It is incredibly difficult to make true cinematic magic happen once. That's what happened with the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Director James Gunn was able to capture lightning in a bottle because these were characters almost nobody knew and there was no expectation, because it was quite plainly impossible to know what to expect. But once you let the lightning out of the bottle, it's pretty tough to recapture it. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a massively entertaining, ambitious movie made with a lot of love, that, despite its best efforts, can't totally capture that same magic again. But still, it's super fun.

As we quickly reach the end of our journey to Infinity War, Guardians 2 comes as an interesting Marvel adventure. The next big Avengers sequel is just days away from release, and there are only this and three other MCU movies standing in its way. Vol. 2 isn't really connected to Infinity War, and it does little to directly set up next week's epic release. Nor do the next few films, with Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther too busy setting up their own worlds to bother with Thanos. Only Thor: Ragnarok has ties to Infinity War with its end credit sequence. For now, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels like an all-inclusive party that doesn't really rely on fans having seen any of the other movies in the MCU beyond perhaps that first Guardians installment. And it's easy to enjoy on that level.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was in the unenviable position of having to follow in the footsteps of its own unexpected success, though. When people go to see a Spider-Man movie, they know to some degree what to expect. When people watched Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time, there was a true sense of having literally no idea what was going to happen. Heading into the sequel, a standard had been set. The cat was out of the bag. James Gunn, for his part, deserves a lot of credit for dedicating himself to this world in the way that he has. I believe nobody could have done a better job with this movie.

There is a clear visual evolution that takes place here. James Gunn, in terms of visual storytelling, makes some major leaps and seems to be much more comfortable with the scale of this sort of thing. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, if nothing else, is true eye-candy if there ever were such a thing. The narrative scope is expanded upon here as well. This time, instead of bringing the team together, they are split up and left to deal with their own difficult situations. But really, as grand as the scale is in this movie, it's all about deeply examining each and every one of these characters on a much deeper level, via the situations they find themselves in.

Part of the problem with splitting the team up in this movie is that it gives us several storylines to follow that need to come back together later. It splinters things just a bit. Also, some of the humor this time around feels a bit forced at times. A good chunk of the gags still land, but it doesn't feel quiet as natural as it may have the first time around. Nothing can really ever hope to top our initial introduction to Groot and the gang.

Speaking of Groot, that's one of the biggest changes fans have to accept in this movie. The grown up Groot we came to love died at the end of the first movie rather heroically. Enter Baby Groot. I imagine you either love or hate Baby Groot, but it certainly allows for something different. There were a great many people who suspected Baby Groot was just a cash grab. I'm not one of those people. However, I must admit, having revisited this movie for the first time since seeing it in theaters, I still miss full-grown Groot quite a bit.

From the fan side, there seems to be a lot more love for this movie than there is negativity. Essentially, I think that comes down to the fact that James Gunn embraces the strange sandbox he's playing in, but in that sandbox, he's created some truly lovable and unique characters. I mean, the guy made a character named Ego the Living Planet totally work. Would that have even been fathomable just a few years ago? It certainly doesn't hurt that he had the never-not-great Kurt Russell to help him out with that, but still. And on that note, this movie is almost entirely worth your time to see the impressively de-aged Russell in the beginning. It's pretty amazing.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time digging into the plot of this movie, which sees Star-Lord dealing with the fact that Ego is his dad, but we should definitely acknowledge just how bananas his evil plan is. Seriously, it's pretty grand and crazy, even for a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. But what less would you expect with a character named Ego the Living Planet?

If there is one thing in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 well worth talking about, it's the ending. Not so much the final battle with Ego, which is entertaining, but the stuff with Yondu. Pretty much from the moment he says, "I'm Mary Poppins, y'all" on through till the credits roll. And, not for nothing, but that line is going to be remembered until the end of time. That's worth considering. But really, with the help of some great writing by James Gunn and what might be a career best performance from Michael Rooker, Yondu dies really meaning something to this franchise. It's quite possibly the most impactful death in the MCU to date and, considering how shy Marvel has been about committing to character deaths, that's important.

Rooker sets this whole thing up throughout the entire movie so well that, by the time it comes around, it all emotionally clicks into place. It's a beautiful, tragic and impactful moment. For me, the second that Cat Stevens song starts playing, my eyes get miraculously wet and I get suspiciously sniffly. It all really pays off in grand fashion at the Ravager funeral scene, which is maybe one of the more emotionally satisfying endings to a movie in the MCU. For whatever perceived faults this movie may have to some, it really sticks the landing hard.

There are plenty of other nice things about this movie. We get another excellent soundtrack, there are some great action sequences (specifically, the jailbreak scene where Yondu goes all murder happy on everyone) and Mantis turns out to be a fun addition to the team. This movie gets extra weird at times. Some of it works. Some of it doesn't, but that's okay. Ultimately this is a movie about relationships and in that respect, it really succeeds. James Gunn displays an amazing amount of imagination and, for my money, could be the best single director currently working in the MCU. As a fan, I'll take an emotional, imaginative Marvel Studios movie that maybe doesn't totally nail it, as opposed to a paint by numbers comic book movie any day.

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