Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

While the lion's share of credit for Marvel Studio's spectacular financial success can probably be best split between star Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man director Jon Favreau, and general ringleader Kevin Feige, it's become increasingly clear that the best thing to ever happen to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, creatively speaking, is James Gunn. Marvel has long since been a well-run factory of slickly executed entertainment built to be safe and familiar, but Gunn has brought some secret ingredient that enlivens and emboldens the company formula, allowing him to make not only the best Marvel movies, but now a sequel for the ages.

While the first movie in a franchise is saddled with establishing the primary theme, the sequel gets to cut to the chase by furthering exploring that theme. Guardians Vol. 1 set up a nice look at a dysfunctional family and now Vol. 2 digs to the core of that concept, introducing protagonist Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) biological father, an immortal embodiment of a planet named Ego (Kurt Russell), and providing an awesome arc for Peter's adoptive dad Yondu (Michael Rooker, whose performance easily ranks among the best in the entire MCU).

The fatherly conflict is the defining force that illuminates the main path of the plot, but everyone in the movie is experiencing some form of family crisis, from Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) lashing out at his pals out of fear of rejection to Gamora (Zoe Saldana) physically and emotionally clashing with her cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).

These different threads give the various characters personal stakes in another galaxy-threatening battle and keep each member of the Guardians busy in comedy and action, but it's more than an efficient configuring of arcs within a standard neatly assembled Marvel plot. Gunn's script ensures that all roads, every one of them, return to the primary theme of family.

It's a particularly potent pressure point in the given scenario because the movie individualizes the characters and splits up the team so that various differing adventures can be had by each Guardian, while the overall theme binds them together at every turn. This approach provides the characters with their own personalized moments to shine, but also reinforces their connection to each other in the big picture.

Like so many before him, Gunn is clearly taking inspiration from landmark sequel The Empire Strikes Back, except here the inspiration has manifested itself magnificently, going far beyond the mere notion of a second chapter taking a dark turn and instead examining the opposing journeys of hero and villain, father and son, and how they are affected when they crash head first into each other.

Gunn even manages to make Peter's deceased mother a significant presence in the story even though she is once again relegated to a brief prologue appearance. She's a defining figure in the lives of both hero and villain here and Gunn makes a rather profound and surprisingly moving statement about how love is such a powerful force that it's as likely to make one end the world as save it. Certainly sounds like Star Wars to me, but with Gunn's sharp wit and penchant for poignant hilarity, Guardians Vol. 2 dances beautifully to its own beat, occasionally even literally.

An opening action sequence intended to reintroduce us to the team members pits the heroes against a slimy, tentacled space monster, but once the action begins, Gunn instead rolls the opening credits over footage of Baby Groot grooving to some music on a makeshift boom box while the other members risk their lives out of focus in the background.

Gunn's work has always had a pinch of the subversive (or a hefty handful in the case of his overly dark vigilante satire Super), but these Guardians movies have really brought out the heart in his art. Vol. 2 marks his best mix yet, marrying wildly silly set pieces with genuinely touching character moments to create an experience that mixes tears and laughter more impressively and deftly and just generally better than any other action blockbuster in years.

The Marvel formula has provided many a filmmaker with a firm framework to build on, but Gunn is the only one who has yet to bend it to his own will so malleably that the result feels actually unique. Even a genius artist like Joss Whedon seemed awkwardly reined in with his Avengers movies, while Gunn's two Guardians pics have a free-wheeling energy and emotional honesty about them. This sequel fulfills the usual Marvel criteria, setting up future narrative threads and dropping fun references for fans, but its greatest strengths are firmly rooted in the here and now.

Peter's arc is the most engaging and touching of any in Marvel's growing pantheon of cinematic heroes because it is so fully realized and emotionally charged. Meeting his father fills a hole that's been empty his whole life, but it only creates a deeper hole in the memory of his beloved mother who bestowed upon him the cassette tapes that are the glorious soundtracks for the previous pic and this one.

The conflict conundrum is very clever, especially considering how often Marvel villains are just power-hungry jerks. While a connection (usually of the professional variety) is often made between hero and villain, there have never been stakes quite like these in the MCU and providing Peter with much more than a generic need to save the galaxy allows for a very special superhero adventure. The added strength of the other well-tuned arcs only further excites and engages.

The ensemble cast is a large reason why this combination of humour and pathos clicks so comfortably. Pratt's puppy dog charm and rebellious wisecracking perfectly fit his storyline, while Dave Bautista is again a major standout as the utterly hilarious hulking Drax who remains as allergic to metaphor and subtlety as ever. Russell, Saldana, Gillan, Cooper, and even Vin Diesel in his small yet effective voice performance are all tremendous assets, but it's Rooker who steals the show.

Leave it to an oddball like Gunn to sweetly soften the gruff presence of Rooker and to take his supporting player Yondu from the first movie and upgrade his participation level to the point of having a major arc and several of the movie's best moments. An off-handed Mary Poppins reference that involves Yondu might just be the finest few seconds in all of Marvel moviedom, a truly tender testament to Gunn’s ability to tickle our funny bone while touching our heart.

It’s difficult to not get a little corny when discussing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, since the movie is such a cozy comical creation committed to much gentle heartstring tugging, but Gunn keeps the actual balance of comedy and tragedy respectably in check. Summer blockbusters, let alone the sequels of the group, are rarely this smart and effective. The Galaxy is in good hands, the kind that sculpt silliness and sentiment in equal measure, the kind that steer in an entire Universe in a fantastically fresh direction.