If Guardians of the Galaxy were like a traditional action movie, Star-Lord and his lovable band of oddball heroes could just save the world, crack a few jokes, and send the popcorn-chomping fans on their way.

But Guardians isn’t a traditional action movie. At its core, it’s always been more of a family comedy—albeit a super-powered, $773 million family comedy—which means that unlike other smash-em-up franchises, Guardians can’t just perpetuate itself with louder, shootier set pieces.

Instead, writer/director James Gunn knew that the sequel had to be more inventive, more creative, more uniquely hilarious. The Guardians couldn’t just save the galaxy once more—they had to make us fall in love with them all over again, too. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 pulls it off.

Guardians 2 is a vastly ambitious, ultra-Technicolor-enhanced, raucously funny reprise that will be enormously enjoyable for fans of the original, comic-book aficionados, and newcomers alike. And even if Guardians 2 is a bit messy in sections, and slightly over-ambitious in others, its huge heart and courageous take on family dynamics elevate the Guardians franchise into a singular entry in the superhero canon.

That’s immediately apparent in the genius opening sequence, an oft-teased monster battle soundtracked by Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Without giving too much away, we’ll just say it prominently features Baby Groot (still somehow voiced by Vin Diesel), and that you’ve never seen anything like it.

The movie begins as the core Guardians—Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper)—are handling some dirty work for a some golden-skinned galactic rich kids, collectively led by the monarch Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). Meanwhile, the arrow-whistling Yondu (Michael Rooker) contends with troubles of his own among his Ravager clan, and from the mysterious Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone, in a costume that comic-book fans will recognize).

Just after collecting their bounty in the form of Gamora’s murderous, partially android sister Nebula (a virtually unrecognizable Karen Gillan), the Guardians manage to land themselves on the interstellar wanted list and crash-land into trouble. They’re apparently rescued by an interstellar traveler named Ego (Kurt Russell), who soon reveals to Star-Lord that he’s his long-lost father, and invites Quill, Drax, and Gamora back to his “home planet” along with his companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

That’s about where the movie stays for about half an hour. Without a clear save-the-galaxy imperative from the beginning, Guardians Vol. 2 can feel lost in the doldrums of emotional exposition. A few scenes simply don’t fit together well—the jarring junctions between goofball comedy, soul-searching, and straight-up violence can leave you feeling a little seasick. (One throwaway scene involving Baby Groot is actually hard to watch.)

That structural weakness would probably spoil most other movies, but Guardians Vol. 2 is mercifully saved—over and over again—by phenomenal performances from the cast. Pratt gets plenty of laughs out of an already strong script, but he is especially compelling when he ranges from fraternal bickering to wide-eyed wonder and, ultimately, anguished regret.

If anything, it almost felt like Pratt didn’t get quite enough screentime, and we’re not just saying that because he’s on the cover of Men’s Fitness. Quill’s search for understanding—his sense of abandonment and aloneness—is the primary driving plot through much of Guardians 2.  

Meanwhile, Yondu’s Rocket Raccoon—essentially an amalgam of Cooper’s best Philly accent, an on-set performance from Sean Gunn (the director’s brother, who pulls double duty as Yondu’s sidekick Kraglin), and a huge team of animators—together evolve from a scrappy gadflies into emotive heroes in their own right.

But the movie’s real secret weapon is Drax (and, again, we’re not just saying that because Dave Batista is on the cover of Muscle & Fitness). Previously an ultra-literal lunk, the gung-ho (and nigh-indestructible) hero can deliver laugh lines, physical humor, and surprisingly earnest wisdom with equal aplomb, which is even more impressive when you account for how much makeup they had to slap on Batista every day. And once Drax finds his rhythm with the awkwardly innocent Mantis—she’s even more oblivious than he is—he becomes the perfect example of how Guardians 2 mines its source material for some new laughs, new character evolution, and an even stronger emotional core.

There’s a reason all that emotion is so valuable, and that’s because Guardians 2 is arguably first Marvel movie willing to go beyond shallow thrills and contend with some heavy emotional freight. Guardians 2 understands that being in a family is a series of arguments and reconciliations, punctuated by tectonic upheavals and the emotional eruptions that come with them. Family members fight, they hold grudges, they argue, they sacrifice for each other. In this way, Guardians 2 is actually closer to a Pixar movie like The Incredibles than some superhero flick like The Avengers.

And if you’re not buying it, consider this: After the press screening, an older guy standing in line to return his 3-D glasses admitted he’d bawled his eyes out during the movie’s emotional climax, which is set to Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.” This guy had seen Guardians Vol. 2 with his teenage son, and he just couldn’t help himself. “Father-and-son stuff, man—it gets me every time,” he said.

As for his son?

“Oh, he laughed his ass off.”

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, written and directed by James Gunn and starring Pratt, Bautista, Saldana, Rooker, Russell, Gillan, Klementieff, and Debicki, with voice work from Cooper and Diesel, hits theaters May 5.