appears a bit of a crutch for Gunn.  More importantly for fans of the MCU, Marvel has started to fix one pattern by creating another. This movie and Doctor Strange have served up back to back main baddies who are disembodied omnipotent heads, totally in control of the environment, who are trying to spread their home world throughout the galaxy/multiverse, via a cancerous growth.  Now, this wasn’t obvious to me until hours later on reflection, so it isn’t a massive problem.  But it is a striking similarity on reflection.

One cannot watch this movie without noticing the references that Gunn forces into them, via pop culture call-backs and the soundtrack.  Personally, I enjoyed the soundtrack much less this time.  It seemed less diverse sonically and included more songs that you will hear on the oldies station in your car versus the deep cuts of the first film.  It isn’t a major criticism and one that is largely driven by personal taste.  The use of “The Chain” in the climax was thrilling.  More startling was the use of video game sound effects, the appearance of David Hasselhoff, and Quill making himself into a giant Pac-Man character.  These decisions are bold and fit the universe well.  They also threaten to take viewers out of the film a bit and remind them they are watching a movie.  At times I tired of how referential it was, but then I remember this is just a unique aspect to Gunn’s vision.  It’s no worse than the gratuity of Tarantino’s violence, the quirkiness of Andersen’s costuming, or the lens flairs of Abram’s shots.  Ultimately this is part of what makes Gunn’s MCU films distinct and humorous.

The special effects in the film continue to be fantastic and colorful.  The move from Yondu’s mohawk to a straight up fin is emblematic for the confidence Marvel now has to go full on crazy and comic-faithful.  While Russell’s face on the side of the planet was too short lived, it looked awesome.  Some effects, like Rocket and Yondu going Looney Toons during their 700 space jumps, were bordering on slapstick but they work.  The same thing can be said about Ravagers suffering Rocket’s anti-gravity machine.  Its goofiness risks taking the audience out of the movie, but it’s also a part of a palette that Marvel Studios hasn’t tried.  Some great comic books are so because they choose to play with the slapstick.  That choice is another one where I give Gunn all the credit in the world for attempting something bizarre, instead of punishing him critically for ingenuity.

The number one special effect of the film, however, is also one of its best character moments.  It is also my favorite part of the whole film.  Baby Groot is a triumph.  The beauty of the character is not in the mo-cap work or the adorableness.  Coming into the film I expected all that.  The crazy thing is how much Groot acted like a toddler.  I’m a dad of three kids, and all are or have grown through toddler years.  Often in film, kids, particularly little ones, are really just caricatures of what someone without children thinks children are like.  It’s rare and special to see a character on screen, and a tree no less, who immediately flashes me to a moment with my child.  Gunn and company have perfectly captured the essence of childishness, including how the act when hurt emotionally.  I felt for Groot in a way that no character in film has ever de me feel, because I could see my child on the screen in his CGI face.

This brings up another aspect of the film that is worth note.  Gunn is a relatively morbid man.  A quick look at his non-Marvel CV will show that to be obviously true.  The dark sense of humor and willingness to explore seedy parts of the human psyche is in this movie in suprising ways.  There is a lot in this film about child abuse.  Gamora and Nebula get into their past as one might expect.  But the scene where the Ravagers pour beer on a crying Groot was the first time in an MCU film where I literally didn’t feel comfortable watching.  It was too visceral and mimicked what some children face in their lives.  The mutiny and mass murder also had a darkness beyond anything from a Pirates of the Carribean film.  Don’t forget the pile of thousands of filicides in the basement of Ego’s palace.  In some ways this is the darkest MCU film, but the blazes of color and humor mask it.

As far as how the film sets up the future of the MCU, there are a lot of little things that could become huge things.  The Watchers finally appear.  A version of the original Guardians line-up also makes an entrance.  And everything is set for an Adam Warlock reveal.  The Sovereign are a fun part of this movie but don’t ultimately make a huge difference.  Gunn’s idea seems to be to make a race full of people with the personality of Griswold’s next door neighbors.  It is hilarious but how Warlock authentically flows from it will be a mystery for now.  Everything seems to shape towards Adam Warlock being the villain of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, though it is hard to believe that he won’t have some appearance in either Avengers: Infinity War or its sequel due a year later.

(One side complaint that isn’t really a complaint.  When Batman v. Superman made weird illusions to comic storylines I was unaware of [that scene with the weird dream and flash popping his head in the batcave], I was pretty critical of it.  Fan service that doesn’t progress story, or even confuses lay viewers, is always a bad idea in my mind.  No one likes being in a big moment but not understanding why it’s big.  I don’t notice this much in the MCU, because I almost always know the reference.  I don’t know the original Guardians squad so the post credit about them coming together felt very weird for me.  In the end I put it down to my lack of comic lore knowledge and I realize I’d be pumped if I did know the characters.  But for the first time I sort of saw how disorienting these movies can be for an average audience.)

So that’s a lot of talk about the movie, but how did it fare overall?  Let me start with my overall criticism, followed by my general praise.  Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a totally effortless movie.  It seemed like Gunn unleashed a dream from his head that just flowed onto paper and the actors immediately understood it and executed it.  That was a movie I was totally immersed in because every second crackled.  This film, however, felt more labored.  At various points it just felt like Gunn was working really hard to do something.  Many of the gags related to the planet Contraxia felt more like someone trying to be funny than it being funny.  Some lines felt inorganic instead of what someone would say in that moment.  None of that is to say it ruined the film, it just felt like regardless of what the promotional interviews say, Gunn and crew felt a pressure to top themselves and at times tried a little too hard.

Overall, however, the film is fantastic.  What I haven’t mentioned is the overall theme of family.  Few movies, MCU or not, have the amount of heart that this film has.  After reading about Gunn as a person this week, it is clear that he made himself vulnerable through his characters in a brave way.  Far too long media has been obsessed with snark and sarcasm, but behind Rocket the trash panda, despite his exterior, is one of the more earnest and honest things we’ve seen on the big screen.  The Guardians are a real family and a believable earnest one at that. Their humor, conflict, and adventures all tell that story in a cohesive way.  In many ways, this property hasn’t just taken the role of the Fantastic Four (introducing the cosmic MCU), but it’s also faithfully lived out the heart of that property more than any film about those characters.  The result is a fantastic film.

Rating:  I don’t love the four or five or ten-star system, so I’ll put it this way.  There are three kinds of MCU movies for me.  On the low end are fun movies, slightly above average movies.  Marvel’s made 5-6 of those.  Then there is a middle zone which are great movies I want to watch over and over.  We’ve had 5-6 of those.  The best are literally breathe-taking for me.  They redefine the comic film genre as a whole.  I think we’ve seen that four times.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for me is the middle bunch, but the high end of that bunch.  I only think four or five Marvel Studios films are better, but this one is more great movie than genre redefiner.  But don’t let that confuse you.  You should see this movie, see it now, and then get tickets to see it again later this week.