Overview: The cosmic adventures of the mismatched team continue as Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) uncovers the secrets of his true parentage, bringing him into contact with his father (Kurt Russell). Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; 2017; Rated PG-13; 136 minutes.

Band of Outsiders: Ayesha, High Priestess of The Sovereign sits on an opulent throne, boasting of the perfect evolutionary state reached by her species. The Sovereign are covered in gold, from their clothing and skin all the way down to their eyes. In sharp contrast to the supercilious society and their conceited leader stands the Guardians of the Galaxy, a damaged group of misfits barely keeping it together. It’s one thing to create an ensemble as engaging as this, but it’s another to know where to place them. Lucky for us, James Gunn knows exactly what he’s doing.

The messy dynamic of these imperfect heroes is why the original space opera worked so well back in 2014, and Gunn is wise enough to use new scenarios to deepen and expand on what was previously established. The plot this time is fairly straightforward, garnished with a gleeful weirdness, yet always in service to its characters and themes. Its ambitions are internal despite its planet-sized special effects, so the expected references to infinity stones and the road to Infinity War are minimal. Allusions to Thanos are included solely to flesh out the sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula, while doing a hell of a lot more to establish him as an intimidating presence than his physical appearance in the last movie did. The sisters are given little room to develop individually, but are captivating as a duo, with a backstory that would be fascinating to see in full.

Strange Tales: One of the most astonishing movie announcements of 2016 was the fact that “Ego: The Living Planet!” was going to make his big screen debut. One of the most unlikely comic book properties has been adapted, but not for an arbitrary reason. His integration into the universe works as a stupendous take on the more relatable issue of deadbeat dads and abandoned children. Kurt Russell is perfectly cast as Peter’s dad, a heartthrob and masculine idol of a bygone era. His search for meaning is lonely and self-absorbed, an extension of the same selfish impulse that threatens the stability of the makeshift family, or any collection of people for that matter.

Some of the CGI used for Ego is phenomenal, but it is worth mentioning primarily because of the wildly imaginative design that permeates the entire film. There’s a weirdness present that outclasses the supposedly psychedelic imagery of Doctor Strange with ease, with the extraordinary detail of each outlandish world we encounter filling the universe to the brim with diverse life.

Another new addition is the delightful Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a socially-inept but exuberant alien with the ability to read the emotions of others. A lot of laughs are mined from her interactions with the gang, but her relationship with Drax in particular leads to some of the most moving parts of the film. Yondu (Michael Rooker) is given an extended role, a complicated father figure for Peter whose own regrets weave in to the father-son dynamic, while also serving as a reflection for Rocket to question his own behaviour. The director’s affinity for Rocket is clear even more so this time around. His struggle with his self-destructive impulses is key to the film even if it does play in the background to Peter’s more extravagant self-examination.

The Old Familiar: Naturally implementing the soundtrack into each scene is difficult, and the Guardians’ second outing just about manages it. The same could be said for the film in general, whose noticeable flaws are those familiar to sequels: the feeling that you’ve been here before, and it can never be quite as good. It’s an unfair metric with which to judge a film, a bar that few can realistically pass. This sense of familiarity is a strength and a weakness, sometimes feeling formulaic but mostly a comforting return to a world we love.

Aside from that, there are a few minor foibles. While Chris Pratt’s precise comedic timing and child-like vulnerability works wonders, his acting is tested in some more intense moments and often falls a bit flat. The rest of the film suffers this in a sense, as some of the character arcs end up trailing off rather than coming to a tangible conclusion. So, things stumble in the third act to a degree, but the movie never truly loses its rhythm as every step of the way, James Gunn’s clear devotion to these characters keeps the complex ensemble from becoming too unruly. It’s easy to forget the Herculean task of making an audience believe in and care about a gun-totting raccoon, but once again it is one that the writer-director pulls off with ease.

Overall:  The fact that I can get so far into a review and not reference the absurdly cute baby Groot goes to show how much there is to talk about. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gives its fans exactly what they want, delivering on the magic that made the original so special, while remaining a standalone entry not dependent on the rest of the MCU. But most of all, it is an absolute pleasure to watch, and the most fun I’ve had in a movie theatre in a long time.

Grade: A-

Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures