★★★ ½

With the recent explosion of big-budget comic-book movies, it is often easy to forget that their source material, and the lore that comes with them, wasn’t always so mainstream. The Guardians of the Galaxy series represents a niche of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that reminds audiences of the odder, goofier side of Marvel’s comics lore: A group comprised of folks from all walks of alien life, who make hyperjumps through space while throwing around anachronistic references and fight supervillains while ’70s jams play in the background? What’s not to love?

Following his 2014 smash hit, James Gunn returns to the director’s chair for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, its title inspired by the name of the new mixtape acquired by protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Awesome Mix Vol. 2 (thanks, Marvel, for keeping cassette tapes relevant!). The sequel follows the most recent adventures of Quill and his friends and teammates: cunning warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Gamora’s morally ambiguous sister Nebula (Karen Gillan); smart-mouthed, genetically engineered animal Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper); shirtless brawler Drax (Dave Bautista); and extremely adorable sentient plant Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel).

After stealing batteries that are more valuable than life itself from the Sovereign, an alien race of golden, genetically perfect individuals, the unlikely band of heroes encounter Ego (Kurt Russell), an immortal celestial being who claims to be Quill’s birth father. He takes them to his own planet, a psychedelic CGI confection that evokes thoughts of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and a sci-fi Las Vegas, where he lives alone -- except for his one companion, an empathetic bug/humanoid named Mantis (the delightful Pom Klementieff). While Quill jumps at the chance to learn more about his mysterious family tree and bond with his father, his companions have their doubts -- and with a blatantly troubling name like Ego, who could blame them for their trust issues? At the same time, the Guardians must also evade Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the high priestess of the Sovereign, which will require the help of some old friends.

Guardians is laden with messages about the meaning of family and trust, like a green-screen-powered edition of Aesop’s Fables. While at times verging on cliché, the film delivers its heartwarming lessons with a healthy dose of the hilariousness we’ve come to expect from this franchise. Of course, there’s no shortage of big-budget space action, including a laugh-out-loud scene involving a zany and turbulent ride through the space-time continuum. It’s also exciting to see so many different, well-rounded female characters at the heart of the film: As far as the new additions go, the overly stoic Ayesha doles out tough leadership, while Mantis provides gentle comic relief. Elsewhere, Gamora and Nebula hash out their sisterly issues in a subplot that propels both of their arcs forward, which is a refreshing change of pace from the underdeveloped female characters of most superhero movies and TV shows. All in all, the Guardians furnish the Marvel audience with a visually mesmerizing, highly entertaining way to spend 2 hours and 17 minutes.