Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

James Gunn is fortunate to helm the space opera franchise Guardians of the Galaxy, as opposed to others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His characters are far removed from The Avengers—both literally and as a story—and that distance gives Gunn added freedom since a larger sense of continuity is ancillary. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is admirably self-contained, with enough comedy and visual wit that we are in no rush to see just how the Guardians fit into a wider universe. Gunn uses extraordinary situations to serve as planet-sized metaphors for his characters, most of whom suffer from constant feelings of rejection or loneliness. This film is a therapy session, with the added bonus of a cute creatures and a classic rock soundtrack.

After Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pisses off their client during a routine mission, the Guardians crash onto a remote habitable planet. They receive an unexpected visitor: Kurt Russell plays Ego, a mysterious man who announces he’s the father of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Ego wants to bring Peter to his home world, and so the Guardians split up. Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) accompany Peter, while Rocket and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) repair the ship. Ego’s planet is full of surprises—Peter finally learns the secrets of his past—and Rocket along with Baby Groot deal with a mercenary force that’s led by Yondu (Michael Rooker). All the Guardians reunite, as they must, and they learn more about themselves and each other along the way.

If the first Guardians of the Galaxy is about bizarre heroes developing chemistry, then the sequel is a showcase for them as individuals. Every Guardian has a standalone vignette, one that highlights their courage, fighting skills, and emotional shortcomings. The breadth of action and scenery ensures that these vignettes are never boring. Rocket’s canny instincts help him dispatch dozens of mercenaries, for example, and he’s deeply vindictive since everyone is quick to call him cruel variants of a raccoon. Gunn, who wrote and directed Vol. 2, need not move the plot along. He has room to build multifaceted foreshadowing, as well as well-timed sight gags, so even if the pace is languid, it is never boring.

Storytelling freedom notwithstanding, Gunn’s film contains bizarre reversals and twists. Allegiances between characters are on the border between friendship and hostility, so Gunn’s script distorts relationships based on what the plot requires, not what the characters feel. There is a subplot involving Gamora and her ill-tempered sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Gunn explores their impasse only insofar that it leads to some eye-popping fight sequences. The sharply-defined conflicts are welcome reprieves from heroes who constantly feel each other out. Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) represents The Sovereign, a gilded alien race with a homicidal sense of decorum, and Gunn tosses them into the fray whenever the tension gets a touch too thorny.

Gunn films the space battles and escapes with a greater sense of spectacle than action. During the climax, for example, a planet implodes while the Guardians run along its service, and it’s so implausible that Gunn has no alternative but to focus on gestures, not coherence. This is not a problem, however, since Gunn is a subversive director, the sort who think it’s funny to use state of the art technology to make an offhand pop culture reference, or a gross-out gag. Still, the film’s highlight is when Yondu, Rocket, and Baby Groot escape from a prison cell. Yondu commands an arrow with his mind, and its illuminated path unspools like a deadly 3D Spirograph. Baby Groot, on the other hand, is adorable, curious, and about as intelligent as a well-meaning pet. Audiences cooed every time Baby Groot graced the screen, and with his disproportionately large eyes, it’s hard to blame them.

Despite all the bright colors and ’80s radio hits, the most valuable player of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is Drax. Dave Bautista’s performance is downright delightful—even under all the gunmetal make-up, his face is enormously expressive. Drax has no social filter, blurting out exactly what he thinks, and his formal discourse adds to his unintentional jokes. The best scene in Guardians involves Drax, but it’s an understated one. Pom Klementieff plays Mantis, a character with empathetic powers, and she internalizes Drax’s heartbreak while he sits there with a plain expression. The scene neatly distills the appeal of Guardians: These characters are powerful and brave, and yet they ache with the same needs and yearning as the rest of us.

Underneath the comedy and action, Gunn’s film is ultimately reassuring. Like the Guardians themselves, we must trust we can find people to accept and forgive us, no matter how, er, alienated we might feel.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens Friday in theaters everywhere.