Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ★★★★

Character-driven ensemble pieces are fast becoming my favorite sub-genre within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. James Gunn takes all the style and flair from his first beloved (and slightly smug) space adventure, and adds a great deal more substance this time around. Too often blockbusters have taken the shortcut to meaningful character development, audaciously implying or declaring their heroes to be a "family" without putting in the necessary leg work. Guardians Of The Galaxy is one such movie, but its sequel goes about actually justifying it. It sure as hell earns that smugness.

Above all else, it gets its characters right. Gunn's working with a larger ensemble this time, and yet, somehow, nobody feels as short-changed as before. He shrewdly invests in some unexpected pairings, leading to a whole new wave of hijinks, heart and hilarity. This isn't the Peter Quill show anymore. Rocket & Groot aren't the only dynamic duo in the business. Each sub-plot imbues these heroes/anti-heroes with greater depth, even if it's at the sake of the story's momentum. We're able to explore powerful father-son themes, build on relationships featured in the first film, and bask in the incredible chemistry shared between this wonderful cast. Even the various antagonistic figures feel more fleshed out than the shouty-pouty-Ronan - and you're given a very strong reason to hate a few of them here.

The film walks a fine tonal line between high stakes sci-fi/adventure and light-hearted comedy - and to its credit mostly succeeds. The timing doesn't always work. Gunn undercuts a few key emotional scenes with the odd tired one-liner, but the goofy self-parody is, once again, quite endearing. This also leans more towards a Star Wars-inspired space opera. The stakes feel naturally higher, and splitting up the core group allows for multiple interwoven subplots - each one separated by a different visually stunning setting. It lends the story a sprawling sense of scale that proves that, in this case, bigger is indeed better.

And Baby Groot is fucking adorable.

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