In the age of Peak TV, the seasons are shorter, the stories are serialized, and one of my favorite television stalwarts is all but extinct: the stand-alone episode. In a season that has eight to 13 episodes to unfurl one densely knotted plot, few series make time for an episode that places the characters in a scenario that has little to no bearing or effect on the main plot. Few weep for this narrative causality, most deemed them frivolous. But the best shows knew how to make a stand-alone as thoroughly enjoying as (if not more than) a mythology ep. I’m talking Hurley and the Dharma bus, Walt and Jesse vs the fly. “The Zeppo.” Serialized TV is a relevant concept when talking Marvel superhero movies—ever since, say Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have been equally (at times less) concerned with being self-contained entertainment as they were setting up the next several adventures to come.

The first Guardians, written and directed by James Gunn and released three summers ago as the tenth Marvel film, stands as a high favorite among both fan and critic in the MCU primarily because of how independent it felt. What with the phases, the credit-scenes that serve as foggy bridges to the next movie, and whole subplots and characters shoehorned in just because they’ll serve a purpose down the line, even the most unique directors have struggled to make a Marvel film feel like their own. Except Gunn.  (Shane Black and Peyton Reed probably round out the top 3.) There were sightings of Thanos and talk of Infinity Rings but for the most part, GOTG was a specific kind of weird, quirky, and offbeat and a trace of genuine sadness. For Vol. 2, Gunn ramps up on all of those elements...especially, surprisingly, that last one.

“Incredibly personal.” That’s how James Gunn described Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to me. A strange proclamation to make (as he admitted) considering this is a fantasy superhero movie featuring talking homicidal raccoons, a planet that has a face, and a drunken, belligerent Howard the Duck. And, most importantly, because it’s not just Gunn’s movie—it’s another delivery on a never-ending assembly line of films in the MCU, structured to keep churning long after the Sun nukes the planet. How could a movie so far-fetched, greenlit with episodic intentions in mind, end up being what Gunn says was his “most creatively fulfilling, freeing [movie-making] experience”?

Every hero broods in between saving the world, but feelings of inner despair and loneliness have never felt quite as palpable as they do here. The plot is anchored by the sudden return of Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father, whose lifelong absence left Peter orphaned and living under suspect parental guidance from the bandit Yondu (the superb Michael Rooker), back here with an expanded role to amplify the Star Lord’s daddy issues. But everyone in this ensemble has issues: so deep-seated and raw that you can forgive Gunn for maybe over-piling on the jokes and eccentricities to cover up the pain, much like his characters. (There’s a majorly somber moment in the end that literally begins with a wisecrack, very OD.) Problematic father figures drive Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) arc as well: she spends the film battling her sister Nebula (Karen Gillian), both of whom were raised as warriors by the MCU’s Big Bad, Thanos. His idea of parental discipline: invasive robo-enhancement to build the perfect soldier. Non-consensual scientific tinkering still haunts Rocket (Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn), the furry CGI mercenary who doesn’t know what to identify as, but would rather shoot than be called a raccoon. He spends the bulk of the movie away from his sidekick Groot—reduced to toddler size after the events of the first movie and serving as the gang’s de facto Scrappy-Do here—and paired with Yondu. Together they commiserate, sometimes internally sometimes aloud, over if they’re worthless, unlovable, wastes of life. The only person relatively unburdened is Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and that’s only because he already spent the first movie avenging his slaughtered family. Of course this movie has an infantile talking plant whose cuteness threatens to overpower every dramatic weight around him. Without it (him?), the movie might crumble under the heroes' emo inner turmoils.

Overall, Vol. 2 is a lot busier and scattered than the relatively streamlined original. But in the three years past, the MCU has only gotten more serialized. To that effect, Vol. 2 maintains its predecessor's feeling of being a welcome breath of fresh air. No overt hints are made at the forthcoming Avengers movie, in which the Guardians will take part. Any mention of Thanos is organic in reference to Gamora and Nebula. Every post-credit scene—I think I counted FIVE—is mostly a punchline, and if there is a nod to the future, it’s one that concerns GOTG Vol. 3 primarily. We can rank and re-rank the Marvel movies later, where this one falls is unclear. But Vol. 2 made me crack up and genuinely care about the emotions of a gun-toting raccoon as voiced by Bradley Cooper, and all without thinking of future movie tickets to purchase. Score-one for the standalones.

Also Watch