Ever since “Iron Man” exploded at the box office in 2008, there has been a nonstop parade of Marvel Comics-based superhero films that have taken over Hollywood. While most of these flicks have centered on traditional superstar heroes like Thor, Captain America and the Hulk, the genre took a sharp, left turn in 2014 by focusing on a lesser-known band of misfits who save the universe with a sharply comedic undertone in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”   

That film featured plenty of quirky alien characters, including a wisecracking genetically engineered raccoon bounty hunter named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his tree-like humanoid sidekick named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and a green beauty named Gamora (Zoe Saldana) who is seeking redemption for her evil past.

Wrestler Dave Bautista also returns as the strongman Drax.
But amid all the galactic goofiness, the film’s heart was an earthling named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who was abducted by a spaceship as a boy and raised to become a smuggler in space, building this oddball team by accident while chasing an orb that holds the key to creating — and potentially destroying — the universe.

The film was tremendous fun and a huge hit, but it did have to deal with a convoluted setup in establishing its universe, while leaving open the intriguing question of Peter’s quest to learn the identity of the father he never met. That personal quest becomes the center of its sequel “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2,” as Peter comes face to face with a self-professed god named Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be his dad, and has to decide if he can trust this wise-cracking mystery figure.

Free from the constraints of introducing its oddball coterie, “Vol. 2” kicks off in whiz-bang style with the team battling a huge space beast that has stolen super-powered batteries from a race of gold-colored aliens called the Sovereign. The fight sets the action-packed battle royale in which Peter, Gamora, Rocket and Drax use everything from swords to machine guns set to ELO’s bouncy ’70s pop hit “Mr. Blue Sky,” while the now-tiny Baby Groot dances obliviously amid the mayhem.

This mix of catchy pop classics counterpointing comically insane action was critical to the first film’s success, and writer-director James Gunn shows that he’s got the swagger of greater confidence on his side in the new film. Things turn hairier quickly for the Guardians when Rocket sneaks some of the batteries out with him as the gang departs, even though they had collected their reward: Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), whom they plan to collect a big bounty on from the planet Xandar for her destructive behavior in the first film.

Chased by Sovereign spaceships as their queen seeks to regain the batteries, Peter’s ship is severely damaged and crash lands on an obscure planet. Moments later, another ship arrives, with Ego descending to tell Peter he’s his father and inviting him to get to know him on his own planet — taking Drax and Gamora along for the ride as they are also hosted by Ego’s female servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

While Peter is eager to find his roots, Gamora is concerned to find that a lot of things don’t seem to add up about Ego. Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot were left amid the wreckage to oversee Nebula, only to find themselves under attack by a team of scavengers led by Yondu (Michael Rooker), one of the prime villains in the first film. After Nebula tricks Groot into setting her free, she sets off in a ship to kill Gamora once and for all after a lifetime of rivalry.

Thus, the stage is set for a hearty dose of action that is set against a surprisingly strong theme of family and how much one can trust and even forgive those who should be closest to you but have betrayed you. These aspects lend a greater emotional weight to the sequel that is impressive, considering that Gunn and his cast have managed to amp up the fun stuff as well.

Russell and the rest of the cast are clearly having a blast, and their infectious sense of fun should leave fanboys grinning the entire time. Parents should be aware, though, that “Vol. 2” also features more sexual innuendos than the first and a couple of scenes that border on grisly, including one in which numerous bad guys are forced into space without protective suits and experience very unpleasant deaths.

But overall, “Vol. 2” might just be the most fun to be found in a movie theater thus far this year. It’s a great sign that there’s plenty of inventive life left to be found in the saturated superhero genre. Grade: A


Capsule Reviews

THE PROMISE
Stars: Oscar Isaacs, Christian Bale, Charlotte LeBon
Length: 133 minutes
Directed by: Terry George
Rating: PG-13
Shining a spotlight on the often-overlooked Armenian Genocide while adding a romantic spin, this historical epic features a strong performance by Isaacs as an Armenian medical student forced into action by the Ottoman assault on his people while torn between two women. Well-made, but more meaningful than entertaining.
Grade: B

THE CIRCLE
Stars: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt
Length: 110 minutes
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Rating: PG-13
“The Circle” follows a young woman (Watson), who thinks she’s hit the break of a lifetime getting hired by a giant Google-like company led by a seemingly benevolent guru (Tom Hanks). She rises quickly when she offers to let a webcam be attached to her at all times, not realizing consequences are coming. Poorly paced and saddled with a truly terrible performance by Watson, this is a huge dud. Grade: D

UNFORGETTABLE
Stars: Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl
Length: 100 minutes
Directed by: Denise DiNovi
Rating: R
This alleged thriller about an abused woman (Dawson) hiding her troubled past from her fiance when she changes towns to live with him and his daughter, and his too-perfect ex-wife (Heigl) out to ruin their relationship, is wall-to-wall ridiculous, with Dawson overwrought and Heigl a total cliche. It’s a Lifetime network movie with the audacity to charge for tickets and totally forgettable. Grade: F

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS
Stars: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell
Length: 136 minutes
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Rating: PG-13
The eighth film in the “Fast and Furious” franchise is also the first to arrive fully without original star Paul Walker as Brian, leaving a key level of humanity out and resulting in mostly mayhem throughout. Loud and frenetic as always, the wheels are starting to come off with  a near total lapse in logic and Charlize Theron is utterly wasted in her role as this edition’s villain, a super-hacker named Cipher. Grade: D

GOING IN STYLE
Stars: Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman
Length: 96 minutes
Directed by: Zach Braff
Rating: PG-13
This remake of the 1979 George Burns/Art Carney heist comedy follows three lifelong friends who suddenly learn that their former employer has ended their pension fund, leading to their robbing the bank that stores the millions. A fun caper with the three Oscar-winning veteran actors displaying sterling chemistry and an underlying reminder that society needs to treat its elderly with compassion.
Grade: B