Anger, Paid Foward

Yondu is one of three complicated, arguably abusive fathers in Guardians Vol. 2, but he’s the only one who’s redeemed in any sense. The second is Ego, whose genuine love is superseded by selfish desire. The third is never seen on screen, at least in this film, though we’re likely to see the full scope of his paternal complications in Avengers: Infinity War. That third father is none other than Thanos, whose own quest for universal domination will bring him face to face with his adopted daughters. 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 his daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan) first speaks of why she resents him.

Guardians of the Galaxy is an odd 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 towards love. He finds a shred of redemption through sacrifice, regardless of whether or not his past actions were forgiven – even Peter has a tough time articulating his feelings at Yondu’s funeral.

The second former villain is Nebula, whose own story involves an abusive father (one potentially paying his pain forward as well), though a father for whom redemption seems out of the question. As children, Nebula and her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana) 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, with both daughters being molded into warriors regardless, but they were both also loyal to Thanos until the events of the first film – as their four siblings, The Black Order, appear to be in Infinity War.

Instead of rebelling against Thanos, one of the most powerful beings in the universe, Nebula and Gamora turned their resentment against one another as many abused siblings 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) seem to still be holding on to their anger. Though now, as they part ways, they have a better place to put that anger as they head off on their own roads to fighting Thanos.

The film never justifies the angry, occasionally violent ways in which the characters act out. Whether Yondu’s threats to a vulnerable child, or Nebula continuously trying to kill Gamora, or Rocket’s hurtful jabs. But it most certainly empathizes. James 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 hard to process, often resulting in anger directed elsewhere. Sometimes these abusive elements are hard to recognize when they’re masked by love, like Ego’s manipulation of Peter as they play catch for the first time. Sometimes genuine love is buried deep down beneath hardened, hypermasculine exteriors, like Yondu’s refusal to open up to a boy he so clearly considered a son. Regardless of whether it should or shouldn’t be, loving is often hard when the ways in which you’ve loved have caused you pain; cycles of violence and abuse can hurt us in ways that make us hurt those we care about. But it doesn’t have to stay this 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. Gamora learns to accept Nebula as her sister despite a violent past neither one can change. Rocket learns that he’s still worthy of being loved despite his actions, and Peter even embraces a baby Groot to Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son,” having learned the complicated nature of the road ahead if he’s to lead this family.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may be a weird, hilarious action movie filled to the brim with Marvel Easter Eggs – from The Watchers, to the “original” Guardians from the year 3000 to Howard The Duck – but it’s grounded in the kind of human drama we rarely get to see in movies of any size. Rather than as metaphor, it tells direct stories of broken characters trying to be better together. Some of those characters are broken in ways familiar to us on this side of the screen, but the Guardians don’t stay broken. The road to fixing themselves is a long one, a journey they’ve only just begun to take, but a journey they’re taking it together.

The film 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 is, and no matter how much he pushes people away, he’ll still be loved at his funeral.

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