A mostly standalone adventure, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" barely bothers to fit itself into the extended universe Marvel Studios has now spent 15 films creating, and that willingness to do as it pleases turns out to be the movie's most appealing quality. Without the need to act as a bridge to future films, "Guardians" is free to spend its time world-building and further developing its roster of loveable characters. It's the blockbuster equivalent of writer-director James Gunn doodling in the margins of this universe, and the scrawled creations he comes up with kick the summer movie season off on a spectacularly high note.
Picking up shortly after the first film, Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) are a seasoned team, working as guns for hire across the galaxy. (After sacrificing himself to protect his friends, Groot has been reborn as an irresistibly adorable baby -- still voiced by Vin Diesel -- so he's not always a ton of help, but man, is he cute.)
The film's plot gets going when their latest mission hits a snag, and the Guardians end up on the run from two separate groups: the Ravagers, led by their familiar foe, Yondu (MichealRooker); and the Sovereign, a race of snobby, golden beings whose queen (professional scene-stealer Elizabeth Debicki) is enraged when Rocket steals a handful of her people's precious MacGuffins. A second plotline finds Star-Lord sorting through his considerable daddy issues after finally meeting the father -- the godlike Ego (Kurt Russell) -- who abandoned him on Earth as a young boy.
The plot isn't the real focus however, and the considerable downtime between giant action set pieces is devoted to the characters trading barbs and bonding over their feelings of insecurity and loneliness. Plus poop jokes. Gunn writes these characters so well that watching them sit around just talking is pure pleasure. The original "Guardians" melded an irreverent sense of humor with an earnest sweetness. Here, Gunn pushes things even further, doubling down on the goofy comedy while developing the first film's familial themes and giving them surprising emotional weight.
Even with a giant cast to keep track of, the filmmaker finds moments to let every member of the ensemble shine. Bautista's literal-minded Drax is comedy gold and finds fantastic chemistry with the film's other major new character, an empath named Mantis (PomKlementieff). Gamora gets a larger arc this time, navigating her adversarial relationship with her adoptive sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). But it's Michael Rooker's swaggering Yondu who emerges as the unexpected heart of the film.
Sure, not every joke lands, and the film can sometimes lean too heavily on its 1970's rock soundtrack, but these are minor quibbles. The movie is a hell of a lot of fun, and I didn't even mind when things eventually give way to the obligatory climactic, planet-destroying CGI battle. It helps that even there Gunn finds ways to tie the action into the emotional arc of his story.
The next few months promise dozens of anonymously-directed blockbusters heavy on incident and action but sorely lacking any sense of personality. It may not reinvent the wheel, but "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" is practically bursting with wit, imagination, and excitement, and I'll take that any day.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of Lovecraftian horror movie, "The Void."