Source: Marvel Studios

Three years ago, Marvel Studios and director James Gunn took what many (mis)labeled as the studio’s greatest risk and turned it into the movie event of the year with Guardians of the Galaxy. In doing so, they earned a guaranteed audience for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Success breeds expectations, however, and there are no guarantees that moviegoers will feel the same way this time around. Fortunately, Gunn isn’t after the same feeling he hooked everyone with in 2014, opting for something much deeper and taking even bigger creative risks in a sequel that delivers one cathartic payoff after another.

Every sequel must endure the inevitable and natural comparisons to its predecessor. These comparisons are not unfair, but they are not all that interesting either. If we accept that Guardians of the Galaxy is great, as many of us do, then a sequel does not necessarily have to be better than or equal to the original in order to also be great. It’s a debate that time will ultimately settle while there are far more interesting conversations that can and should be had about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 today.

Massive summer blockbusters don’t get any more personal and honest than GotG Vol. 2. The plot is simple enough with the Guardians spending much of their time on the run from multiple antagonists who want them dead for various transgressions. It is a story that is less about the A-to-B-to-C of what happens and far more about what its characters are going through emotionally. It’s all part of Gunn’s successful attempt to open up the hearts of each Guardian so that we can learn what’s inside, as the director bares his own soul for a worldwide audience in the process.

After a brief prologue on Earth showing the sweet romance between Ego (Kurt Russell) and Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) in 1980, we fast forward 34 years to find the Guardians on a mission for hire. Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) joyfully and hilariously dances his way through the opening credits and the Guardians complete their assignment before collecting their bounty from the Sovereign, led by the High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). All is well, or it would be if Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper, played by Sean Gunn on set) had not stolen something from the Sovereign for no other reason than he could.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. L to R: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper) Ph: Film Frame ©Marvel Studios 2017

Rocket’s offense makes all of the Guardians guilty by association and they spend a large part of the film on the run from Ayesha’s army. The basic mechanics of the plot are secondary, though, to what the characters and their audience go through over the next two hours. Rather than keeping all of the Guardians together for the easy, familiar fun that could have been had, Gunn, who also wrote the film, splits the team up. He pairs them off in order to put each character in a more intimate and ultimately vulnerable environment. It’s easy to allow oneself to be lost in the shuffle of a group conversation, but not in a one-on-one setting.

The first Guardians of the Galaxy brought the main characters together so that they could become a family. The second film forces them to deal with that new reality and understand what it actually means. Drax (Dave Bautista) sums it up as bluntly and perfectly as only he can. In the emotional buddy system adopted by GotG Vol. 2, Drax draws Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who’s spent her entire life with a living planet, Ego, leaving her with even less social experience than her new pal.

In a conversation that would be way too brutal and insulting if it came from anyone else, Drax explains to Mantis the value of being ugly (after repeatedly saying how ugly she is). Beautiful people never know where they stand, but when an ugly person is loved, they know that it is for who they really are. The topic of the conversation is outward appearance, but the film carries that same meaning inward. The Guardians are all ugly and damaged, just as we all are in our own way, and family is where we find genuine acceptance of who we are, warts and all.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) must face his abandonment issues with his biological father, Ego, who seeks his son out in order to finally be the father Ego always wanted to be. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) must reconcile a brutal past in which their captor (not father), Thanos, kept them at war with one another and prevented them from forming the kind of bond that both siblings, but especially Nebula, really needed. In the film’s greatest pairing, Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) are mirror reflections of one another, having to confront the self-loathing that makes them fire preemptive, hurtful strikes in the direction of anything that looks like love and acceptance. They have to reject or, as they perceive it, be rejected.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2..L to R: Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2017

Gunn has called GotG Vol. 2 “autobiographical” and anyone who’s followed him on social media for long enough will probably be able to figure out what he means by that. Since the first film, he’s maintained that the character he relates to the most is Rocket. Gunn has also spoken publicly about a strained relationship with his father that has since been resolved. He dedicated both Guardians films to his mother and father at last week’s premiere and they both cameo in the film. In pouring his own heart out on the big screen, Gunn achieves a rare level of sincerity and emotional engagement.

As personal as the film clearly is to Gunn, the themes and feelings he explores are universal. Everyone has or has had to deal with their own struggles in being part of a family. Sometimes our families wound us and sometimes we wound them. Sometimes our wounds are self-inflicted. We all have flaws, of which most of us are acutely aware, and we can usually spot the flaws in others. A vital part of being a family, however, is the acceptance and love we have for one another without judgement. None of that is really possible until we trust our family members to do the same for us.

The actors portray all of this wonderfully, with Pratt knowing exactly when to let Star-Lord’s man-child persona fade in favor of something much more real and vulnerable. Michael Rooker goes above and beyond what anyone might have expected when they first met Yondu three years ago. He cuts through all the sarcasm and bravado (i.e., bullshit) to point out what’s real, regardless of whether or not it’s comfortable.

No one can out-cute Baby Groot, but Klementieff’s Mantis usurps the tiny tree’s presumed role as the show stealer. She brings the best out of Bautista’s Drax, whose grief over the loss of his wife and daughter is felt much more powerfully this time around. Gillan earns sympathy for a character who’s been hell-bent on killing one of our beloved heroes, Gamora, and Saldana is so great as she is confronted with her own shortcomings in their relationship.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2..Nebula (Karen Gillan)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2017

GotG Vol. 2 is heavy, but it still delivers big spectacle, big fun, and big laughs. These are still the Guardians, after all, so hilarious one-liners are in steady supply and Pratt has the best one when he learns the full extent of what he can do as the son of a living planet. The humor breaks the emotional tension at just the right moments, while epic action sequences demand you see the film in the best theater you can get to. It looks and sounds amazing in Dolby Cinema, which was the format used at last week’s premiere at the Dolby Theatre.

Visually, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is Marvel Studios’ most spectacular film. The studio continues pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in its blockbusters. It’s another leap forward after the major leaps taken in the first GotG and last year’s Doctor Strange. The space battles are bigger and full of bold, bright colors, as seen most beautifully when Silver’s “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang” plays from the new Awesome Mix. Ego’s planet is its own massive effect and could propel visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend and special effects supervisor Dan Sudick to Marvel Studios’ first Oscar® victory. They might even have company alongside costume designer Judianna Makovsky and the makeup and hairstyling team, which includes special effects makeup supervisor Brian Sipe.

In addition to the eye candy that can be equally enjoyed by all audience members, GotG Vol. 2 hosts the richest easter egg hunt in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Merry Marvel Marching Society will be geeking out left and right at all the deep pulls.

All the stunning sights are backed by another aptly named Awesome Mix from Gunn. The new mix is even more integral to the story this time around, but not to be forgotten is Tyler Bates’ score. The main Guardians hero theme returns, allowing the team to have their own signature sound that can transcend each new playlist.

It’s impossible to meet the Guardians for the first time again, but there’s no need to chase around the same bolt of lightning that’s already been bottled. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 offers it own brand of magic by letting you actually know these characters. You feel their pain so that you can better share their joy. You get to see their damage so you can appreciate what is beautiful about them. They are ugly, so you know that when you love them, it’s for who they really are.

For more on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, see our non-spoiler video review on Superhero News and stay tuned for our spoiler review once the film hits theaters next week.