Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

136 min. Director: James Gunn. Cast: Vin Diesel, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Kurt Russell, Dave Bautista, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Sylvester Stallone.

Don’t think too hard about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, although there’s probably little danger of that. It’s exactly what you’d expect writer-director James Gunn to deliver as a sequel to the 2004 Marvel space adventure he likewise spearheaded. Everything that made the first film well-received is back: the goofy cast of characters, arch jokes, lively interstellar action, and rainbow-sherbet color scheme. The only thing missing is the element of surprise.

It’s not exactly fair to expect Gunn to sucker-punch audiences again with a sequel that exists to provide another episode of a big-screen franchise. Early on, Gunn reveals an audio cassette labeled “Awesome Mix Vol. 2” that emblematizes the better mousetrap Gunn has built for himself: it’s all but against the law to make this movie without spending more money to pack the soundtrack with more ironically applied ’70s tunes and blow out the energy bill on more spectacle.

Given a heckuva lot of moving parts, Vol. 2 represents a screenwriting challenge not to be underestimated. The design—of sets and costumes and action sequences—is the giddy part, and the plot is the obligation. The mercenary Guardians (including Zoe Saldana’s dead-serious Gamora, Dave Bautista’s belly-laughing dum-dum Drax,and cute lil' twig Baby Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel) start out on a job, get themselves in trouble, and wind up rescued by a mystery man who claims to be the father of rogue space orphan Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a.k.a. Star Lord. Since the mystery man introduces himself as Ego (and he’s played to the hilt—is there any other way?—by Kurt Russell), it’s a fair bet he’s telling the truth.

Most of the rest amounts to a frantic, vertiginous roller coaster whizzing through careering spaceships, family-style bickering, blasting guns, psychoanalytic upheaval, curlicuing projectiles, and breakthroughs and reckonings to dazzling, if fatiguing, effect. Gunn never goes long without a joke, even in a long-stretch resolution that yanks at the heartstrings. That Gunn manages to access anything like an emotional payoff at the end of this story qualifies as something of a miracle, since the characters almost entirely consist of blithe simpletons or proud jerks. Gunn doesn’t so much soften their edges as insist on their humanity, nobly staging a narrow escape from total caricature.

That late-breaking insistence holds true not only for Quill (a man whose first impulse with ultimate power is to create a giant-sized tribute to Pac-Man) but for genetically-engineered raccoon-guy Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper and physicalized by Sean Gunn) and the gruff, deadly, bright-blue “Ravager” Yondu (Michael Rooker), Quill’s crooked adoptive father. After a story that occasionally succumbs to bits straight out of Looney Tunes, anything resembling feeling is kind of an impressive pivot. And the pivotal realization—that, in the end, using your heart beats using your head—works as a pithy instruction manual for this diverting but disposable adventure.