Guardians of the Galaxy 2’s Big, Flawed Heart

The estimable Joseph Moore of Yard Sale of the Mind has written an excellent review and follow-up of “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”; I encourage all of you to read both well-written and intelligent articles. What follows are my thoughts in response to his.

In general, I think – hesitantly, and with an idea in mind that my unconscious biases and enjoyment of the movie may be coloring my opinion – that Joseph might be being a little hard on it.

Like this:

I didn’t even go with how Peter really is the son of his father, who casually uses women for amusement and gain – it’s just that the mayhem he causes is all off camera.

In the original they make a small point of this, and to their credit it’s touched on again with Gamora. In Peter’s head it’s probably “At least I never abandoned my kid”, which also strikes me as a realistic and often seen reaction: Quite true, very sad, and not an actual excuse for your mistakes, but the natural one to make.

I think this:

The backstories of Nebula and Gamora are that, as little girls, they watched their parents murdered by Thanos, who then modified and trained them to be killing machines and set them to fighting each other every day. So they don’t get along. Now, after spending years as killing machines – after having killed many people, one presumes – Gamora just wakes up one day and turns on her fake father Thanos and becomes almost normal, while Nebula still has a few anger issues. But, when the time comes, these two hug each other and make up, and it’s all good.

Waaaaaaay undersells what happens. To say that Nebula has a “few anger issues” or that “it’s all good” doesn’t strike me as very fair. Gamora didn’t just wake up one day and turn on Thanos, for one thing. She ALWAYS hated Thanos and took the opportunity after leaving her home to break away and go after him herself. And then a movie is spent showing how she reshapes her bonds and thought processes, and even – as is pointed out in this movie – accepts that there are more important things in life than revenge.

Nebula, meanwhile, was messed up worse than Gamora – as she says, Gamora was the clear favorite – and she becomes obsessed with murdering Gamora before wreaking bloody revenge. By the end of the film, after Gamora saves her life at great risk to herself, she refuses to associate with the Guardians because she doesn’t believe her moral code to be up to snuff with theirs, and tentatively hugs Gamora at Gamora’s prompting. And then still leaves, not yet reaching Gamora’s conclusion that there might be more to her life than vengeance on Thanos.

See? Parenting, a stable home, consistent love – none of these are needed to be a good person! You just are! And no amount of neglect, abuse bordering on torture, or use as a tool by those who should love you can change that!

This really isn’t what we see at all, though. The reason Peter has a better moral compass is that, as a young child, he DID have a family who loved him. He adored his mother, and in the first scene his (presumed) grandfather immediately sets out to comfort him. The Ravagers have an explicit moral code that they follow; they’re more than mere criminals, and something more akin to Mafia families. They have consciences – or most do. It’s implied that because of Yondu’s early dabbling with human trafficking he tends to attract some of the worst of the Ravagers, and while he becomes ashamed of it not all of them did.

It’s also telling that Drax the Destroyer is the one character who, in his digressions, mentions a father and a mother fondly, a wife and daughter with affection – and he’s the comic relief, and a bloodthirsty madman.

They’re basically all the comic relief (Drax was the MVP here, but not for lack of mugging by the others). Drax’s backstory was treated in the original with great respect, I thought. By this point he’s basically calmed down, and is almost certainly less bloodthirsty than Rocket.

I agree with you that the scene of Rocket and Yondu killing everyone was a bit messed up (though they were all trying to kill them). But – again, with the caveat that maybe I’m making excuses the movie doesn’t really deserve – I think this was probably more due to brainlessness than malice. “Guardians” has a heart, but not really a brain – the reason “Serenity” is the superior film (I’ve consistently held that “Guardians of the Galaxy” is basically a dumb version of “serenity”, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even a dumb version of “Serenity” is better than a lot of films).

That’s not to say the movie had nothing to object to. Once again we see the elevation of familial love to an unhealthy degree and the degradation of the love of friendship. I fight with my friends sometimes; that doesn’t make them not be my friends. And maybe Peter and Rocket disliked each other too much to really be called friends, but then that’s a decision I don’t necessarily support. Christ said that one who lays down one’s life for one’s FRIENDS is the greatest sort of love. The implication is that the love between friends is not just different but inferior to the love between family members. But this is absolutely, 110% wrong.

And, of course, Mom is awesome, Dad is a psychopath. This isn’t necessarily bad storytelling, or even necessarily unrealistic, but it’s also not a coincidence; fathers are being minimized in society left and right. This movie is another drop in that bucket, but it’s a popular drop.

All of that said, the movie had a big heart and was mostly successful in what it set out to do, and I appreciated it for that; it was really fun and as long as you have the proper moral compass to point you in the right direction, and probably something kids could watch without too much trouble. I really enjoyed it, and highly recommend it.

  • You raise good points. Here I will only lightly touch upon them in response. Maybe I’ll go into detail in another blog post.

    First, all my comments were in the context of saying first, that the emotional stuff works – you believe in the moment that Gamora and Nebula make up, you believe that all Nebula wanted was a big sister, and that Gamora was too busy fighting for her life to notice much what was happening to Nebula. Yondu’s transformation into a good guy and his friendship with Rocket and ultimate sacrifice are believeable in the moment. I was buying it! It worked! The last battle was epic and satisfying.

    My criticisms have more to do with the leeway we’re assumed to give to comic book movies. We know, or should know, that nobody gets kicked full in the face or falls four stories and lands on their back and just shakes it off – they most probably die. But we overlook it because that’s the way superhero movies work. They don’t die and shake it off and keep fighting because they’re superheroes!

    But now, to this list, we can add a bunch of assumptions about not just basic physics and anatomy, but about typical human behavior and reactions to being used. This goes back at least as far as James Bond, probably a lot farther: that a rakish cad is charming, not a destroyer of hearts and homes. The fathers and brothers of the women seduced by Bond and Star Lord don’t hunt them down and kill them; their abandoned children don’t have their lives destroyed – there are no fathers and brothers; there are no children; and any broken hearts are strictly the girl’s problem.

    My criticisms are not so much about the movie, but about our willingness to go along with these assumptions.

    As i mentioned, in the old comics, losing a parent and having family destroyed is considered tragic, sufficient motivation for the heroes to take up their lives as heroes and to provide the Achilles’ heel. Here in GG II? I’m not so sure that’s how we’re supposed to view it. .

    Very inadequate response, sorry, no time to dig deeper at the moment.

    • Bellomy

      I’m not sure if the rakish cad being charming is as new as all of that; weren’t folks like…I’m forgetting the name now. Lothario, maybe? – considered cool from time immemorial? Immoral, sure, but cool. Which isn’t so different from how we view Peter. And the movies actually DO criticize Peter for this.

      I repeatedly emphasize – I can be 110% wrong here. Maybe I’m making excuses for it. I’m trying to open myself to that possibility. But I really don’t see this movie as being problematic on *that* particular score. I see OTHER societal problems represented in the film (superhero media in particular has an odd obsession with refusing to call close friendships close friendships and relabeling them ersatz families; oddly, the notable exception here that I can think of is Captain America – in “Civil War” he always couches his terminology when talking about Bucky and Tony in terms of friendship as opposed to family)

      (One of the interesting things about Mal in Firefly/Serenity is that “Heart of Gold” – the infamous whorehouse episode, the worst of the show – implies that Mal was basically celibate up until that night, possibly a holdover from his Christian days, and it can be implied from the comics – mostly through lack of evidence or change in behavior – that he’s basically celibate afterward as well. An interesting decision, but I’m digressing).

      As i mentioned, in the old comics, losing a parent and having family destroyed is considered tragic, sufficient motivation for the heroes to take up their lives as heroes and to provide the Achilles’ heel. Here in GG II? I’m not so sure that’s how we’re supposed to view it. .

      Really? I got the opposite vibe. Family becomes all important to the point that friendship is cast aside as almost besides the point, and family becomes an obsession for all involved. For example, Yondu is perceived as a father figure for Peter…except we have absolutely no evidence he acts like a father in any way, shape, or form, except that he doesn’t kill him outright. Which…father of the year?

      There’s nothing wrong with stories of gaining a new family, but in ye olden days, it used to involve falling in love with someone and perhaps adopting their child (I recall a book I read about a man who marries a widow and ends up falling in love with the children as well – see also, “The Sound of Music”). Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with healing from a broken family with the help of a group of stalwart, trustworthy friends, but looked at in a proper way Drax would recognize them as friends and comrades and then when he has recovered sufficiently perhaps seek out new female companionship so he could start a new FAMILY.

      The exception to this would appear to be Rocket and Groot, who had such unusual “births” and upbringing that they had essentially grown up with the other serving the role of brother. But they’re in a special situation, something like adopted children.

    • Bellomy

      Also, I just don’t see the whole “blank slate, bad upbringing doesn’t affect you in any negative way” thing at all – if anything the opposite.

  • Stephen J.

    “Once again we see the elevation of familial love to an unhealthy degree and the degradation of the love of friendship.”

    I don’t think this is so much about elevating “familial” love per se over friendship, as simply pointing out that the intensity of the emotional bonds which form between people who survive terrifying and intense experiences together tends to produce something more akin to how most of us experience family vs. how we experience friendship. It’s no accident that throughout history men who have gone under fire together will tend to describe their comrades in the trenches as “brothers”; firefighters and police officers use this term too.

    The plain truth is for most people in this day and age, especially adults, most of our “friends” tend to be what might more accurately be called “amicable acquaintances”. The really deep friendships where you know someone’s weaknesses from childhood, can be counted on to show up in crisis, lend money without worrying about getting it back (either because you know you will or you don’t care if you do), and can go years without seeing each other yet take up a conversation as if you’d only just parted when you do, are actually quite rare — I consider myself extremely lucky in having at least four or five of these friends, but it really has seemed to me that such friendships are getting rarer and rarer in the modern day. Describing the Guardians as “friends” may simply not seem strong enough to people who have never used the word for anything other than an amiable working relationship.

    “Family”, by contrast, encompasses not only intense and definitional relationships but the idea of relationships you can’t “end”, the way you might end an affair or a friendship; if the Guardians never saw each other again they would still be ineluctably marked and reshaped by each other’s effect in their lives, as a son is by his father even without ever meeting him (q.v. Peter’s whole story arc). “Family” becomes another way of saying, essentially, “The bond between us is permanent, or has had permanent effects upon who I am as a person, and to lose you will be to lose what makes a part of me me.” It’s not about love as affection or charity, so much, as simply the fundamental depth and irresistible effect of the connection; Peter may love or hate Yondu, but he cannot pretend Yondu doesn’t matter to who he is, any more than he can pretend his fellow Guardians don’t matter.

    • Bellomy

      Describing the Guardians as “friends” may simply not seem strong enough to people who have never used the word for anything other than an amiable working relationship.

      That’s sort of my point. It’s not really a problem with the Guardians films so much as a general societal problem; John C. Wright has brought this up a few times as well.

      Interestingly, the most notable exception I can think of in the MCU is Cap in “Civil War”; his relationships with both Tony AND Bucky are couched in terms of friendship, not brotherhood, despite the fact that he’s actually served in battle with both of them.

      Even “Sherlock”, which progressively deteriorated in quality, got in on this act.

      “Family”, by contrast, encompasses not only intense and definitional relationships but the idea of relationships you can’t “end”, the way you might end an affair or a friendship; if the Guardians never saw each other again they would still be ineluctably marked and reshaped by each other’s effect in their lives, as a son is by his father even without ever meeting him (q.v. Peter’s whole story arc).

      That’s not enough, though. My best friend has certainly shaped my life in significant and important ways, but he is nevertheless only my best friend. It’s a particular modern problem that close bonds simply can’t be conceived in any terms but family.

      And the Guardians haven’t actually known each other a particularly long time, with the one exception of Rocket and Groot.