The Walls of Broken Men

Rocket, the trash-talking, gun-toting Raccoon, rides a fine line between sarcasm and callousness, often crossing over into the latter when addressing Quill. “Orphan boy” is a hard pill to swallow regardless of intent, an insult Quill rightly recognizes as Rocket’s attempt to push people away.

This Quill is more self-aware than his prior incarnation. Having “reached out” and accepted other people’s love, he comes to represent a more mature perspective — perhaps Gunn’s own, as he looks back on his own desire to stand out through juvenile jabs and “edgy” insults. The film empathizes with Rocket, and even closes with his own “take my hand moment (a la Quill’s realization in the first Guardians of the Galaxy), thus making Rocket a centerpiece in this tale of wallowing in one’s worst impulses.  

Once the Guardians are separated, Yondu verbalizes Rocket’s knee-jerk, self-sabotaging tendencies, because he recognizes himself in the vulgar racoon. Both characters feel used and discarded — Yondu, by parents who sold him into slavery, and Rocket, by scientists who tore him apart — leading to them erecting hyper-masculine emotional walls, nearly impossible to penetrate. Any amount of love or proximity to others leads to emotional outburst; they hurt those closest to them before they can be hurt themselves.

However, they eventually come to a common understanding, when Quill is about to sacrifice himself to save the universe. Yondu, having spent decades acting out against Quill — in ways that are arguably emotionally abusive — finally comes to admit that he cares for him like a son. Yondu kidnapped Quill when he was just a boy, but rather than delivering him to the murderous Ego, he kept Quill around to save his life, though he claims it was because he needed a scrawny thief for all those hard-to-reach places.

Yondu raised Quill to be a Ravager, teaching him to shoot and offering tender guidance, even amidst threats that his crew would eat him if he failed. That we don’t see these tender moments until Quill is forced to tap into them is a fitting choice for the edit; both Quill and Yondu are the type to bury their emotions deep down; they’ve been conditioned to do so. Yondu’s affection is fatherly, but it’s marred by his own wounds. The kind of wounds that prevent him from loving fully.

This is the kind of complicated love Rocket also harbours for Quill. When Yondu leaves to sacrifice himself for Quill, Rocket believes both men will perish. When Gamora tries to rescue Quill, Rocket stops her for her own safety. As Rocket becomes inadvertent party to Quill’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, Quill is able to look up to him as the father figure Yondu always hoped he could be, despite Yondu paying forward the abuse he himself was dealt as a child. As much as Yondu’s story seems like one of redemption, it’s also a tragedy; not only because he dies, but because it takes being on death’s door for him to admit he was wrong. Quill, whether or not he can come to terms with how he was treated as a child, comes to a greater understanding of who Yondu was, and who he wanted to be.

After pushing the Ravagers away with his heinous actions (delivering Ego’s children before knowing they’d be slaughtered), word of the once-disgraced Yondu travels far. Upon hearing of his noble sacrifice, the Ravagers show up to Yondu’s funeral despite the pain he caused them. He redeems himself in death, and proves to Rocket — on whom the film closes — that he’s still capable of being loved.

Anger, Paid Forward

Yondu is one of three complicated, abusive fathers in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but he’s the only one who’s redeemed in any narrative sense. The second is Ego, whose genuine love for Quill and his mother is superseded by selfish desire. The third, Thanos, is never seen in this film, though the full scope of his paternal complications in Avengers: Infinity War (in which he kills a daughter he loves for a twisted “greater good”) are planted here.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a strange franchise compared to its contemporaries. While going from one installment to the next, it turns not one, but two of its villains into empathic heroes. The first, Yondu, is a father who pays forward the same pain he was dealt, but ultimately leans toward love. He finds a shred of redemption through sacrifice, regardless of whether or not his past actions are forgiven — even Quill has a hard time articulating his feelings at Yondu’s funeral.

The second reformed villain is Nebula (Karen Gillan), whose own story involves an abusive father (Thanos, who pays his own pain forward as well). Despite Thanos’ one prior on-screen appearance — three, if you count post-credits scenes — nothing about the Mad Titan was particularly fleshed out. That is, until Nebula first speaks of why she resents him.

Like, Ego, Thanos is a father for whom redemption seems out of the question. As children, Nebula and her sister Gamora were repeatedly set against one another in battle. The winner was hardened through survival. The loser had a body part replaced by machine. Gamora was usually the victor, but both sisters were molded into warriors regardless.

They were both also loyal to their father well into adulthood. Instead of rebelling against Thanos, one of the most powerful beings in the universe, Nebula and Gamora turned their resentment on one another, as abused siblings are sometimes wont to do. They see each other as the cause of their pain, and while they reconcile by the end of the film, both sisters (Nebula especially) still hold on to their anger. Though now, as they part ways after reconciling, they have a more useful place to direct their rage, given their oncoming fight with Thanos.

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