“Super” writer & director James Gunn took moviegoers for an irreverent, interplanetary joyride, peppered with pop culture references, in “Guardians of the Galaxy” back in 2014. Happily, Gunn’s sequel “Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2” (**** OUT OF ****) qualifies as just as impressive with several surprises. If you haven’t seen “GoTG, Vol. 1,” then you may have problems putting both the swashbuckling characters and their outlandish backstory into context in this imaginative, science-fiction, follow-up saga. Good sequels always dig deeper into the original characters and conjure up newcomers. “GoTG, Vol. 2” reassembles the same quintet and scrutinizes them in greater detail. Peter Quill, ostensibly the Guardians’ leader, catches up with his enigmatic sire, Ego, and father and son surprise each other with their goals during the second act. We learn that Ego has been searching the universe for his long, lost son. Later, Yondu observes astutely about the grandiose Ego: “He may have been your father, Quill, but he wasn’t your daddy.” This father and son connection yields the ultimate surprise, too, but discretion prevents me from divulging specifics. The peculiar relationship that Quill has forged with Yondu Udonta, the extraterrestrial space pirate who abducted Quill from Earth after the lad fled from the hospital where his cancer-stricken mom died takes on an added dimension. No character changes as much in “GoTG 2” as Yondu. He evolves from a villain to an honorable individual. Meanwhile, sibling rivalry keeps Quill’s quasi-girlfriend Gamora locked into a feud with her jealous sister Nebula. Nebula hates Gamora with a passion because their evil stepfather Thanos preferred Gamora over her. Smutty-mouthed Rocket Raccoon remains as obnoxious as ever, but his bad-tempered attitude thaws during the third act. Good sequels send off the characters onto exciting new adventures against different villains. The Guardians are summoned to a remote corner of the cosmos again. The new aliens—the Sovereigns—constitute a petulant people with little sense of humor. When Rocket infuriates them, the latter pursue the Guardians with a vengeance until greater powers interfere.
The last time we saw the Guardians, the Nova Corps had cleared them of all crimes and provided them with a refurnished version of his spaceship “The Milano.” The arboreal, sentient-like, extraterrestrial Groot (Vin Diesel’s voice) had sacrificed himself to save his companions, but Rocket Raccoon scourged up a surviving twig and has planted it. As “GoTG, Vol. 2,” unfolds, an arrogant race of gilded humanoids known as the Sovereigns have employed our motley crew to protect their priceless batteries from an enormous but absurd-looking trout with thrashing tentacles and thousands of thorny teeth. During the hilarious opening credits gambit, the roguish Star-Lord (Chris Pratt of “The Magnificent Seven”), green-skinned Amazon Gamora (Zoe Saldana of “Colombiana”), blue-skinned hulk Drax (Dave Bautista of “Spectre”), and pugnacious Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper’s voice) tangle with this cartoonish thing atop a platform where the batteries are housed that resembles an electric razor. During this far-fetched fracas, Baby Groot dances to Star-Lord’s mix tape oblivious to any peril the fire-breathing trout-squid poses while the Guardians struggle to slay their nemesis. The scene is clever because Gunn choreographs this blockbuster action with Baby Groot in the foreground rather than the contentious Guardians! Afterward, the grateful Sovereigns reward our heroes with nothing less than Gamora’s deceitful sister Nebula! No sooner have our heroes proven their nerve to the Sovereigns than they find themselves in trouble with them. The contemptuous Rocket has taken it upon himself to steal some of those valuable batteries. The incensed Sovereigns deployed a drone fleet to annihilate the Guardians. Conveniently, Peter Quill’s biological father Ego (Kurt Russell of “The Hateful 8”) intervenes and saves them from the Sovereigns. Ego invites Quill, Gamora, and Drax to accompany him to his planet, while Rocket, Baby Groot, and Nebula stay behind to repair their crashed spacecraft.
Meantime, the haughty Sovereign High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki of “The Great Gatsby”) hires arrow-whistling Ravager chieftain Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker of “The Belk Experiment”) to track down the Guardians. What Yondu doesn’t know is a perfidious faction within his gang of smugglers has been plotting mutiny. Yondu’s grotesque lieutenant, Taserface (Chris Sullivan of “Imperium”), sparks this uprising. After they catch up with Rocket, Baby Groot, and Nebula, the mutinous Ravagers turn on Yondu and lock him up with Rocket. Nevertheless, Yondu and Rocket aren’t idle behind bars for long because Baby Groot helps them to escape. Mind you, Yondu was already up to his ears in trouble with the rest of the Ravagers and their commander, Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone of “Rocky”), who turned against him for kidnapping Peter Quill in the first place. If you saw the original “G0TG,” you know Star-Lord tricked Yondu when he relinquished the Orb. The wily Star-Lord replaced the Infinity Stone that had been in the Orb with a grinning troll doll. Yondu had payback in mind when he sold his services to the Sovereigns, but then everything went sideways for him. Nevertheless, once Rocket, Baby Groot, and he escape, Yondu eliminates their adversaries with his whistling arrow.
The major revelation of the “Guardians” sequel concerns the character of Ego. Kurt Russel looks like he had a blast playing this murderous Celestial being who is essentially a manifestation of a psychedelic planet that Ego created for himself. Basically, he is a selfish amoral deity who behaves like the Greek god Zeus. During their brief stint on the planet, Peter and Ego begin on friendly terms until Ego slips up and reveals something appalling that alienates Peter. With its sumptuous CGI of alien galaxies and landscapes, “GoTG, Vol. 2” looks a hundred times better visually than its predecessor. If you enjoyed the greatest hits music in the original film, the sequel serves up even more memorable pop tunes and incorporates them into the psychology of the plot, too! As the fifteenth entry in the Marvel Comics Cinematic Universe, the tongue-in-cheek “Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2” ranks as one of the best.