There are two kinds of movies in the world. The first are movies that involve a stunningly awesome yet nostalgia yet refreshing soundtrack of 1960s, 70s and 80s pop hits while making literal and figurative Pac-Man references, name-checking David Hasselhoff and Mary Poppins, as well as expounding on the virtues of enormous poop, becoming invisible by standing still, swearing like a tree and resolving sibling rivalries with gatling gun energy cannons. The second are all of those movies that aren’t Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a movie with the seemingly impossible of following up the surprise-attack awesomeness of its predecessor. Did it succeed? Well, you tell me. After the credits finished rolling, did you immediately create an empty playlist on your Zune entitled Awesome Mix Vol. 3 just so you’d be ready for it? Yes you did. I just saw you doing it! Why’re you lying?
The story here begins not long after the first movie ends. Peter Quill (Starlord) and his band of misfits/pirates/heroes of the galaxy—Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot—are jaunting about the stars in search of opportunities that allow them to indulge their mercenary tendencies while maybe doing something good on the side. After job for a race of golden-skinned super-rich aliens goes awry, our heroes are rescued by an immensely powerful Celestial called Ego, which announces it has been looking all over for Peter. Gamora heads off on her own in search of her own adoptive sister/nemesis Nebula in the hopes that one of them will finally kill the other and end their feud. Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot fall afoul of their best frenemy Yondu, a pirate captain living in exile because of his back story with Peter, and who now must pay he price for his long life of moral sketchiness. Our heroes reunite once more just as Ego reveals his very big plans for Peter, which include making him a Celestial as well. All it’ll take for Peter to finish his transformation is to help his dad wipe out all life on thousands of planets across the galaxy. Will Peter break free of his need for a father long enough to confront a creature that is actually living planet? Or will he go along with what might just be the deadliest Take Your Kids to Work Day ever?
A recurring theme in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how much difficulty its heroes have in working together. The theme works so well because once you strip away the sheen that comes with good vs. evil, it becomes hard to overlook the fact that heroes tend to be that way because of a certain my-way-or-the-highway mentality that can make them a little difficult to collaborate with. Where the Guardians franchise turns this on its head is that its heroes are far and away more selfish, petty and saddled with poor impulse control than any other Marvel protagonists. So the drama with them isn’t so much about how their differences drive them apart, but about how tightly knit they are to one another, despite every outward appearance to the contrary.
With that in mind, Guardians Vol. 2 is a meditation on the bonds of family; what it means to be stuck with people you can’t stand, what it means when the folks you choose matter more than the ones you don’t, and what it means to take the responsibility of parenthood seriously. It’s easy to overlook these things because of this movie’s day-glo mayhem, outstanding music and snarky patter. After all, the Guardians movies has established themselves as a kind of counter-Marvel series that is so goofy from the beginning that it practically walks around daring you to take it seriously and promising to shoot you in the face with a seven-barreled plasma launcher if you do.
And yet, the great triumph of this movies is how deep and sweet it really is. Behind its madcap distractions, this is a story about people with a great capacity for love and companionship, who have been long denied either, and who are learning once again what it mean to accept both back into your heart. Which is why the central conflict of this installment is so deviously effective. As Rocket, Groot and Yondu learn a hard lesson about loyalty and professionalism, and as Gamora and Nebula dare to see the love that holds together the fractured shards of their mutual hatred, and as Drax and newcomer Mantis slowly accept a growing bond that make no damned sense to them, Quill must deal with the greatest challenge of all: rejecting the one thing he has always wanted and now has in spades: the dad he never knew.
All of these conflicts come to a satisfactory conclusion, but none more so than Yondu’s sweet payback upon a shipful of traitorous comrades. Sure, the Ravagers are pirates and Yondu is the worst of them all, but there’s a little thing called professional courtesy that still deserves recognition. When Yondu, Rocket and Groot engineer a deliriously gratuitous revenge sequence that will forever redefine both slo-motion hero walks as well as “Come a Little Bit Closer,” we realize that we care more about what happens to Yondu than anybody else because he’s the only guy left standing here who has a redemption story to be told. He’s the one without a family who deserves one. He is the only one here who is truly lonely and shouldn’t be. Perhaps that’s why the moment of truth comes at the end, when Yondu reveals what really bonds he and Peter more than Peter and Ego, and why, when he makes a straight-faced Mary Poppins reference without knowing who Mary Poppins is, we love him for it. Because Yondu is a dad. And Dads always get a pass, even when we cringe at how badly they are embarrassing us.