I have a strange history with the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. When the first film came out in the summer of 2014, I was completely taken in by it and willfully ignored the friends who told me it was bad – until I watched it one time too many and veritable scales fell from my eyes. Now it is that oddest of anomalies: a Marvel movie I like less than Josh Gibbs.
I loathed Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 when I saw it on opening night in 2017, but with time, my opinions of the two films have reversed. After deeply enjoying Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange the previous year, Vol. 2 set my disillusionment with Marvel in motion with the fullest expression of an ethos that would animate all their subsequent films. Paradoxically, though, by embodying that flawed ethos so fully, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 becomes its richest, deepest, most spirited expression – and while I find its moral vision lacking in key ways, I also find it a more admirable film than most of its peers.
A few years ago, I argued that Avengers: Age of Ultron encapsulated Marvel’s moral vision thus: “the value of human life trumps every ideology.” I meant it as a good thing, but the absence of ideology has come to define Marvel films in a deeply worrisome way. (See my discussion with Robert Brown on this theme.) Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 encapsulates the way this vision evolves to an extreme in which empathy trumps ideals – a non-ethos that accounts for the moral hollowness of Marvel’s subsequent films.
The similarities between Ultron and Vol. 2 don’t stop there. Vol. 2 is to the first Guardians as Ultron is to the first Avengers – messier and clumsier, but more interesting, mature, and better in just about every respect. More than their predecessors, these sequels are the work of directors with unique visions (James Gunn and Joss Whedon, respectively). They’re more sprawling, idiosyncratic, and ambitious, with complex ideas on their minds and real emotions in their hearts. When they’re bad, they’re worse – but when they’re good, they’re better in a way few Marvel movies can compete with.
Where Whedon used comic book conceits to explore philosophy, Gunn is more interested in giving larger-than-life expression to psychological concepts. And where Friedrich Nietzsche was a key reference point for Whedon, Gunn turns his eye on Sigmund Freud.
Let’s begin, as the film does, with baby Groot. The opening credits, in which the minute sapling dances to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while a massive battle rages colorfully in the background, sets the tone – which is to say it’s somewhere between cloying, overbearing, and genuinely creative. Most of all, it is – very defiantly – itself. (It’s also become an internet meme.) In the first film, Groot (Vin Diesel) was the hulking moral center of our ragtag group of heroes, a gentle soul who saved the others with a climactic self-sacrifice and platitudes about friendship. Here, Groot once again clues us into the film’s thematic interests. Regenerated as an infant who the others must care for, his presence will – or ought to – prompt these childish characters to grow up and act like responsible adults. Vol. 2 is profoundly concerned with parenthood, but it is ultimately a bleak film, one that presents convincingly disturbing visions of parental failure more than positive, redemptive counterpoints. It is a story about children who long for the approval of their parents, but are driven to lash out at them and push them away (often with good reason).
Sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) are physically and emotionally scarred by the actions of their father, Thanos. Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) is a genetic experiment traumatized by the inhumanity of the scientists who created him. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a father bereaved of wife and child. Most centrally, the plot revolves around Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who lost his mother to cancer in the prologue of the first film and now meets his absent father, Ego (Kurt Russell).
In one particularly mean-spirited sequence, the Ravagers, a gang of space pirates, terrorize and abuse little Groot. The petulant and malicious Ravagers are essentially a band of Lost Boys, and it comes as no surprise that overgrown children make for poor parents. At the other extreme is the Sovereign, a repressive alien regime that genetically breeds its progeny “exactly as designed by the community.” The name Ego suggests a Freudian theme, and it is not hard to see this trio of tyrannical parents along such lines: the Ravagers are the id and the Sovereign is the superego. (The consistent phallic-themed humor, while abrasive, also evinces Gunn’s interest in Freud.)
The Ravagers and the Sovereign are, to various degrees, lacking parents: Sovereign citizens are created asexually, in “birthing pods,” while the Ravagers are rebels who have either abandoned or been abandoned by authority figures. Ego, on the other hand, is a being who simply sprang into existence out of a void, a being who created himself out of nothing. He quite literally has no parents. His solution to this crushing loneliness is to reach out to the rest of reality – and then, finding it “disappointing,” to emotionally detach from all things and absorb them into himself in a bid for complete, radical self-sufficiency: “I need to fulfill life’s one true purpose: to grow and spread, covering all that exists, until everything is me.” He explains this philosophy to Peter, his progeny, by interpreting the lyrics of “Brandy,” by Looking Glass:“We’re the sailor in that song… The sea calls the sailor back. He loves the girl, but that’s not his place. The sea calls upon him as history calls great men. And sometimes we are deprived the pleasures of mortals.”
This conversation occurs immediately after Peter has a fight with Gamora. Instead of repenting and reconciling, Ego tempts Peter to justify his uncharitable selfishness, arguing that a higher calling necessitates the abandonment of one’s earthly attachments. When Peter resists the idea of separating from his friends, Ego replies: “That’s the mortal in you… We are beyond such things.”
The entire film is, thematically and literally, about overcoming one’s ego – a direct extension of Doctor Strange’s thesis, “It’s not about you.” The characters are defined by trauma, and although they outwardly run from their past wounds, they are also clinging to them as if their suffering is what makes them unique and justifies their failures to grow and mature. Their fixation on their own tragic backstories prevents them from connecting with others. Peter pushes Gamora away because of his obsession with his father; Nebula longs for Gamora’s sisterly love, but repeatedly tries to kill her because of their past rivalry. Rocket hides his emotional vulnerability underneath resentment and causticity. Ego’s arrival quite literally separates the heroes, whose relationships were already fracturing, and it is only by defeating Ego – and ego – that they can reunite.
What brings the characters back together is the realization that suffering, far from making them unique, is what they have in common. “We’re the same,” Yondu (Michael Rooker) tells Rocket. It is no accident that Ego is contrasted with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an “empath” who can feel others’ feelings. To move forward, every character in the film must overcome his or her ego to empathize with others, and the final exchange between Peter and Ego underlines this point. “You are a god,” Ego pleads. “If you kill me, you’ll be just like everybody else.” Peter replies: “What’s so wrong with that?”
Ego’s name, then, is well chosen, as is the brain imagery that surrounds him. He is trapped in his own mind, only able to view others as objects, and he justifies this solipsism to himself as a form of heroism. “It is a tremendous responsibility,” he tells Peter. “Only we can remake the universe. Only we can take the bridle of the cosmos and lead it to where it needs to go.” This grandiose delusion prevents Ego from entering into a loving relationship with another person. Indeed, love threatens his plan to absorb the universe into himself, and he admits that he killed Peter’s mother because of the danger his love for her posed: “The Expansion, the reason for my very existence, would be over. So, I did what I had to do. But it broke my heart to put that tumor in her head.” Fittingly, Ego – a giant brain, a mind who cannot accept the subjectivity of another mind – kills Peter’s mother with brain cancer. (Peter reacts to this revelation by completing the film’s Freudian drama, killing his father because of love for his mother.)
Ego chooses his head over his heart, but Peter chooses the opposite path. “I don’t use my head to fly the arrow,” Yondu tells him. “I use my heart.” Peter is able to use Ego’s godlike powers for good when he draws on his love for others, thinking of special moments shared with his friends.
Yet there is something dissatisfying about the way Gunn opposes heads to hearts. It is true that men commit terrible cruelties when driven by misguided ideals, but Gunn offers no good ideals as counterpoints to Ego’s bad ones. Disturbingly, the language of religion is always associated with the villains in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. The Sovereign is led by a “High Priestess” and Ego is likened to a “god.” (George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” accompanies his entrance.) The overall effect is to suggest that there are no ideals or higher purposes worth aspiring to. It is only Ego who uses the language of transcendence: “You cannot deny the purpose the universe has bestowed upon you… What greater meaning can life possibly have to offer?”
Gunn locates meaning in the group of friends who form a makeshift family, but this vague sense of togetherness fails to register as a compelling vision of goodness to oppose Ego’s vivid evil. Peter’s vision of a good father is someone who “goes on kick-ass adventures” and “hooks up with hot women” – better than a genocidal maniac, I suppose, but still not much to aspire to. The Guardians of the Galaxy films are not just films about adolescence: they are adolescent films, with an adolescent understanding of the world.
Yet there is one unlikely character who demonstrably matures over the film’s runtime – who takes responsibility for his mistakes, inspires others to better themselves, and dies well. Yondu is first introduced in a kind of alien brothel, looking gloomily out a window while his cyborg courtesan powers down. Rooker’s sad eyes convey volumes about the dissatisfaction of a life wasted on selfish indulgence, and the scene’s air of quiet melancholy is a striking contrast with the rest of the film’s frenetic, slapdash nature. Against all odds, by the end of Vol. 2, Yondu has become a responsible adult and a good father figure, who admits his faults and empties himself for his son. “[Ego] may have been your father, boy,” he tells Peter, “But he wasn’t your daddy… I’m sorry I didn’t do none of it right. I’m damn lucky you’re my boy.”
Yondu’s death prompts the Guardians to realize that, instead of pushing each other away because of their traumas, it is precisely through the mending of wounds that they should come together. Yondu’s old comrades in arms, who abandoned him for his moral failures, return for his funeral. Gamora and Nebula embrace; Rocket sheds a tear. Instead of shouldering his grief alone, Peter shares an earphone with Groot as he listens to Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” an ode to the self-sacrificial nature of fatherhood:Now there’s a way and I know That I have to go away I know I have to go…