Remember when Marvel comic books were just for kids and socially awkward adults, typically still living with their parents? It’s hard to believe that what was once a niche form of entertainment has exploded into a global phenomenon, dominating the cinema, television, and streaming services. Tuesday marked nine years since the first Iron Man film was released and changed the public’s view of just how good a comic book movie could be. Yesterday marked five years since the release of The Avengers, which featured beloved characters from previous Marvel films coming together in a way never before seen on film, but now widely imitated. While directors like Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon (and certainly president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige) blazed a bold new trail in the world of superhero movies, no director of a Marvel film has shaken things up as much as James Gunn and his Guardians of the Galaxy films. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 hits theaters today, and has set a new standard when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The first Guardians film was a huge hit with audiences largely due to the explosive action, interesting characters, and irreverent humor that had not yet been seen in a Marvel movie. While Vol. 2 features even more heart pounding action, and loads more wit, it also features a lot more emotion and heart than its predecessor. In fact, if there’s one theme that runs amid the beautifully crafted fight scenes and laugh out loud comedy, it’s family. Not just the cosmic paternity that Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) has searched his entire life for, but also the deep interpersonal relationships that develop between the characters; no matter how unlikely the pairing may be. Of course, there’s the subtle romantic tension between Quill and Gamora (Zoe Saldana); there’s the paternal bond between Quill and his father, Ego (Kurt Russell); conflict between Gamora and her newly returned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan); a growing rivalry between Quill and Rocket (Bradley Cooper); hints at a failed father/son relationship between Quill and his mentor, Yondu (Michael Rooker); an unlikely bond between Rocket and Yondu; a change in the dynamic between Rocket and Groot (Vin Diesel) since the latter’s near death experience in the last film. While some of these interpersonal relationships were hinted at in the first film, the interactions between characters becomes a lot more meaningful and the characters are more fleshed out in the latest film. Of course, there are some new, closely guarded family members that audiences will have to discover when seeing the movie.

It may be hard to believe, but there’s a lot more comedy in Vol. 2, as well. Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is a big comedic presence in the second film, due – in part – to audience’s response to his hilarious misunderstanding of metaphors that was set up in the first film. Gunn has done a fantastic job of utilizing Drax’s deadpan humor, which seems to parallel a subtle softening of his “Destroyer” reputation following the murder of his wife and child. Of course, audiences knew from the get go that Baby Groot would also be a tremendously adorable change from the first film, and even some of the film’s characters realize he’s “too cute to kill.” Even with all his cuteness, Baby Groot still stands out as one of the most comical characters in the film, and Gunn does a terrific job of contrasting his tiny, infantile stature to all the action and fighting going on around him.

In addition to seeing more of the characters that audiences have come to adore, fans will be treated to more of the titular “Galaxy” that the heroes have been tasked to defend. They’ll get to see the Sovereign: a race of golden, snooty aliens who attempt to destroy the Guardians at every turn. The Ravagers – seen in the first film, led by Yondu – get more of a backstory in the second film, and audiences will notice some pretty recognizable celebrities playing Yondu’s old partners. In terms of sheer beauty, however, audiences are sure to be blown away by the scenery of Ego’s home planet. Creating original, alien worlds is no small task for a filmmaker, but Gunn has crafted the most stunning CGI environment since Avatar. Lush, vibrant colors combine with daringly original flora and fauna to create a landscape unlike anything seen before. In fact, the planet is so beautiful, this is a rare case in support of seeing the 3D version of the film.

There’s no doubt that Guardians of the Galaxy remains a great film. It was ahead of its time, and took some daring chances in areas of film that are usually left alone in order to top the box office. It’s safe to say, however, that Vol. 2 is an improvement of the first in nearly every way. Despite so many new and exciting characters, the sequel gives them depth and makes them more compelling, instead of bogging down the rest of the movie. Even the way the characters interact with each other is more interesting, as they develop deep bonds that allow for more emotion and conflict. The action is bigger and more complex, including a climatic fight scene that will have audiences on the edge of their seats. Most importantly, there’s more heart than audiences normally see in comic book movies. To watch the heroes drift apart and come together again in the face overwhelming odds makes their characters, mission, and battles all the more worthwhile. Find showtimes and tickets for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 here.