What's excellent about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is that it's not just a cheap imitation of the first.
It's been a long way from 2008's Iron Man, but the company keeps making the most enjoyable superhero movies, weaving layers after layers of stories over the course of several movies into one big universe that'll grace 2018's Avengers: Infinity War.
Despite lacking the element of surprise that the first movie benefited from, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 works with just the same energy that made its predecessor a favourite among viewers and critics.
The movie does not dabble in anything that's radically different from the previous one; instead, it fills in gaps and answers important questions posed by it. The universe becomes a little bit more complex and dangerous, and it gives the story a little bit more narrative dimension.
The movie starts with the familiar crew of, now famous, Guardians defending some valuable anulax batteries against a space monster that’s meant to do something vaguely terrible.
While it appears like a random action sequence slipped in just to get your blood pumping before the story starts, it actually sets the tone of the story and launches the team’s adventure for much of the movie’s run time.
The team had been contracted to protect the batteries by the Sovereign, a race of golden-skinned people, led by the the high priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). This is in exchange for a prisoner that had tried to steal the batteries, and is a sworn enemy of the Guardians.
The movie slowly draws you in without making it too obvious that it is time to start paying attention.
Amidst all the chaos of the first movie, the identity of Peter "Star Lord" Quill’s father was a mystery that was left hanging in the air.
Vol. 2 hurriedly serves up his identity as a celestial stranger, Ego (Kurt Russell), who saves the team and claims to be Star Lord's father.
It is a big moment for Star Lord who has only ever had the dark shadow of Yondu Udonta hang over him as the only father figure in his life.
Ego's appearance moves the story in a new direction that doesn’t completely veer off track of what’s already been happening, but it renders the narrative a little clunky.
Vin Diesel’s tree-like humanoid, Groot, was one of the highlights of the first movie, and after his death, he has reanimated as Baby Groot at the beginning of this movie and it’s hard to question the result as he babbles his 3-word vocabulary with childlike relish.
One of the most standout characters with a meaningful arc in Vol. 2 is genetically-modified raccoon and habitual troublemaker, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). His actions have considerable impact on the direction of the story and his interactions with Groot are as funny as ever.
Drax (Dave Bautista), same as Gamora (Zoe Saldana), doesn’t have much to do in this movie other than be the guy that unintentionally provides the laughs that's a staple of a Marvel production. Both characters don’t have the same level of emotional investment they had in the first movie, but it doesn’t make them feel out of place in this one.
Outside of the Guardians line up, Michael Rooker returns as the sinister blue-skinned space bandit Yondu with his whistle-controlled arrow and his team of Ravagers still seeking vengeance against the Guardians after the events of the last movie.
The only other recurring character of note is Karen Gillan’s Nebula who's still so terrible at killing Gamora, her adopted sister.
The first Guardians movie was widely praised for its acting, action, humor, soundtrack, and visual effects, and these are not lacking in Vol. 2.
However, beyond the striking visuals and snarky, sometimes mean, humour, Vol. 2 excels the most when its characters are interacting with one another. Gamora and Nebula share a couple of great moments, and so do Yondu and Rocket.
These moments peel back sheltered layers of the characters, and show them in a whole new light that you'd never expect to see them.
It helps them become complex characters that are not just stuck in front of the camera as ordinary props for the story to use and discard at will. Instead, these moments make them the heartbeat of the story.
Yondu evolves in what is an incredible personal journey that elevates him from the simple bandit character that the first movie portrayed. His actions are put under the spotlight and weighed more carefully as the audience, armed with new information, is made to retrace the character's steps and see his actions in new perspectives.
He spends most of his screen time with Rocket who still can't seem to stay away from trouble just for kicks. The sharp-tongued raccoon (he still hates to be called that) has developed a strained relationship with the group due to his reckless actions and hanging out with Yondu seems to provide him with some clarity, and the two are great together.
There's a lot of impressive character work happening in Vol. 2 that you can almost feel frustrated that the best ones have to play second fiddle to Star Lord's story arc of his reunion with his father which has more focus.
The movie spends most of its screen time trying to fill in the blanks in Star Lord's past after he meets his father.
Ego and Star Lord spend a lot of time together on the former's planet as he explains how he met his mother and the circumstances surrounding his birth and capture from earth.
It's touching, but not as much as the director would have intended, and definitely not as well-executed as the other personal arcs.
One of the movie's drawbacks was breaking up the crew for a considerable amount of time, and this gets in the way of the chemistry that was built up in the previous movie, especially between Drax and Rocket.
A major hangup of superhero movies is the fact that it's ever so hard to make the audience believe that the hero could be in mortal danger. Even Groot's incredible fatal sacrifice in the first movie is undone by his resurrection as a big-eyed sapling that becomes Baby Groot in Vol. 2.
The consequence of this is that no matter how dire the hero's situation is, you never really feel a sense of doom for them, and this robs you of a little emotional attachment to the action-packed chaos going on.
Vol. 2 suffers particularly from this as, despite director James Gunn's best attempts to make you care about the character's fates, you know they are going to pull through.
Gunn makes this even worse as in the movie's most tense moments, with the fate of the multiverse hanging in a terrible balance, it still plays way too much for the stakes to have any real punch to them.
However, this doesn't get in the way of enjoying the movie, because Guardians knows it is silly, and does its best to make it fun.
The only other new character in Vol. 2 that has any kind of pull on the story is Pom Klementieff’s socially-awkward Mantis who possesses empathic powers. Her pairing with Drax works in fun ways as he is at his funniest when they interact.
What's excellent about Vol. 2 is that it's not just a cheap imitation of the first. Rather than just repeat a true and tested formula, it builds on it and expands the story in a meaningful manner.
True to Marvel tradition, after the dust settles, Vol. 2 has a few teaser clips after the credits start to roll, a whooping five, and they range from hilarious to structurally universe-building plot points.
Like you would expect, Stan Lee makes a cameo in one of these scenes, and there are a couple of surprising cameos sprinkled over the course of the movie's run time too.
For some reason, Vol. 2 may struggle to attain the heights of the first Guardians movie, but it can stand on its own merits and be considered one of the best in 2017.
Marvel is the gift that keeps on giving.