This article contains potential spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Near the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, hero Peter Quill and the film’s main villain are ready for their big fight. Before it begins, though, Quill angrily lashes out at his enemy: “You shouldn't have killed my mom and squished my Walkman!” This outburst encapsulates the movie in microcosm: It wants to get us hooked on a feeling of real human emotion and struggle, but also wants to instant-mix such moments with the safety represented by its jokey nods to 1980s popular culture.

Like director James Gunn’s 2014 breakout Guardians of the Galaxy, the sequel aims to make equal space for both humor and heart. Fans of its stellar cast—Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voice by Vin Diesel)—will find plenty to enjoy about this misfit space crew’s mercenary adventures.

But as Peter suggested near the first film’s end, he and his new friends accomplish “something good, something bad, a little bit of both.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at Vol. 2’s very literal fulfillment of this promise. When the filmmakers show discipline by focusing separately on the crew’s very human griefs, with humor that helps power these struggles, the film blasts off. But moments of uncertainty—especially when the story retreats from its own big ideas in favor of tiny ideas or distracting jokes—threaten to undermine the film’s own fun characters and original ideas.

Something good

In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy explored new worlds even while following the standard ...

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