Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ★★★★★

I found the original "Guardians" to be great fun and possess excellent, instantly captivating characters, but it lacked a strong villain or a great story and I found many of its pop culture references to be clumsily integrated. With "Vol. 2", however, writer/director James Gunn has smoothed out the kinks and solved all of the problems that kept the first movie, while fun, from really sinking its hooks into me and providing me consistent, giddy fun from beginning to end.

With "Vol. 2" Gunn has crafted a much better story and he tells it with impressive skill. The pop culture references feel much more organic to the story, as do the soundtrack cues. He goes for deeper cuts with his musical selections, finding songs that either perfectly underscore the emotion of each scene or contrast those emotions in really interesting ways that also help accentuate the emotional mood of each scene. Like Baz Luhrmann, Gunn is using the art of others to enhance the art that he himself is creating, and just as effectively if not more so. Gunn creates a sci-fi/fantasy/action/musical here where the music and the action are equally important, and both serve the characters and story. The story is elegantly told and beautifully explores themes of family and the complicated nature of family dynamics. The original film was all about the formation of a family unit among rogues and loners, lonely people searching for connection in a large galaxy, people too tough to easily forge connections and too wounded from past scars to give themselves over to such relationships. "Vol. 2" explores the maintenance of these bonds and the importance of them. Each of the main characters has an emotional journey to make and watching them forge these paths, watching them come to important realizations and accept help from those around them, watching them come to terms with the empty parts of themselves and find ways to fill those voids is a rich, rewarding experience underscored in every case with the perfect wisecrack, the perfect song, the perfect action sequence.

This is one of the most character driven and laid back comic book films I've ever seen, a blockbuster of uncommon emotional intelligence woven with nearly matchless skill. There's a casual, rough-hewn beauty to the emotional journey of these characters, and I was genuinely moved by all of this and how Gunn makes those connections and personal stakes so high, how he makes them the center and focal point of the film. Sure, the universe is still under grave threat, but that threat almost pales in comparison to the emotional stakes faced and sometimes overcome by each of these characters. I adored that. Michael Rooker, of all people, is given more space to breathe and more to work with than he's had in decades and he rises to the challenge with unexpected power. Everyone else is just as good: Karen Gillan, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper and the adorable and subtly winning creation that is Baby Groot. Dave Bautista is perhaps the film's MVP, however. He's certainly the funniest thing going for it, and I cherished every moment of his screen time. His laugh is a balm for the troubled soul.

The villain is incredibly strong, and the actor playing him shines as almost never before. I didn't think this actor had any surprises left for me (he certainly didn't need to surprise me after bringing me joy for so long) but he does and his performance is remarkable. Pratt is also remarkable, stretching muscles I didn't suspect that he possessed and providing one of the most satisfying moments I've seen in a comic book film in a long, long time.

"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" does all of this and also is one of the funnest experiences I've had at the movies in a good long while. A funky, kick-ass outer space musical comedy that really isn't quite like anything else I've seen. As I already mentioned, it sands off the rough edges of the first one and manages to provide constant jolts of hilarity, excitement and emotional engagement. And it does so in an elegant, precise manner. It floored me, to be honest. And it's probably the best entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I've yet seen.

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