Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ★★★½

I've been reviewing Marvel movies for as long as I've been writing about cinema. Truthfully, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not quite 10 years old (dating back to 2008's "Iron Man"), but it has completely reshaped how blockbuster movies are written and directed. The staggering number of superhero movies released every year might be easy to blame on the MCU, but it also raised the bar on what Hollywood studios consider populist entertainment.

"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" is the 15th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but you'd be hard pressed to tell. It doesn't cross-over into the other films like "Civil War" or the "Avengers" does; instead, it spends its two-hour-plus runtime expanding the world of the Guardians while telling deeply personal stories for each character.

That's probably the most incredible thing about "Guardians Vol. 2." As dazzling as the visuals are and as epic as the storytelling becomes, the film is entirely character-driven. It almost functions as a hangout movie where you're entertained by just spending time with interesting characters as they banter with each other instead of following them into a complicated plot. "Guardians Vol. 2" doesn't even have a clear villain until well over an hour into the film.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel) and Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper) are all back. The only big difference is Groot is Baby Groot now because he's growing from the sapling we saw him as at the end of the last film. Baby Groot is ridiculously adorable. I mean, yes, he looks cute in the trailers, but his adorability will make your teeth hurt by the end of the movie.

Quill meets his long lost father, Ego the Living Planet (played by a perfectly-cast Kurt Russell,) while his teammates go on their own journeys during the film. Those include daddy issues, sibling rivalry, self-loathing, accepting your place in the world and a full scale hero's journey sprinkled throughout the endlessly entertaining 136 minutes.

As fun as the first "Guardians" was, "Guardians Vol. 2" exceeds it on every conceivable level. Every frame of the film is bursting with color, invention, and some of the weirdest ideas ever put into a Disney-produced blockbuster, but all of it pales to how deeply emotional it is.

Each one of the Guardians is partially broken. Quill is an orphan finding his place in the universe. Gamora has a father who tortured her. Rocket was experimented on and is the only creature of his kind in the galaxy. Drax watched his family die while he was unable to protect them. Groot basically died and has to accept his size compared to everyone else. Yondu (a film-stealing Michael Rooker) has been living as a villain with the heart of a hero. Every minute of "Guardians Vol. 2" is spent on these characters learning how to heal themselves or accepting the help to be healed by their makeshift family.

It's popular now for hipsters or holier-than-thou film snobs to make fun of superhero movies, and Marvel movies in particular. Yes, massive blockbuster superhero movies are crowding the multiplex, causing some of the smaller indies to skip theaters or not even get made in the first place. A balance between art and commerce does need to be found in the motion picture industry, but assuming the film is just a cynical cash grab is missing the forest for the Groots. Somehow, "Guardians Vol. 2" is a work of art in a galaxy of commerce, which is a positive sign not just for the future of Marvel movies, but cinema in general.