The first Guardians of the Galaxy film proved to be a wonderfully entertaining and enjoyable ride, and thankfully the sequel (for the most part) follows suit. If you enjoyed the first film, the second film essentially gives us more of it, even finding a way to make it all a little bit bigger and slightly more bombastic. Once again, the fate of the entire universe is on the line, and the added running time allows us to move beyond the origins story and deeper into a more developed mythology.
The film’s general lack of reference to the greater MCU might be a bit surprising given just how universal the scope actually becomes, but there is little question that Guardians fits incredibly well as a Marvel film, especially when one measures these characters and themes against the stories of the other superhero franchises that precede it:
- Tony Stark’s prevailing arrogance, cynicism and addiction being turned into an opportunity to become a father figure to others.
- Thor’s own god-like status embracing the vulnerability of being human.
- Steve Rogers “stuck in the past” persona and old fashioned values being used to help lead the Avengers into a more united future with a strident moral compass.
- The Guardians…
In Guardians, we have this unlikely group of misfits arriving from different corners of the galaxy who must learn to put aside their differences in order to work together to save the universe. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that each of these characters is dealing with some level of hurt and rejection from their past. Underneath the surface of their rather rough exteriors, they are simply looking for a place to belong, to be accepted for who they are. But what holds them back from finding this in each other is their inability to express, and even to understand, the feelings surrounding their past.
It is here that we also meet Ego, who is presented as a personification of the very thing that threatens to keep each of these characters apart. For Ego, his end game is to make himself the centre of the universe, and he looks to see this happen with little care for what this might do to the lives of everyone around him. He is the very representation of what it means to be self-serving. More than this though, Ego also happens to be Quill’s father, a father who just so happened to abandon his son all those years ago. Ego’s failure to be there for Quill becomes the lens through which we interpret not only Quill’s emotional baggage, but each of the other characters as well.
And so, for as much as Ego is out to destroy the universe, the film is most interested in how the rest of the cast are determined on destroying themselves. In each case, these characters are shown to be their own worst enemy, and to save the universe they are going to have to find the courage to face their “deepest, darkest secrets” together. Where Ego looks to make it all (literally, all) about him, they must learn what it means to put each other before themselves. This is what it means for them to become the family they never had in their childhood. And in a rather weird way (I think it is intentional), Baby Groot becomes the one in the film that helps the team to see this. We watch as they all unite around something other than themselves by caring for and protecting Baby Groot together, even as the hurt and the chaos continues to reign in the background.
In Guardians, the idea of being rejected for who you are is used to explore the question of accepting one another for who they are, because that is what family does. Even further, it explores the question of accepting ourselves for who we are as well. It is an exploration that moves us beyond the tainted blood of their broken pasts and absentee parental figures- and much blood is spilled in this film in a non-graphic way to symbolize this- and towards the idea that family is actually who they are becoming together over the course of the film.
What tore the Avengers apart in Civil War is given a powerful exclamation point (or two or three) in Guardians 2, and it all culminates in what I feel is one of the more powerful moments in an MCU film to date. It is a heart-wrenching scene that sees one character choose to demonstrate what it means to be a true father figure to the rest of them. This character chooses to sacrifice their own life so that the others might have a chance at life and redemption, and it is choice that pulls all of the active themes of rejection, forgiveness, redemption, love and relationship to the surface. It is in this moment that they truly come to realize what they have found in each other, that rather than allow Ego to convince them that they don’t matter and don’t belong in the universe, they can come to know that they in-fact do.
Shifting Our Perspective
What hits home for me in Guardians 2 is that this narrative is never overpowered by the individual bravado or skill of a single hero. These are characters who act as a collective, demonstrating what it means to embrace true humility in the face of immense adversity. They show us that it is often the enemy hidden within that ends up being the most powerful and most relevant threat that we will likely battle in our own lives as well. Gunn does an amazing job of honing these important themes out of the humour and the silliness of the film at large (and the theatre I was in managed to laugh through the entire film), and the opening scene is a perfect example of how he chooses to do this in his own, unconventional way. Here Gunn has the Guardians fighting a seemingly large and dangerous monster in the background while the camera focuses our perspective in on the small, insignificant (but very cute and funny) Baby Groot, who simply dances around seemingly oblivious to what is going on around him. It is a brilliant scene that not only outlines why Baby Groot becomes a significant figure in the later moments of the film, but reveals the desire of Gunn to use these sort of choices in direction to shift our perspective towards this unique relationship between the introspection and the chaos.
The God-Human Relationship
Which brings me to a final thought on Guardians of the Galaxy 2. For as galactic in scope as the film is, what becomes clear in the Ego versus Guardians story is the question of the God-Human relationship. There is a moment in the film where Ego is asked if he is a God. He laughs, and goes on to suggest he is a small “g” god. It is a momentary piece of dialogue that effectively causes us to stop and wonder just where the line between “god” and “human” begins and ends. It challenges our perception of what we should aspire towards- to become- more god-like, or to become more human, and what this looks like on either end.
Now, it should come as no surprise that the question of the God-Human relationship would come up in a superhero film. The Superhero, after all, is often referred to as our own “modern mythology”, and there are many points in which these modern folktales intersect with and borrow from the storytelling methods of the ancients. For the ancients, telling these stories, these myths, were the means by which they could begin to understand the mystery of the world around them. They were the means by which they could begin to understand themselves. And as myths, the natural and supernatural were often intertwined, seen as one in the same.
Modern myth tends to use these ancient stories as a means of expressing our own modern experience, the questions that are important to us, and while a story like Thor might be a bit more intimately bound to its ancient source (given that it flows straight out of Norse Mythology), in a story like Guardians, the more loosely creative mythological elements tends to be ripe with current political, religious and social commentary. So, when a film like this speaks of “god”, it tends to say something very specific our societies current relationship with the idea of God and small “g” gods in general.
The God of Ego
In Guardians 2, I found Ego to represent much of what some modern writers (and readers) have come to fear about religion. He might describe himself as a small “g” god, but he demonstrates all the tell-tale signs of the big “G” God in popular perception (at least in Western society). We see Ego looking to destroy the universe and rebuild it “in his own image”. We see him assuming that the universe is bad and must become about him and him alone in order to be made good. He alone is worthy of the attention and worship of the created universe, and Ego shows little concern for what ultimately might get sacrificed along the way to achieving this goal.
Now, I have no idea whether James Gunn was using Ego as a commentary on God and religion, but I couldn’t help but see the commentary in the story he creates. And what is perhaps most interesting thing for me about the way Ego is developed into a small “g” God for me is that the first time we meet Ego (in a gorgeously shot flashback on earth) it seems to reveal him as someone who actually struggles with what is right and what is wrong in light of these choices. The reality of his relationship with Quill’s mother suggests that, in some sense, he actually did love her, but this doesn’t stop him from destroying the thing that he loves in order to achieve his greater purpose. The same suggestion resurfaces again when he comes face to face with the idea of having to give up his only son later in the film. We are given hints that, for as much as Ego’s plan will end up leaving him alone in the universe, as a small “g” god he struggles with the idea of being alone in the universe he is recreating.
At his worst in this film, the god that Ego represents is the idea one in which the godly ambition he aspires towards in remaking the universe in his image is self-serving and corrupt at its ideological and metaphorical core. For Quill to believe what he is doing is right and to blindly (which is symbolic in the film) follow Ego towards this same goal (as his only son), requires him to give himself over to a fabrication or twisting of the truth. This new relationship with his father might feel like a real family, but it is not a family at all. And when we come to see Ego (or God, in a more general sense for us as viewers) for who he really is, we find out that this twisting of the truth is also what hampers us in our own blind religiosity and devotion to the idea of God as the greater good. This is not the image one should aspire to made in.
Needless to say, it all feels incredibly messy, traveling an exasperated line between this notion of attaining godly perfection (and our need for a 2 inches tall saviour to show us the way to this perfection) and human fallibility. And I can’t help but feel that the ultimate message it portrays is that we don’t really need god at all.
A More Modern Perspective
If this all sounds close to modern criticism of organized religion and religious ideology, it is because it very much is. This is where the story of the god in this film connects to the (perceived) older, outdated mythology of the ancients. Ideas that once were accepted as true (in a less enlightened society) are now being exposed (at their worst) as dangerous, irrational delusions that must be necessarily purged from our popular (and intellectual) vernacular of every day life, or else somehow redeemed (at their most helpful) as metaphors for the human experience.
Where a good film misses the mark…
Mythology has always been concerned with mystery. It has always wondered about the unknown. These are the stories we tell in order to explain the unexplainable. They help us to put into words what we often don’t have words to describe, to ask questions when we might not even know what the questions are. They are the stories we tell in the light of our own superhuman, or spiritual, realities.
What the film does here (intentionally or unintentionally) is create an unfortunate dichotomy that I feel actually hampers some of the themes it looks to tell. It recognizes that it needs the mythology to help tell it’s story, but then uses the discussion of god (that flows out of this) as a means of dismissing the mythology that informs it. And where I really feel this contradiction is when it ultimately asks us to see the human counterparts through the lens of this same mythology. While the film treats the worst side of Ego as a very strident criticism of modern religion (which it does in a powerful and effective way I might add), it also uses the more positive attributes of God (that mythology has handed down to us over time) to help us explore the mystery of the human experience.
Here are just a few examples:
- The theme of Sacrifice– Ego is self-serving as a father, but in Quill’s “spiritual awakening”, he turns to embrace the one who demonstrates the true sacrificial nature of a father. Ego looks to sacrifice his only son to gain the world. Yondu sacrifices himself for his only son in order to give him the world.
- The theme of Fatherhood– Ego represents the power (and abuse) of fatherhood (and parenthood) that flows through each of the characters in this story. He was absent from Quill’s life, and he becomes the focus of the question, the inner and personal journey that Quill must take in order to reconcile the enemy that has been growing within after all these years. In a sense he turns his father into a big “G” God, and by nature of who Ego is eventually revealed to be, he also becomes convinced that this idea of God is more destructive than healing.
- The theme of Love– What binds this band of misfits together is their growing love for one another. Not romantic love, but a love that slowly erases the lines that divide them over the course of the film (including the fact they come together from different races, different characteristics and different ways of dealing with their past). What binds them together is not the idea that they need a God (or god) that stands above them or models for them a perfect reflection of what they believed they missed out on growing up, but that in admitting their own flawed states to one another they can come to realize they are not so different from one another as they once thought themselves to be. The most powerful scene that illustrates this in the film for me is the scene where Rocket and Yondu come to this most unlikely of realizations during a tension filled moment of face to face dialogue. It is a truly moving moment that shows just how universal and eternal love is shown to be on the very human level this film ultimately becomes.
- The theme of family and adoption– What we see in all of the characters in this film is a demonstration of the power of adoption. They find family in one another, and they each belong to this family through the power of adoption. It is a powerful metphor, and a part of their very human experience, that sees the theme of family expressed as something that offers us meaning and purpose and belonging, all things that each of these characters are searching for in the midst of an otherwise grand space opera.
- The theme of forgiveness– Of the connection between our inability to forgive ourselves and our ability to forgive others. The connection between accepting that we are forgiven and our ability to forgive others. When Yondu is faced with the prospect of what it means to be the father that Quill never had, he has to come to terms with forgiving himself. He has to accept that he can be the father Quill needs. This is perhaps most powerful in the scene between Yondu and Rocket where they both come to realize they are not so different from one another, and that maybe they could choose to see the better parts of themselves in the other as well.
Becoming more godlike or more human
In the story of the film, Quill ultimately chooses to abandon his god given power for the sake of becoming more fully human. It repositions our perception of the story in order to show humanity as presiding over and above the god of its own mythology. And what the film ultimately does in applying these characteristics as human virtues over and against the god like antipathy of Ego, is that it applies that unfortunate dichotomy towards understanding the nature of the God-Human relationship. God becomes bad, humans become good. God is the thing that needs to be destroyed, while power comes in the form of our ability to destroy it. And what this ultimately does is remove the mystery from the mythology it is asking us to embrace when it comes to the stories of the Guardians themselves. It deconstructs the story that it is looking to tell, and then asks us reconstruct it with the human characters at the centre.
What this means for my own faith
Here is the thing. In spite of all of this, this film still had much to teach me about how I tend to see God and faith in my own life, and I think this is a testament to the strength of the film itself. As a Christian, which lends me towards the idea that the Christian story actually informs the mythologies of our world, this idea of the God-Human relationship remains important, vital actually, and very real to my own experience. And what Guardians did for me is it helped to reveal the ways in which I continue to struggle when it comes to understanding who this God is in my own life. It allowed me to admit that sometimes I have a hard time making sense of this God in a world where so much suffering continues to persist. I have a hard time making sense of some of the anger and destruction that I find in scripture, and some of the pictures that have been handed down to me of an angry God, or God “the judge” I also struggle with the idea of forgiveness when, on my best days, I fail to forgive my brothers and sisters. I struggle with being adopted into the family of God, of knowing where I belong in this world, especially when I fail so readily in accepting and embracing others. And then there is the idea of love, maybe my biggest failure overall.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 helped me to see that it is not only okay to ask these kinds of questions, it is also okay to fail when I try to live out these questions from the context of my own life. It is okay to struggle with who God is. It is okay for God not to always make sense in light of my human experience. And it is okay for me not to be fully god-like as I try to figure all of this out in my own life. I fail, I fall, I don’t get everything right, and this is something good for me to admit.
In light of this, I also learned about my tendency to create God in my own image, especially in the times when I feel most uncertain. The God that I must tear down in my own life are the gods of my own making, the gods of my own perception. These are the gods of my own pride, and the gods of my own inability to forgive. These are the gods of my pursuit of power and social exploitation and false worship. In this way, the God that Gunn deconstructs in this film is not God Himself, but the idolatry that my own heart creates and pursues.
On the flip side, in Christianity, which is the story I am most familiar with, the virtues of sacrifice, adoption, family, love and forgiveness are the very things that help to bridge this gap between creator and creation and to help me to see the true picture of God more clearly. These are god-given virtues through which I am able to understand my inherent and given value. These are the things we are all called to imitate, not in order to become a god, but rather to allow God to make us more fully human. They are the things that God demonstrates on our behalf, not by living apart from the creation, but by dwelling in it and sharing in its joys and fears and struggles. And by living out these virtues we can come to understand God better. By living out these virtues we can also come to understand ourselves better as God’s creation.
Here is what I know. Faith, God, religion- this is the place where I also find the human virtues represented in this film most readily embodied. God, the big “G” God in my life, has given me a greater vision of love than I otherwise would have. God has encouraged me towards a greater capacity for love than I otherwise would have. In the human story the film looks to tell, these religious virtues become powerful expressions of the human experience in the stories of Quill and the others, as each of them explore universal questions about what it means to be fully human (and for God to be God).
Mythology represents a messy construct, a ready image of the world in which we live. But it is also a hopeful construct, a means of expressing the mystery of this world in ways we otherwise could not. In this same vein, the story of God in the Christian story is also full of this same kind of messiness, primarily because humanity itself is a messy construct, one in which God is in the act of redeeming, not destroying. And what many of the scenes in this film (such as the funeral for Yondu), what God (if you will allow) helps to remind me of, is that in the mess there is also beauty and wonder.
And for those willing to consider, there might even be an even greater truth yet- that when we learn to see God for who He really is, that is when we become able to see the true beauty in the mess. Just as the sacrifice of a true father rings through this film, I find myself compelled to see the fingerprints of a sacrificial God standing above Ego’s self-service. Just as they come to understand a love that comes through responsibility to one another, I am compelled to see a loving God that stands above the distant and cold-hearted action of an ambivalent creator, one who chose to dwell among his creation. Rather than destruction and reorder, I see a God that is in the process of restoring for the sake of His creation.
And perhaps most importantly, (faith, God, religion) has offered me a picture of a God who enters into our human experience, showing me what it means to find healing in my own brokenness. Showing me what it means to be adopted into a family in order to share in my brokenness with others. God continues to show me what it is to live out of the idea that in death to ourselves we find life in something other than ourselves. In service to others we find meaning that reaches higher than our own understanding. And the fact that I can be reminded of all of this through the power of film, for that I am also forever grateful.