Although “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” will likely end up as the biggest money-maker of the summer, it’s interesting to look back and remember that the first Guardians movie was actually an underdog at the box office. There was real concern it might be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first flop. How would audiences respond to a Marvel movie set in space featuring that guy from “Parks and Recreation” playing a character who calls himself “Star-Lord”; a wisecracking raccoon; and a walking, talking tree whose vocabulary consists only of the words “I am Groot” (voiced by Vin Diesel, of all people)? Yet somehow, it all came together magically, and audiences fell in love with this band of misfit heroes and their soundtrack of retro tunes. Now, they’re back for a second adventure — does it live up to the first?

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” dumps viewers right in the middle of the action, as Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, and crew have been hired to fight off an inter-dimensional monster. The job doesn’t quite go as planned, and the Guardians end up on the run. They’re saved by an unlikely rescuer: a man who claims to be Quill’s long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell). Ego takes the Guardians back to his planet, a beautiful paradise that hides a dark secret.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot for now, because I don’t want to spoil any of the film’s surprises. Overall, I loved the movie and had a blast watching it, although right now I feel the first movie was a little better. I can’t quite put my finger on why; re-watching the first movie and going back to see “Vol. 2” a second time might help me clear up my thoughts. I think part of the reason is simply that the first movie was such a surprise and it was a joy to watch this wacky and unexpectedly moving story play out on the big screen. Now, we know to expect quirky characters, zany humor, and a retro soundtrack, so the whole concept doesn’t feel quite as fresh, even though it’s still a ton of fun. It’s probably inevitable that the sequel wasn’t going to feel as clever.

That being said, I have to emphasize that watching this movie really is going to be a blast for Marvel fans. This is possibly Marvel’s most beautiful cinematography yet; the colors are bright and literally burst off the screen, even if you’re not even watching it in 3D. Director James Gunn has created a vibrant intergalactic playground for his characters.

The Guardians are, once again, a great bunch of characters, and this film captures their dysfunctional family dynamic. I felt they all got some standout moments. Drax (Dave Bautista) wins the award for best comic relief this time; they almost focused TOO much on the humorous aspects of his character, but I really liked that they addressed the tragedy of his past, particularly in the scene where Mantis (Pom Klementieff) begins weeping after using her empathic powers to read his emotions. I enjoyed the back-and-forth between these characters. Maybe it’s a budding romance or maybe it’s simply a powerful friendship; either way, it was touching to see these characters who struggle with social interaction forming a special bond.

At first I was a little disappointed to see the Guardians divided up for most of the film’s middle, as Groot and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) stay behind to repair the ship. I was worried they’d get sidelined by the plot, but this actually provided a nice opportunity for some great character interaction between Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker). I never would have thought of pairing those two up, but it works perfectly and produces some genuinely emotional moments.

And speaking of emotional moments, I thought Yondu was another standout character in this film. Again, I can’t say much because of spoilers, but Yondu not only gets some awesome combat scenes, he also he has some really touching moments with both Rocket and Quill.

No discussion of a Guardians movie would be complete without talking about the soundtrack. After my first listen, the “Awesome Mix Vol. 2” doesn’t feel *quite* as awesome as “Vol. 1,” but that may simply be because “Vol. 1” was such a surprise. I’m planning to download the soundtrack and listen to it more on its own. Right now, the songs that are sticking with me are “Mr. Blue Sky” by the Electric Light Orchestra, which opens the film, and “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. I never would have thought to use those latter two songs to soundtrack fight sequences, but the juxtaposition between what we’re hearing in the songs and seeing on screen really makes these tracks stand out.

***Warning: Spoilers ahead!!!***

For those who have seen the film and want to discuss further, I really enjoyed Kurt Russell as the villain in this film. A common criticism of the Marvel films is that the villain is often the weak link in these movies, but that isn’t the case here. I was worried about how they would pull off the concept of a “living planet,” but I thought it really worked. Russell does a good job making Ego feel fatherly and warm at the beginning of the film; you know there’s probably going to be a twist with his character, but it’s hard not to like him. I was surprised by just how dark that twist really was — that Ego has been creating children all over the galaxy and then killing them since they didn’t share his Celestial powers, and that he actually gave Quill’s mother the cancer that killed her.

I also wasn’t expecting them to kill off a major character — Yondu — or for this death to affect me as much as it did. In the first movie, Yondu is neither a hero nor a villain, though he appears to lean more to the villain side. “Vol. 2” completely switches that up, and we realize he was the father figure for Quill that Ego never could have been. His sacrifice at the end really did make me tear up.

***End spoilers!!!***

Overall, this is a fun and surprisingly emotional movie that is a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m glad Marvel was willing to give James Gunn a lot of free rein to make these Guardians movies so strange, creative, and wonderful. It’s not often you find films with this many laughs and a whole lot of heart in the same package. Sign me up for “Vol. 3”!

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