The Long Road to Change

The film never endorses the angry, occasionally violent manners in which its characters lash out — Yondu’s threats to a vulnerable child, Nebula trying to kill Gamora, Rocket’s hurtful jabs — but it most certainly empathizes with them. Gunn’s superhero family saga understands the real-world complexities of parental love and abuse, things that, while far from ideal, often go hand in hand. They leave long-lasting emotional scars which can be difficult to process, often resulting in anger directed elsewhere.

Sometimes these abusive elements are hard to recognize, especially when they’re masked by love — like Ego’s manipulation of Quill as they play catch for the first time, filling a hole in Quill’s heart. Sometimes the opposite is true, with genuine love being buried deep down beneath hardened masculine exteriors, like Yondu’s refusal to open up to a boy he so clearly loved as a son. Regardless of whether it should be, love is often difficult when the ways in which you have loved, or have been loved, have caused you pain.

Cycles of violence and abuse can hurt us in ways that make us, in turn, hurt those we care about. Though it doesn’t have to stay that way. By the end of the film, the Guardians begin to recognize how they can be better; Drax learns to be kinder to Mantis, in his own way (the Guardians films leave much to be desired when it comes to the insults hurled at women); Gamora learns to accept Nebula as her sister, despite a violent past that neither one can fix; Rocket learns that he’s still worthy of being loved, despite his actions; Quill even embraces baby Groot to Cat Stevens’ Father and Son, having learned first-hand the complicated nature of building and caring for a family, when the love in one’s past is so intrinsically tied to one’s pain.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a weird, hilarious action movie filled to the brim with Marvel Easter Eggs — from Stan Lee and The Watchers, to the “original” Guardians from the year 3000 — but it’s grounded in the kind of human drama we rarely see in movies of this scale. Rather than disguising its themes under layers of alien metaphor, the film tells direct stories of broken characters trying to be better together.

For Yondu, Nebula and Rocket, their abuse manifest as hardened mechanical parts, threatening to make them more Sovereign-like and less human. But the Guardians decide not to stay broken, even if their emotional scars aren’t fully healed by the end of the film. The road to fixing themselves is a long one, a journey they’ve only just begun to take, but it’s a journey they’re taking together.

The film, a mash-up of space opera and intimate drama, is best summed up by its final shot: a close up on a trash-talking, gun-toting cybernetic Racoon, shedding a tear because he realizes that no matter how broken he thinks he is, and no matter how much he pushes people away in anger, he’ll still be loved at his funeral.

***

Expanded from an article published April 20, 2018.

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