*Marvel Studios

James Gunn and Marvel Studios pulled off a cinematic miracle in 2014 when they took a ragtag team of unknown heroes to the top of the box office. Now, Starlord and Co. have returned in an effort that both recaptures the excitement of the first film and builds the franchise into a heavyweight within the superhero genre.

Before I continue, I must admit that I cannot be fully impartial in my assessment of this film. I am an admitted Marvel fanboy, so much so that I loved even the much-maligned Thor movies. Despite this prejudice in favor of Marvel movies,Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a strong showing by Marvel standards, capable of pleasing both the diehard crowd and the casual moviegoer alike.

As was the case in the first film in the series, Guardians draws its greatest strength from the personalities of the characters. The dynamic between the heroes is a constant flow of pandemonium, with the brash temperaments of Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Starlord (Chris Pratt) in perpetual conflict. However, Drax (Dave Bautista) is featured much more prominently in the new film, and his more jovial demeanor leaves Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to play the straight man. Groot, the lovable tree creature, is demoted to a smaller role due to the fact that he is now a child, but he is featured prominently enough to sell lots of toys across the nation.

While the obvious marketing ploy of Baby Groot is at times distracting, Gunn does not reduce his movie to a children’s tale; rather, the plot of Guardians is a more complex departure from some of the more formulaic superhero movies of late.

The movie’s antagonist is Starlord’s biological father, a “Celestial” named Ego (Kurt Russell). This is no spoiler; very early on in the movie, it becomes extremely apparent that Ego is not what he claims to be. The only way that Gunn could have made it more obvious would be to stamp “BAD” on Russell’s forehead. However, while Ego’s deceitfulness is easily inferred, his motivation is the true source of mystery throughout the film. As with any good villain, Ego’s character goes deeper than the audience expects it to, putting the Guardians in a uniquely suspenseful bind.

Aside from the main Ego storyline, Guardians is jam-packed with material. Each Guardian gets his or her fair share of both screen time and character development, which helps the movie’s second act as the primary arc stagnates. In addition to the Guardians, the supporting characters get real attention as well, rather than acting as plot devices. Both old characters, like Yondu and Nebula, and new ones, like Mantis, are worked into full members of the franchise.

As with every Marvel movie, Guardians would be somewhat incomplete without its relation to the rest of the universe. While it can stand alone, it shouldn’t, especially given the fact that it adds a wealth of new material to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel has been exceptional in its commitment to universe building, and Guardians expands that capability to a potentially limitless scale. This film brings multiple new entities onto the scene just in time for Infinity War, including the Sovereign, a race of genetically-engineered beings with a killer superiority complex; and the Ravagers, the group of thieves to which Yondu belongs (led by Sylvester Stallone).

While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 clocks in at just over two hours, Director Gunn skillfully manages his story to balance all of the material in a full and satisfying way. No questions go unanswered without a reason, and no character is left out of the party. This film is a great way for Marvel to kick off its year, and it will undoubtedly keep you entertained for the whole ride.

Wagner’s Watch-worthiness: 9/10

Derek Wagner is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and is majoring in Statistics (Class of 2020). Derek hails from Eldersburg, Maryland, but his true allegiance lies with the city of Buffalo and their hapless Bills. While the field of statistics is his ideal vocation, Derek hopes to stay involved in politics and continue to promote conservative thought in American culture. Derek can be seen on episodes of The Unsafe Place Podcast, Spotlight, and the Locker Room. He also manages a blog on the site called Wagner’s Watchlist.