Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 beautifully blends sci-fi craziness with an examination of anger, pain, and cycles of abuse.)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is oodles of fun, but it spends its first few scenes articulating a thoughtful mission statement. Its prologue, set 34 years in the past, features a budding romance later revealed to have twisted implications, but the love on display is still real. Following this comes the Guardians’ raucous reintroduction in present day, a battle against an inter-dimensional beast in a scene bursting with visual slepndour. Its out-of-this-world action however, is backgrounded and out of focus. The spotlight instead falls on a joyous Baby Groot, dancing his way through the scene as the other Guardians – Star Lord, Drax, Gamora and Rocket – take turns caring for him as if he were their child. When the Guardians collect their reward for this battle, they stand in contrast to the gilded Sovereign, a homogenous people genetically engineered to be perfect, but a people to whom slights and insults are unforgivable. The Guardians, on the other hand, are a group of broken characters from wildly different origins, but in their case, redemption isn’t off the table.

In short, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about the complicated relationships we rarely confront. It’s told against a backdrop of action and space-opera, but its focus is on a family of imperfect beings, searching for catharsis while helping one another other find some form of redemption. It may very well be Marvel’s most mature film, zeroing in on the emotional complexities of abuse carried forward into adulthood. But it also solidifies the Studio’s new political direction, acting as the first in a trilogy of films (along with Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther) whose narrative is adjacent to colonial history.

Manifest Destiny

Once our Road to Infinity War reached Doctor Strange, it seemed the Marvel Cinematic Universe had begun re-orienting its perspective. Though what was previously subverted as narrative expectation vis-à-vis Western heroism now found itself the key focus, specifically in the form of Kurt Russell’s villainous Ego a.k.a. The Living Planet. His plan, on the surface, is universal destruction, but the specifics of his scheme (and the ways in which he talks about his planting of literal and metaphorical seeds across the cosmos) bring to mind our Imperial past.

Ego doesn’t just want to destroy our universe. He wants to conquer it. He is Manifest Destiny made, well, manifest, reflecting its very tenets in the context of Native American genocide while taking the form of a white man. He considers his colonial conquest to be 1) a function of his innate superiority, 2) a mission to remake the conquered in his own image, and 3) his universally-inspired destiny, with only his Celestial progeny deemed worthy of survival. His palace, like Odin’s in Thor: Ragnarok, is a museum unto his own history, but the statues he uses to tell his story are filled with half-truths.

He did go out in search of other life. He did meet and fall in love with Meredith Quill, and he does in fact love his son. But he also found life itself, and the countless other children he fathered across the cosmos, to be disappointments. Since none of them shared his divinity, he considered them genetically inferior and unable to help him on his mission.

His gilded palace is build on a foundation of bones – that of the countless children he deemed unworthy and who, despite his love for them, were but a means to an end. When that end is threatened thanks to Peter, the first and perhaps only child with Ego’s “superior” genetic traits, he vocalizes his disdainful justification. With the light that burns within them under threat, he reminds Peter of the consequences of snuffing it out: “You’re a god. If you kill me, you’ll be just like everybody else.” It’s this contempt for other beings, this unwillingness to value life and inability to recognize the potential for redemption, that makes Ego the perfect villain for this story; his colonial selfishness is the perfect foil to a future where characters reach across boundaries and help one another.

The flowers Ego planted across the universe begin to bloom. They start to consume and terraform vast array of planets and cultures, as if acting as externalizations of Ego’s very self. Peter however, rejects immortality and Godhood itself, accepting the flaws and failures of the “everybody else” Ego would just as soon wipe out. Because even the mortals who have hurt Peter are still capable of empathy.

In this moment, Ego begins his quest to homogenize existence itself. But it’s in this very moment that Peter taps in to the full potential of his own powers by recalling what separates him from Ego: love. Not unselfish or unconditional love, but love for Yondu, for Rocket, for Gamora and for all the Guardians; the kind of shared love that, over the course of Guardians Vol. 2, has proven to be difficult. And yet, the kind of love that Ego refuses to understand. The universe now depends on this understanding of love, because what hangs in the balance isn’t just existence, but the opportunity to exist imperfectly together.

The Walls of the Broken

The Bradley Cooper-voiced Rocket, the trash-talking, gun-toting Raccoon, helps tie this film together. He rides the line between sarcasm and callousness, often crossing over into the latter when addressing Peter – “Orphan boy” is a hard jab to swallow, regardless of intent – which Peter rightly recognizes as Rocket’s attempt to push people away. Once Rocket is separated from his crew, Michael Rooker’s Yondu explains Rocket’s self-sabotaging tendencies to him, because Yondu recognizes himself in the scrawny cybernetic mammal. They both felt used and discarded, Yondu by his parents who sold him into slavery, and Rocket by the scientists who tore him apart and put him back together, leading to the erecting of emotional walls nearly impossible to penetrate. Any amount of love or proximity to others reminds them of the holes in their hearts.

Yondu and Rocket hurt those closest to them before they have the opportunity to be hurt, but they come to a common understanding when Peter is about to sacrifice himself to save the universe. Yondu, having spent decades acting out against Peter – perhaps in ways that may be tormenting and abusive – finally comes to admit that he cares for him. Yondu kidnapped Peter when he was just a boy, but rather than delivering him to Ego like he was hired to, he kept Peter around. He trained Peter to be a Ravager, teaching him how to shoot and offering tender guidance even amidst threats that his crew would eat him if he didn’t fall in line. A fatherly love marred by Yondu’s own wounds, the kind that prevented him from loving fully and the kind of complicated love that Rocket had for Peter as well.

When Rocket sees Yondu go off to sacrifice himself to save Peter, he believes both men will perish for the greater good. When Gamora tries to go back to save Peter, Rocket stops her for her own safety. As Rocket becomes an inadvertent party to Peter’s sacrifice, he finally realizes what he’s about to lose: a friend.

It takes extreme circumstances for Rocket and Yondu to allow themselves to be vulnerable. When Yondu finally does, Peter is able to finally look up to him as the father figure he always was, despite Yondu arguably paying forward the abuse he himself was dealt as a child. Because ultimately, Yondu still sacrifices himself to save Peter. And, after having pushed away all the other Ravagers with his heinous actions – delivering Ego’s children to him before knowing they’d be slaughtered – word of the disgraced Yondu’s sacrifice reaches their ears. The Ravagers show up to Yondu’s funeral despite the shame he caused them, as he redeems himself in death and proves to Rocket – on whom the film closes – that he’s still capable of being loved.

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