How can the Guardians of the Galaxy claim to be friends, one skeptic scoffs in James Gunn's sequel to his 2014 sleeper hit, when all they do is argue and yell at one another? The answer, as one might guess without seeing this film but having seen many another popular film of our time, is that the four interstellar misfits, plus the offspring of their late cohort, are not friends but "family." Gunn doubles down here on this more dubious aspect of the previous film, but people today apparently dig this idea. The interesting thing is that Guardians Vol. 2 harps on this theme while simultaneously highlighting a sororial blood feud and an act of celestial parricide. In the main event, Peter "Star Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), the human being of the team, finally meets his father, the unselfconsciously named Ego (Kurt Russell), who gives the galaxy's biggest fan of 70s pop the great news that he has the genealogy of a god. Biological didn't bother until now because his momentarily conscience-stricken agent, the ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker), kept little Pete to train as an artful dodger. Now that Quill has proven himself a space hero -- the Guardians now hire out as a cosmic security detail, defending an obnoxious planet's power batteries against a random monster during the opening credits -- Ego wants to test whether he, of all his many, many offspring, has the divine spark. It turns out that he does, and that makes it possible for Ego, whose consciousness is one with the planet he lives on, to implement his long-cherished plan to exterminate all other life in the universe. Star Lord will come to realize almost too late, just as Gunn beats the point into our heads, that Yondo is more his true father than this literal rockhead. Meanwhile, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) carry on their lifelong battle, which climaxes this time with a space-opera homage to North By Northwest on the surface of the redundantly-named "Ego's Planet," yet appears to end on a tentative note of reconciliation. And wouldn't you know? Daddy's to blame. Family seems easier without one of those around.
The novelty of the first Guardians picture is irrecoverable, and the sort of shtick we often get in its place here is a poor replacement. There are times when you may imagine yourself reading the script and seeing "[Insert joke here]" with numbing regularity. Not even Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is as funny as he was before, though it's not the actor's fault that his best moments were used in the trailers. His imperturbable, sometimes arrogant imbecility, combined with lapses into childlike enthusiasm, still make Bautista the best thing about these films. He gets a new foil, and the film gets a much-needed breath of fresh air, in the form of the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a reluctant protege of Ego's. She's based on one of Marvel Comics' most obnoxious characters of the 1970s -- which is saying a lot -- but writer/director and actress redeem her by emphasizing her naive insecurity and a plausibly alien nature compared to the Guardians, who all, regardless of species, seem all too human most of the time. There are many more weird new characters, including some sure to appear in the next Guardians film, if not sooner, among them a group of badass elders some may recognize as the original comic-book Guardians of the Galaxy, but the gold-skinned Sovereigns (ruled by Elizabeth Debicki), for whom war is a bloodless (for them) video game, don't make much of an impression despite their importance to some plot threads now and in the future. On every level Vol. 2 is less inspired than the first film, but despite its faults the sequel manages to get audiences emotionally invested in the heroes' climactic perils, and it retains the original's surprising sense of wonder amid all the hard-boiled antics. From the more attractive landscapes of Ego-land to the outer-space fireworks display during one character's viking funeral, Gunn's determination to hit us with moments of pure or at least aspiring beauty is one aspect of the Guardians series that continues to surprise.