Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ***½|****

Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a game-changing moment for Marvel Studios, when writer/director James Gunn took a ragtag superhero team who didn’t have the notoriety of characters like Iron Man and Captain America and scored larger box office numbers than just about every other comic book movie at the time of its release. While it offered some welcome contributions to the MCU by way of its cheeky humor and offbeat retro soundtrack, it was also saddled with a terribly bland cast of villains and a perfunctory plot that too often got in the way of the fun. Fortunately, Gunn has made good on the promising elements of this predecessor and made a sequel that is not only better than the original but is also one of the most emotionally rich and rewarding movies that Marvel has released so far.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 reunites the titular group as they enlist themselves for interplanetary odd jobs like protecting valuable batteries from being eaten by a giant space squid but when one such mission goes south, they are saved by a mysterious figure who calls himself Ego (Kurt Russell) and claims to be Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father. Upon traveling to Ego’s planet (aptly called Ego’s Planet), Quill is excited about the prospect of getting to know the father who was never a part of his childhood, while Drax (Dave Bautista) and Quill’s love interest Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are more apprehensive about their circumstances. Meanwhile, the mouthy raccoon-hybrid Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tiny companion Baby Groot (a high-pitched Vin Diesel) repair the gang’s crashed ship while avoiding the Ravengers led by the menacing Yondu (Michael Rooker).

From a brilliant opening credit scene that is even more playful than that of the original to a poignant conclusion that feels fully earned, Guardians 2 throws plenty (admittedly, too much) out to its audience but delivers with such a high rate of consistency that its excess is often more virtue than vice. Whereas other guargantuan superhero movies have a tendency to ignore certain characters as the plot moves along, Gunn is careful not to turn his back on any of his heroes and is admirably thorough in giving a fleshed-out story arc to each of the five Guardians on top of the new additions to the cast. More importantly, these storylines don’t just correspond with how to get each player from one action setpiece to another; they expand on the emotional foundation laid out by the first film and give us more reason to care about the struggles of these characters.

None of this is to say that Gunn has lost his smart aleck brand of whip-smart humor in the process, as Guardians 2 offers loads of cartoonish visual gags, quotable one-liners and metatextual jokes to also make it one of the funniest films in the MCU lineup. I laughed loud and often throughout the movie, specifically during an extended sequence in which Baby Groot tries to help Rocket and Yondu break out of a prison by enthusiastically fetching various items that he deems critical to their success. In another scene that riffs on the diegetic soundtrack, Ego muses on the lyrics of the ’70s hit “Brandy” by Looking Glass with Quill in a way that would seem incredibly corny for a more conventional drama but in a knowing comedy like this one, the parallels between the song and the story somehow feel both comical and credible.

Beyond the clever writing, Gunn also steps up his directing game and contributes a great deal of visual flair to his space opera with a vibrant palette of neon-infused CG effects at his disposal that make DC’s efforts look even more dismal and drab by comparison. Credit cinematographer Henry Braham for not only providing action scenes that are easy to follow but for his compositional work on simpler shots like a close-up of Quill’s face in a key moment and a wide shot of Gamora sitting solitary admidst a sea of untouched desert. All of these details give Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a leg up on the film that introduced these characters first and proves that sequels can correct the errors of an initial entry, especially when more creative control is given to the right people.