First things first – yes, it’s a near impossible feat for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to match the same out-of-nowhere shot of adrenaline to the superhero genre that the first film brought when it came on to the scene three years ago, and it’s also just as futile to expect the sequel to bring that same freshness. You can’t make something new again, especially for a sequel, but you can expand and make it better, if you’re smart about it. And considering we have James Gunn, one of the most ingeniously delirious and original voices in American genre filmmaking, is back as the writer and director, you can bet that’s exactly what he’s going to do.

After a cold opening taking place many years before the events of the film, where we get a brief glimpse of Ego (Kurt Russell, in an eerily convincing de-aged effect), we are thrown into space where the Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) find themselves being chased by an amazingly irritating group of golden aliens known as the Sovereign, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), but they find refuge on a planet where Ego lives, and it turns out he’s the father of Peter Quill. From there, Peter, Gamora, and Drax explore the planet with Ego and his mysterious assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), while Rocket, Groot, and the recently captured Nebula (Karen Gillan) are taken by the Ravagers, led by Yondu (Michael Rooker).

While most sequels tend to go bigger and broader, raising the stakes, etc., Volume 2 goes in a slightly different route, and this is where James Gunn plays things smart. He understands that what made the first film resonate so well are the characters, and that is where all the focus is on, even if it’s at the expense of airtight plotting. It’s something he makes very clear when the opening credits follow Baby Groot dancing around to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” while the rest of the team is in a blur, fighting a giant monster in the background. The action or spectacle isn’t the focus, it’s the characters. This is a film that is all about challenging the characters, expanding on them and their relationships and dynamics, and exploring their deeper humanity. The locations are kept minimal, emphasizing the intimacy and emotional stakes that are at the heart of the film. Gunn understands that you can throw as much action as you can in an effort to outdo what came before, but it won’t mean anything if you don’t care. The first films was about the connection that happens when broken people reach out in spite of their personal shortcomings previously holding them back. Volume 2 digs deeper in the family dynamic that come from places you don’t expect, about knowing which bonds are worth healing, and which ones need to be broken, and acknowledging the positivity and impact that an adoptive or surrogate family can have. Every character gets many moments to shine, and not only that most of the ensemble goes through some kind of arc in someway shape or form. The only major player who doesn’t have an arc is Drax (and I suppose Baby Groot, by his very nature), and as a way to make up for it, he gets most of the funniest lines.

Even though I generally really enjoy everything that has come from Marvel Studios, Volume 2 feels like the first time in their history where they let a filmmaker just cut loose and make the film he wants to make without having to worry about future films or worldbuilding or setups for later story arcs. James Gunn channels all his weird impulses, and uses them to their fullest extent, allowing the film to be the humorous, gleefully violent, tonally adventurous, yet emotionally sincere work of pop art that he wants to make. Blockbusters are rarely this bold, silly, and soulful all at once, but when they do, you get the likes of Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy films, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and James Gunn has absolutely earned a spot next to those names. It also doesn’t help that Volume 2 is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully crafted superhero films ever. And it’s not just in the incredible art direction, production design, makeup, and visual effects, but also in being one of the most propulsively and artfully shot superhero in a while; one where it doesn’t look like the big set pieces have been pre-visualized to death before the filmmaker even came on board like with many other blockbusters.

Then there are the performances, which are great across the board. Though, it’s the newcomers and expanded supporting roles that get to show off this time around. Kurt Russell brings his classic movie star swagger and effortlessly fits in, Karen Gillan is a blast to watch and she pulls off an interesting way to delivering emotionally driven lines with a mostly robotic voice, Pom Klementieff is a joy to behold as the innocent wide-eyed alien, Elizabeth Debicki brings an deliciously hateable villain with her simultaneously hilarious and creepy stillness and icy cold demeanor, and Sean Gunn gets to do some more stuff, and that guy is just always fun to watch. However, out of all of the supporting character, the one who steals the entire thing is easily Michael Rooker as Yondu, who takes such a gut-wrenching and poignant turn that he went from being a cool side-character to retroactively being the heart of this entire franchise. In a long career of countless great performances from one of our most underappreciated character actors, this might be one of the best performances I’ve seen from Michael Rooker, and it’s easily among the very best performances in the entire MCU.

Earlier this year, Logan showed you can strip a superhero film down to the most basic elements and still tell a compelling story in a mature way without ever sacrificing any of the things that made the character so great. In comes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 which shows you can still have a killer big budget blockbuster that is by all means still a part of a universe master plan and serving studio interests (hello, Baby Groot merchandise), while still never compromising the singular visionary at the helm or the integrity of the characters. A little personality goes a long way for me, and James Gunn has more than enough of it when it comes to how he approaches his story and characters. It’s not just a perfect sequel, but it’s the most idiosyncratic, emotionally driven and character driven superhero film in years, and if through some miracle, James Gunn can work the magic again for a third time, we might have an all-timer trilogy. But that aside, Volume 2 is joyous, artful, vibrant, and earnest blockbuster, a combination that feels so rare nowadays, but feels that much more necessary now than ever before.