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“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” proves that movies with a message can also be fun!

Director James Gunn likes a lot of different songs, and some of those songs could be considered “one hit wonders.” The artists that made them were able to capture lightning in a bottle once, but were never able to replicate that success. Now despite the successful career Gunn has had making movies, when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, being a one hit wonder is something Gunn didn’t want after he made Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1. He needed to prove to everyone that he could go back into the world of Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Groot, and Rocket and capture that magical lightning a second time. The good news is that he succeeded!

One of the benefits of being the only screenwriter for a movie franchise is that you come to know the characters more intimately than if new writers were brought in from one movie to the next. Because Gunn (and co-writer Dan Abnett) knew these characters almost intimately, he was able to come up with a story that takes place not long after the first film, and the characters have evolved in a believable manner that allows for the audience to get pulled in to this sequel with incredible ease. Still, well developed characters a sequel does not make means he needs a story, and boy did he craft a winner. The story has two sides to it. First, there is the space romp and adventure. Our heroes find them across the galaxy in space fights, and other sorts of trouble that can only require them to come together in order to get out of it. Then there is the other side of this film that is all about what defines a family. This second part has been a hallmark of Disney movies for years, so it seems fitting that Marvel and Gunn should pick up that baton and run with it across the galaxy so that we can explore the idea of what makes a family, as well as exploring our own selves.

Gunn has brought back a cast that was so unbelievably balanced and perfect, that to think of anyone else in any of these roles is virtually unbelievable. Chris Pratt has found a way to take a very two-dimensional character, and give him more depth than anyone would presume. True, that type of character development does need to be written, but without having a “better than average” cast those performances will fall flat, and they don’t. This isn’t Oscar worthy, but the acting is solid nonetheless. Pratt shows us that his character is terribly vulnerable, but has covered himself up with layer upon layer of emotional barriers until he took on the appearance of Star-Lord. The emotionally young Peter Quill, whom we met back in 2014, is still there, but hasn’t properly grown up because of the baggage of having no proper father figure, as well as having to watch his mother die. He’s all exteriors, flash, and gimmicks on the outside because he has to protect that vulnerable aspect of who he is. The same is found with both Rocket (wonderfully voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker). Characters cut from the same cloth, they each experienced personal tragedy that has now caused them to be rough, gruff, and push everyone away so that they won’t get close. Neither of them wants to get hurt, but neither of them really wants anyone to know their vulnerable sides either. Voice acting, or even just acting itself, is hard enough in trying to portray such characters without becoming overly maudlin, but both Rooker and Cooper instead show us really crusty characters with cracks in that crusty exterior, and the only way they can properly come together is to expose those cracks in their tough skin. Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan as Gamora and Nebula respectively, also have their own character issues when Thanos adopted them. Through the course of this film we come to understand the level of pain, anger, and rage resides within Nebula, and how it defines her relationship with her adopted sister. Even Rooker has a second character defining moment when he meets up with the leader of the Ravagers, Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), someone who has been almost like a father figure to him, only to find him scorned. Lastly there is the big father figure of them all, when we meet Ego, the living planet, who is the biological father of young Quill himself. Through this meeting our Star-Lord starts to strip away who he is to discover the real Star-Lord that he truly is. All of these character developments resonate strong and loud with one idea: how do you define a family.

Gunn has delivered a movie that wastes no time in telling its tale. Much as he did with the first film in 2014, this movie also starts in the past in order to plant its metaphorical, and literal, seed for the story. And as he did in the first movie, when it isn’t dealing with the sensitive matter of family and relationships, this one also largely plays for a lot of laughs! If there is a downfall is that the laughs unfortunately sometimes drown out some of the dialogue. Gunn has a lot of story to tell, so instead of allowing for a laugh to die down Gunn has elected to just plow on ahead, causing some dialogue to get lost. However, as criticisms go, this one is pretty small. The movie is also quite violent at times, but never gratuitously. The jokes range from really smart to juvenile. However, the audience didn’t seem to mind as some of those juvenile jokes had the audience laughing in uncontrolled hysterics.

The movie has one really sad moment. In a move that hearkens back to Gunn’s first Marvel outing, we see the same sort of act take place here, only Gunn delivers this one with much greater significance as well as a sad feeling of permanence. It is this emotional capstone that truly delivers what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is all about. Family is not defined by blood or genetics, rather it is determined by whom you trust enough to open your heart to, and then have that person do the same in return. So here, in this movie that balances epic adventures and grandiose space battles with beautifully personal and emotionally intimate moments, if you’re looking for a family and a place where you feel you belong, just look around you. Look at the person beside you. You will find that you are with your family, and that you are home.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gets 4 out of 5 arrows.
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