Writer/director James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy is a stunning film full of brilliant creative energy and spirit, but there is one specific reason it continues to stand out in audiences' minds after three years: the characters. More than just falling in love with the Guardians of the Galaxy blockbuster, movie-goers fell in love with the Guardians of the Galaxy team -- connecting with this group of ridiculous misfits who manage to find each other and become a dysfunctional family. It's Gunn's perfect understanding of this that clearly helped mold Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which smartly scales down plot in favor of personality -- and while the sequel doesn't pack the full punch of the original, it's a wonderful, beautiful follow-up that is richly dense in detail and features a parade of thrilling and fun surprises.
The film picks up just a couple of months after the end of the last story -- finding the team of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), and the young, innocent baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) still working out the kinks in their newfound roles as galaxy savers. Unfortunately, one of their employers -- The Sovereign, led by the gold alien Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) -- winds up not having patience for their learning curve, and when Rocket steps out of line, the Guardians find themselves once again on the run.
Because Ayesha leads a powerful and large army, this spells big trouble for the titular team, but they wind up getting help from a surprising source. After evading capture and crash landing, they discover that they have been assisted by an alien known as Ego (Kurt Russell) -- an incredibly powerful being whose true form is a living planet... and who is also Peter's biological father. Along with Ego and his odd, empathic assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Peter, Gamora and Drax travel back to the mysterious alien's home world. Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot are left at the crashed ship to watch over the recently-captured Nebula (Karen Gillan), but this turns out to be a challenge after Ayesha puts a bounty on the Guardians, and Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his disgruntled team of Ravagers come to try and collect.
Reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back in the way in which it breaks up the characters and only utilizes a handful of settings (albeit while telling a complete story), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is simply structured with dual plot narratives, but they're properly harnessed to really get the most out of the entire fantastic ensemble. A huge part of this is the way in which James Gunn pairs each of his protagonists, as the groupings all have special ways of advancing the distinct arcs -- whether the relationships are affable or hostile. While also trying to take care of baby Groot, Rocket winds up paired with Yondu as similarly broken individuals who make a regular habit of driving away all of the people they care about; Drax reconnects with a distant part of himself as he becomes an emotional mentor to the innocent and kept Mantis; Peter and Ego together uncover answers to mysteries about Peter's past and his capabilities; and more of the dark, disturbing history between the less-than-sisterly Gamora and Nebula is revealed. The sequel accentuates the strengths of the established and new heroes and moves them forward, all while operating to get the most out of them comedically, dramatically, and thematically.
Effective as the smaller scale story is in accentuating character, however, there are drawbacks of the approach that are made apparent. For starters, there is a certain desire to get a larger sense of the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on beyond the specific lives of the film's heroes, but that's not something that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is built to provide outside of small snippets. Also, because the story is taking place within a limited space with a limited number of players, there is a limited number of directions in which the larger narrative can really go - which means that the bigger shifts are telegraphed and don't have the proper impact they should, making the plot feel basic. This certainly isn't to say that the movie doesn't have a few twists up its sleeve, but the creative energy is more apparent on the micro level than the macro.
Though its scope doesn't including the cosmic breadth of the first movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is still intensely beautiful and aesthetically inventive -- particularly in its use of color (very much a highlight of the original as well). Mixing the craft of the comic book source material with the creative teams' own designs, the film is full of sci-fi magic -- from the vibrant landscapes and odd shapes featured on Ego's planet to the incredible designs transforming Pom Klementieff into the black-eyed, antenna'd Mantis. This praise isn't exclusive to newly introduced elements either, as while Rocket and Groot looked stunningly lifelike in their 2014 debut, Vol. 2 is legitimately next level.
Of course, you can't discuss the aesthetics of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 without giving proper attention to its soundtrack -- a.k.a. Awesome Mix Vol. 2, the second volume of 1970s pop hits collected by Peter's mother on cassette tape. Once again, James Gunn makes not only eclectic track choices with the music, but also eclectic utilizations within the film, and it's affirmation of the unique style of the series. The film is a bit haphazard when it comes to diegetic/non-diegetic use, but there isn't a single song that feels out of place contextually -- from Aliotta Hayes Jeremiah's "Lake Shore Drive" making for great intergalactic traveling music; to the lyrics of Looking Glass' "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" proving disturbingly insightful; to Cat Stevens' "Father And Son" popping up to underscore some serious emotions. There is an excellent specificity to every single piece, and they make every scene they're featured in better.
James Gunn effectively shut down critics complaining about cookie cutter comic book movies with his authentically auteur-driven Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, and blasted the blockbuster world with a burst of fresh air that effectively altered the industry in the years since. Being a sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was never going to have that full effect, but it does still feel remarkably different, while also reminding audiences why they fell head over heels the first time. It's visually splendid, laugh out loud funny, brimming with Easter eggs that will make geeks giddy, and a welcome return for some beloved big-screen heroes.