Despite all of these different subsets of films within the Marvel Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy is arguably able to distance itself as the one that has cultivated its own identity.

We are nearing the 10th anniversary as well as the rumored end of Robert Downey Jr.’s breakout role in Iron Man, and the aftermath has proven that there are essentially two types of people: those who are going to see every Marvel feature no matter what, and those who lost interest sometime during the past 14 movies (with 8 more scheduled over the next 3 years). Indeed, with so many sequels, characters, and connecting storylines, it now seems so long ago when The Avengers (2012) was one of my favorite films of the year. Yet at this point, like a multi-season TV show, I’m far enough into the Marvel Universe that I plan to stick it out until the ‘finale’ scheduled for 2019.

Despite all of these different subsets of films, Guardians of the Galaxy is arguably able to distance itself as the one that has cultivated its own identity. Playing more like a superhero version of Star Wars, Guardians spins separately from the Avengers characters by making their own rules while still under the Marvel umbrella.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 catches us up to speed with all the characters we met in the original. If you liked Vol. 1, you will certainly like this one: it’s a comforting return to form with all the signatures: zany aliens, jabbing banter, and a great soundtrack. But I’m happy to say that unlike other Marvel sequels, which retread their characters entirely, writer-director James Gunn has found interesting ways to develop each character a bit further. There’s a great rivalry between the heroic Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her mostly villainous sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) that is more at the center of this film than the previous one. Drax (Dave Bautista), a standout from the first film, continues his same brand of humor but with a little more self-awareness. And Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) is impossible not to love. It’s impressive that within this ensemble, each actor brings a freshness to the role while developing their respective character.

…Unlike other Marvel sequels, which retread their characters entirely, writer-director James Gunn has found interesting ways to develop each character a bit further.

Another praiseworthy note is that this universe has a great sense of color. Every alien comes in a variety of bright yellow, blue, and other eye-catching hues, making for a stunning visual much richer than a comparable action/adventure movie. The CGI is present but there are plenty of characters in full make-up and practicals rather than being entirely artificial, and this combination works seamlessly here.

While I was annoyed that the trailer announced Kurt Russell as being Star-Lord aka Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father, Emperor J’son (a fact that seemed like a spoiler), it actually proved more enticing, taking the audience on the journey of their new relationship as a father and son. Like the rest of the ensemble cast, Star-Lord and J’son are given challenges that enhance and further develop their characters. As formulaic and familiar as it all may seem, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is fresh enough for those invested in the Marvel universe. After seeing this installment, I am eagerly anticipating the next time these characters mesh with The Avengers on the big screen.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is rated PG-13. 121 minutes. Opening this Friday in theaters everywhere.