Life and death, frustration and loss..for a fun family film, Guardians of the Galaxy starts off with a a heavy tone that’s quite the contrast to the otherwise rollicking soundtrack. Are the young Peter Quill’s headphones and upbeat classic rock a metaphor for modern entertainment, as it medicates us and mutes some of the harsh realities of life? Does the boy’s hesitation, fear of a vulnerable moment with mom, make him miss a critical moment of intimate connection and development? A light from the sky whisks him away into a larger world, and a familiar hero’s journey begins.
Director James Gunn manages to take an age-old formula, in a shared MCUniverse, and find a fresh life in it that captures some of the space fantasy fun we experienced in 1977 with the first Star Wars film. Robert Downey Junior has been quoted as saying it’s the best Marvel movie yet, and my wife’s love of Rocket makes it rank pretty high in our household. So many disparate parts coming together reminds me of the eclectic mish-mash that comprised Kick-Ass, a comic book movie that shouldn’t work but somehow hit on all cylinders. When it comes to Guardians of the Galaxy a lot of people, like the song says, are “hooked on a feeling”.
“Legendary” Star Loser
Under the skin, the movie provides us with a very prodigal protagonist: Quill didn’t leave earth voluntarily, but his time with mercenary ne’er-do-wells has left him adrift…friendless, causeless, and cut from the Han Solo/Malcom Reynolds cloth. His acquisition of the orb in the opening might reminds us a bit of Indiana Jones, but – unlike Indy – this temple isn’t raided because the object “belongs in a museum”. There isn’t even a Wookie companion for this space pirate, just a rotating array of one night stands and a seemingly selfish sustenance.
“I was only a kid when I left Earth, and I had no idea what the universe had in store for me.”
The film finds the self-proclaimed Star Lord at the moment in life when he finds family and focus. More than that, he encounters other individuals with distinct traits that embody different lessons, brought together in a way that takes them from individuality to a unit: in a tradition Joss Whedon has made famous with Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Avengers, etc. we see his friend James Gunn give us another “made family”.
Peter’s growth, from loner to leader, includes seeing and learning from the other characters brought along in the wake of the orb quest. In his journey, he sees:
A Mask of Bitterness
“You just want to laugh at me like everyone else!”
One of the people – if you can call Rocket a person – to cross paths with Peter Quill is the genetically modified Raccoon millions now know and love. Cynical and self-serving, he’s a darker mercenary than Peter only tempered (perhaps rooted?) by his more honorable friend Groot.
There’s a key moment in the film where the tiny bounty hunter is drunk, and rages about how he was experimented on painfully, abused physically and verbally. We can see his mask, like rings around raccoon eyes: he’s fostered a defensive attitude that has long since become part of his identity. When the raving CGI animal chokes back tears, we see his gruff facade for what it is: a root of bitterness that has festered since before he could even speak, the sins of a universe that share some responsibility for making him the “man” he is today.
This doesn’t absolve Rocket of his bomb-bastic shortcomings, but we understand why he’s part of an ongoing cycle of the abused becoming abusers.
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” – Ephesians 4:31
Do not say, “I’ll pay you back for this wrong!” Wait for the LORD, and he will avenge you. – Proverbs 20:22
Meeting Drax in prison provides another partner for the going-to-be-Guardians gang. This man has all the bitterness, anger and frustration of Rocket, but instead of a shotgun blast of frustration, he’s a sniper pointed toward a singular goal. Instead of lashing out at the world in general, he sees the remedy to all that pain in vengeance…against the one who hurt him so egregiously by destroying his family. The problem with this, of course, is that he becomes a destroyer, and while others may not be his aim, he has little regard for his fellow beings and sees others as obstacles in his path.
“You’re right. I was a fool. All that anger. All that rage. It just covered my loss.”
End of the day, his way is no better than Rocket’s. He needs a better reason to live.
Risk for Redemption
“It’s time we stand up for what is right.”
The first future-guardian he meets on Xandar is Gamora, a woman who has been clearly working for the forces of evil and is at a point where the space straw has broken the alien camel’s back. Her conscience has been awakened, at least to the point of defying her dark father Thanos and seeking to prevent him from destroying worlds. Because of her past she’s cursed at, spit upon, and no one trusts her. Peter sees…well, he sees a hot chick, but he also comes to understand she’s someone with a moral compass he’s been sorely lacking.
Atonement for her past, however, is not something she seems to be able to achieve on her own. She needs help, and they all need…
Each character shows Peter Quill – and the viewer – some obvious pitfalls, from scattershot rage to the folly of vengeance and a struggle to turn from following evil to following good. No one serves better, however, than Groot, who enfolds the entire group in a family tree, providing protection as they literally go through the fires of death. None of these characters are whole, but they become something much closer when they expose one another’s faults and together comprise the parts needed to truly be Guardians of the Galaxy.
“For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die…” – Romans 5:7
I even like how the prison lineup shows them all standing apart, individual…while the other promos show them walking together, or facing outward so they have each other’s back.
A Heavenly father?
The film opens with the proclamation that Peter’s father was an “angel” and we learn that the stand-in human we identify with is more than “mundane”. Doubtless in the sequels we’ll meet daddy, and he’ll fall short of being true angel or god (much like Odin in Thor). Still, the film leaves us with the mark of something greater inside Peter, an otherworldly destiny, and we bring that ultimate monomyth to a high-flying close. Without actually posing the questions, it assumes certain things about life, and about us:
- Why should we rise above bitter cynicism and self-serving interests, avoid cheaper satisfactions like revenge, and live lives that seek to redeem our mistakes and sacrifice for others?
- Without a higher father, a birth with purpose, and objective morality…why not just keep careening through the ‘verse with a cavalier attitude for one’s own cash and glory? Why not just be a disciple of the Yondu school?
- Why is a random-chance galaxy even worth guarding?
Guardians of the Galaxy teases at a noble birth, greater purpose, and the recognition that we achieve this amidst a designed and destined community, a family forged by fire with direction and victorious destination.
For some of us, this is not so much fantasy after all. It’s there…if you’re just able to see it.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world… for adoption…In him we have redemption…forgiveness… in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose…to unite all things in him. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things…who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. – Ephesians 1:3-14