Let’s get it out of the way – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is very much like The Empire Strikes Back. It is ripe with daddy issues, separates our heroes for a large chunk of the film, and (unlike most sequels) stands alone outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just like the original film, it’s big and goofy and pure-hearted and devoted to its characters in a way no other Marvel has been. Sure, The Avengers are fleshed out – but these characters have a chemistry and a connection that Tony Stark and Thor just don’t, and never will. I can’t say I enjoyed Vol. 2 more than the original, but I’d definitely say they’re equal, and that’s a damned fine accomplishment considering the first film was my favorite space adventure since Empire.

I want to talk about Kurt Russell. Here’s a guy who starred in some of my favorite films from the 1980’s and 1990’s – Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, Overboard, Breakdown. He disappeared for a while (with the exception of maybe his best performance ever in Miracle) but now he’s in two of the biggest films of 2017 – Guardians and The Fate of the Furious. The man just oozes charisma and presence. I can’t think of an actor on the planet better suited to play Ego, Star Lord’s father, an immortal god who created his own planet and has been searching for his son for years and years. Kurt Russell is the catalyst that makes this film work, in one way during the first half, and in a totally different way in the second half. And that slow motion sequence where he and Star Lord are tossing the ball of energy was surprisingly moving even though it was clearly set up to get some chuckles, which it also received, in abundance.

I want to talk about Michael Rooker. Here’s a guy who has held character roles in some of my favorite films from the 90’s, but has never really received the respect he deserves as an actor. How amazing for him that someone like James Gunn recognized his greatness and has given him such a unique opportunity to shine. His Yondu gets far more to do here. We really get to the see the complexities of the character and how his gruff exterior doesn’t necessarily match what’s on the inside. Yondu is responsible for the single greatest moments in the film, including an extended sequence where he dispatches (quite literally) a hundred different people in the span of just a couple minutes. Sure, it’s gratuitous – but the man is wearing a mohawk.

I want to talk about Zoe Saldana. Good Lord – is she not the most successful actress in the history of film? At least box office wise, she has to be – Avatar, the Star Trek franchise, and both Guardians films. It’s weird we don’t hear her name more than we do. Gamora’s dramatic arc here is given just as much weight as Star Lord’s, and they’re similar in that they both revolve around a search for and appreciation of family. I was not really on the Nebula (Karen Gillan) train in the first film, but she won me over here. A lot of that has to do with her relationship with Gamora and how we see it develop and soften as the film goes on. The film ends with it being far from perfect, but we see movement in the complexity and that makes it more that just a disposable storyline that most directors would have utterly abandoned.

Yes, Chris Pratt is cute and fun and all that business. Yes, Baby Groot is adorable and pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Yes, Bradley Cooper (as Rocket) is a hoot. And Sylvester Stallone’s cameo was appreciated, though somewhat distracting. So, given all that – let’s talk about the man who makes all of this happen – James Gunn. Marvel took one hell of a chance giving this guy the keys to the kingdom and it has paid off in spades. I am so delighted that he’ll be tackling the third Guardians film and can only hope he avoids the pitfalls that Sam Raimi couldn’t with Spider-Man 3. I trust Gunn. He knows these characters and cares about them for more than Raimi ever did about his. Guardians is Gunn’s legacy and he seems to be taking that very seriously. If you would have asked me after I saw Slither if this director was going to be directing one of the highest grossing franchises in film history, I’d have laughed in your face. Yet, here we are. And he isn’t just directing them – he’s churning out goddamn classics.

As you might have noticed, I haven’t spoken much about the plot. I’d rather you watch the film and experience it for yourself. Rest assured, all of the themes the first film set up are carried over into the sequel and covered with the same excitement and fervor. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 kept me grinning from ear to ear, tearing up on more than one occasion, and appreciating the insane grandiosity of a world and characters that have come to mean so much to me in such a short span of time. That’s the work of James Gunn more than anyone else. I know there are Guardians haters out there. I will never understand them. I really don’t ever want to understand them. To not enjoy these films, you have to be immune to fun.