During production, the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel was known as "Level Up." It's a fun fact, but also says everything you need to know about the second installment of Marvel's surprise hit space opera: Everything you loved about the original has been cranked up in volume for Vol. 2. Hell, there's even another, better Howard the Duck cameo.
The plot of Vol. 2: The Daddy Issues Mixtape picks up months after the first movie ends and follows three ultimately intertwining threads: The arrival of Peter Quill's mysterious, long-lost father, Ego (played by Kurt Russell), a rift within the Ravagers faction and the rise of a rival leader, Taserface, and a new villain in the form of the gilded Sovereign high priestess, Ayesha (who, mercifully, has no schemes to destroy entire planets. She just wants to kill the Guardians for slighting her).
It would be a much shorter list to say what doesn't work in Vol. 2, because most of what's included in the -- quite frankly, overstuffed -- movie does: The Guardians, certainly, led by Chris Pratt and his now near-perfect comedic timing. Russell's captivating turn as Ego the Living Planet, unfurling via a storyline that's best when left unspoiled, as well as welcome additions like the strange and sweetly slapstick Mantis (newcomer Pom Klementieff) and Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone, having a blast chewing up and spitting out serious space jargon).
There are more jokes this time. Director James Gunn never met a reference or one-liner he didn't love and, though Vol. 2 borders on being overly jokey at times, with several gags that come thisclose to overstaying there welcome, it tows the line in favor of great laughs. More classic tunes on the soundtrack, like an increasingly affecting use of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." More muscles on Pratt and more gratuitous shirtless scenes to show them off. With Guardians of the Galaxy, more is more -- but if any Marvel franchise can get away with that, it's this one. Because, in the end, it's all just so...fun.
It's a dizzying good time that never lets up, a romp through the cosmos that delights in the bizarre and the strange. (Or Strange. Vol. 2, especially in its climax, hems perhaps a bit too closely to last year's Doctor Strange -- though, in fairness, Doctor Strange cribbed a decent bit from the for Guardians, too.) What always set Guardians of the Galaxy apart, however, is how winningly openhearted it is. It doesn't deal in "machismo" love, like another recent blockbuster, but a sweet sentimentality, an unabashed schmaltziness. Guardians are fast, yes, and often they're furious -- ab-so-lutely! -- but they're superheroes who aren't afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves.
And I've not yet mentioned Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, still), who managed to steal Vol. 1 with a single post-credits dance number and returns to steal every single scene he's in here. Because every minuscule detail of Baby Groot has been expertly crafted to achieve maximum cuteness, from his glassy baby doll eyes to his adorable, little angry scowl. Baby Groot is the type of precious that newborn babies only wish they could be. Baby Groot makes fluffy kittens look like monstrous demons from Hell. Holy crap, is Baby Groot cute.