I find it hard to get excited about Marvel these days. Their ever-rolling conveyor belt of movies is rapidly approaching its tenth year, and the much-discussed ‘superhero fatigue’ is setting in. The studio’s track record with sequels is also undeniably shaky—none of Iron Man, Thor, or Avengers Assemble received the follow-up they deserved. It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2.

Its predecessor, Guardians of the Galaxy, was the surprise hit of 2014—arriving after a mixed batch of Marvel sequels, Guardians was the colourful, brash, foot-tapping shot in the arm the franchise needed. It was different. I was concerned that the spirit of a film so proudly unique would not survive a sequel, and that Guardians Vol.2 was destined to be remembered as just another part of Marvel’s ever-spreading homogeneous blob.

Guardians Vol.2 is a film that consistently defied my expectations. I was prepared for a conventional three-act CGI-fest, with some good tunes, kooky characters, and the smattering of one-liners that kept the trailer interesting. Instead, director James Gunn has crafted one of the funniest and most genuinely moving Marvel films I can remember.

This second outing sees Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot capitalising on the first film’s victory by jetting around the galaxy as heroes for hire. After a job for white and gold racial purists, the Sovereign, goes sideways, the Guardians find themselves with a price on their heads. Arriving to complicate matters are Star-Lord’s estranged father Ego, Gamora’s vengeful sister Nebula, and the gang’s erstwhile adversary ravager captain Yondu. These familial bonds manage to keep the action grounded in an otherwise bombastic cosmic ride—this balance between small and big lends emotional gravity previous Marvel instalments have lacked.

Gunn knows the strength of his characters, and plays to it. The Guardians are a team only two films in the making, yet they continue to crackle with chemistry far in excess of the established poster-boys of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer does more to endear himself to me in one brief conversation than Chris Evans’ worthy but bland Captain America has in his last five feature films, while Bradley Cooper’s consistently excellent Rocket Raccoon pushes the snarky engineer role to hilarious and destructive limits Tony Stark could only dream of. The greatest surprise comes in the form of Michael Rooker’s world-weary Yondu, a character afforded a level of depth and gravity belying his supporting role in the first movie.

Like its predecessor, Guardians Vol.2 is comically on-song. The novelty of a wisecracking raccoon may have worn off, but the laughs are now more evenly spread among the team, with Bautista stealing many scenes as the cluelessly blunt Drax. The visual comedy is equally well done, with a surprise Pac-Man cameo and interdimensional warp travel closer to Douglas Adams than George Lucas. Admittedly several jokes do fall flat, including an overly long Baby Groot prison break sequence.

In Ego, the Guardians face the most convincing Marvel villain since Avengers Assemble’s Loki, far outstripping the blue-faced stock character they squared off against in their first outing. Without spoiling the film’s excellent ending, I would also note how refreshing it is to see a Marvel film with actual stakes for our heroes, as opposed to the somewhat damp zero-casualty showdown conclusion of Captain America: Civil War.

In the end, my fears were unfounded. Guardians Vol.2 is not a perfect film—its second act meanders and the Sovereign feel extraneous—however it succeeds where so many Marvel sequels have failed. Gunn strikes an excellent balance between emotion and comedy, once again proving that the Guardians are the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Oh, and the soundtrack’s pretty neat too.

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