From the outset, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 has all the makings of a hit. A sequel to a gigantically, if not surprisingly, successful movie, the latest from the Marvel Studios hit making machine, the middle movie in a planned trilogy, and the film that essentially kicks off the 2017 summer movie season! And like most situations where an expectation exists, the likelihood that the exact opposite will happen is staggering, the aforementioned success of the first film being a prime example. So, the fact that Vol. 2 met and exceeded my personal expectations is a feat worthy of applause and all of your time and money. How it achieved this “lofty goal” however is what makes this movie so enjoyable.

Trilogies tend to have a meta-formula that dictates what happens within the movies themselves. First movie is a meet and greet, second tends to be growth and character exploration and the third more than likely goes off the rails because, all of the sudden, everything needs to be wrapped up. Vol. 2 of the Guardians of the Galaxy takes the idea of giving us a deeper dive into these now beloved characters, and wraps the entire film around it. Saying this movie is about daddy issues wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it would be more appropriate to say this movie, like any franchise with Vin Diesel in it, is all about family, as fractured as they may be.

One of the best things about Guardians of the Galaxy as a franchise is its ability to introduce us to a plethora of planets and alien races without it feeling overwhelming and it does this by making every aspect of their existence important to the film. Sci-fi can often slip into creation for the sake of creation, which is great for fans to dig into, but can hamper a movie going experience. Luckily, everyone person place and thing you meet in Vol. 2 is important, right from the start. The movie cold opens with an introduction to Kurt Russell’s character, Ego, in a flashback sequence, replete with series standard classic rock and then immediately jumps forward to a hero shot/title card sequence that gives you a taste of what to expect for the next two hours. It’s cute, comical, action packed, wonderfully shot and scored with yet another classic rock song.

All of the Guardians from the first movie return and while Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill still runs the show and fills the leader’s role for both the ensemble and the Guardians themselves, each character is fully fleshed out and has their own meaningful story line. As a matter of fact, while an initial standard Rocket Raccoon dalliance kick starts the plot and Peter’s own issues drive it forward, that story line is, by design, the most vanilla. Gamora’s never ending sisterly feud, Drax’s lack of interpersonal skills, Rocket’s strained introspection into his asshat tendencies and Groot’s nonstop cuteness make for much more compelling sequences.

The new edition of Mantis and continued interweaving of Nebula and Yondu into the Guardian roster, fills out a cast that never feels stretched too thin, and where everyone gets an almost mathematically equal amount of screen time. This makes for a really easy to follow, if a bit shallow, story that feels less developed than the first but quicker paced and more interesting. It also manages to tell a story even further away from the MCU than the first film which is a boon. I really enjoy that these characters have their own stories and mythos unto themselves and what director James Gunn has been able to establish with the Guardians deserves its own space. See what I did there? SPACE!

The action sequences in Vol. 2 are brutal but never too serious and are filled with all the interplay and charm you’ve come to expect from this motley crew. The whole film is shot beautifully, with its fantastical locales and stark interiors having all the polish you’d expect from a sci-fi film but with a realistic and lived in feel. For some reason though, it feels like the movie is overall more colorful, which may have been a symptom of me seeing it 3D. I think people refer to rainbow color splashes as unicorn barf, and I don’t think that would be a bad way to describe certain sequences in this movie.

Where the plot shines is where it deviates from its predecessor and its contemporaries in the MCU. Most movie have some emotional subplot, often used as little more than a guiding force in between action sequences or, at worst, the entire basis of a character’s motivation. But the Guardians each have an emotional journey they’re on which creates the tension, conflict and resolution that more than fills the run time of this movie. The arc of Rocket, with the ever present Groot, is particularly engrossing because Rocket represents an amalgam of all of the least attractive qualities his teammates posses, making his growth indicative of the team’s ability to change as well.

One of the biggest changes is that everyone has gotten a lot more badass, which plays from the opening scene straight through to very end. Gamora uses heavy artillery now, but isn’t afraid to bust out her sword… knife thingy, which upon viewing its destructive potential, makes you wonder why she’d ever mess with guns at all. But one of my favorite sequences shows how tight a narrative James Gunn can pull together, while bucking a lot of trends and tropes present in all movies, much less superhero flicks. Peter Quill is in the midst of a conversation with the movie’s main villain and while he’s going through the very blase explanation of his evil plan, he strikes a deep dark nerve in our hero. Where most heroic figures would sit in horror, Star Lord picks up his blasters and just starts firing away, which not only works to cement his anti hero status but also works as a clear callback to an earlier scene in the film.

Even though I enjoyed Vol. 2’s attempt at delving into the emotional side of the Guardians, overall the story felt a little bit flatter than the first go round and even a bit hokey at times. Drax at one point even goes as far to say, when someone says the Guardians aren’t even friends, that they are indeed family. But the amount of situational comedy, ensemble interplay and nonstop action more than makes up for what people might see as a shortcoming with the plot. Weirdly, 2014’s breakout star Chris Pratt feels like he gets lost in the shuffle, almost becoming an afterthought in a series that was so dependent on him in its first outing. His story line and character is the least appealing overall but it’s strange to see the headliner get his thunder stolen by almost everyone else in the movie.

The basic irreverence for narrative norms and genre motifs is one of the things that made the first Guardians movie so successful and continues to make it incredibly easy to believe everything in a story about a talking raccoon and his baby tree. It provides a platform for a hero like Drax to continue to represents people that aren’t used to seeing themselves on screen, which is doubled down on in a wonderfully adorable way with the introduction of Mantis. And even though the story is dense and packed with characters and locations, it never feels overwhelming, more often making even the most casual of fans interested in the depth and breadth of the galaxy these Guardians are supposedly guarding. And yes, Baby Groot is adorable and devours almost every scene he’s in! Make sure to stick around for the entirety of the credits.