By Gavin Arucan | Staff Writer

The ragtag group of superheroes that stole moviegoers’ hearts back in 2014 return to the big screen with an adventure that may not be as well told as its predecessor, but proves to be full of heart and laughs nonetheless. What “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” lacks in effective pacing and villains, it makes up for with strong characters and a more personal story.

When a movie with as little going for it as the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” premieres to high praise by both critics and audiences, it’s difficult for the sequel to match that success. You can’t make a surprise hit twice. Thankfully, “Volume 2” doesn’t try to outdo the first by being bigger and bombastic. Rather than forcibly trying to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe and increasing the number of meaningless action scenes, writer and director James Gunn chose to focus closely on the stories of the Guardians and explore what made them who they are.

Baby Groot’s cuteness alone is enough to get even the most skeptical moviegoer into a seat. (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Gunn makes the ingenious move of flipping the Guardians’ dynamic on its head. Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), which is the greatest marketing decision Marvel has ever thought up, now forces Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) to act more fatherly. This father-son dynamic pushes the self-proclaimed “professional a-hole” to be more responsible now that he has a little one to look after. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) now has to reconcile with her sister and villain, Nebula (Karen Gillan), and through that we learn about the cruelty they were subjected to by their father, Thanos. Yondu (Michael Rooker) has to deal with his Ravager crew questioning his leadership.

The real star of the show, however, is Star-Lord himself, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). The entire film revolves around him meeting his father, played by Kurt Russell for the first time, and that’s where most of the emotional resonance comes from. While I can’t reveal too much about Russell’s role in the film, the suave actor brings a lot of charisma to his character. However, as the movie reaches its climax, Russell’s character loses the personality that made him so fun to watch. Russell could have been a memorable part of the MCU, but unfortunately the writing does him a disservice in the end.

Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) has significantly less character development outside of his bond with the newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff), but that doesn’t keep him from remaining my favorite Guardian (tied with Rocket). Because he gets less of a character study, Gunn compensates by giving him all of the funniest lines and moments. Drax is a maniac with a tragic past, and that’s all you need for him to work.

Besides the characters, the visuals stand out not only from the movie, but from the entire Marvel franchise. While I enjoy most Marvel films, I absolutely despise the bland, colorless color grading the studio seems insistent on using. These are comic book movies. They should be colorful and beautiful to look at, but Marvel hasn’t had a nice looking film since “Thor” or “Iron Man 2.” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is full of saturated colors, sharp contrasts, and creative lighting. It’s refreshing to finally get a Marvel film that’s worth just looking at. When the trailer was released, I hoped that “Vol. 2” would mark the beginning of good looking Marvel films, but “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Thor: Ragnarok” don’t seem to be following suit. That’s a shame. I’m excited for one of the funniest film directors there is, Taika Waititi, to put his own fun spin on Thor, but reverting back to that boring visual style does take away from that excitement a bit.

Producer Kevin Feige is working closely with James Gunn to create the next phase of the Marvel movies, so I hope that Gunn brings back that gorgeous color grade for future films.

The majority of other problems with “Vol. 2” revolve around a race of golden people that follow the Guardians around the galaxy for the entire movie. Their only comedy comes from a single quirk that grows tired over time. Every scene they are in slows the film down and nothing interesting happens with them until a mid-credit scene. Everything else in the film is so wildly entertaining that these gold people pale in comparison.

Even though “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” falls just short of being as great as the first one, it still does a great job at expanding on a group of beloved characters.  The Guardians now have enough personality and emotional weight to carry them through the upcoming “Avengers” films and beyond. This second installation has cemented the team as a necessary part of the larger cinematic universe, and I can’t wait to follow Star-Lord’s lead into many more adventures, and catchy mixtapes, to come.