Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
I’m Not In Love
If you look at Tony Stark, or indeed almost any superhero1 in the MCU pantheon, you will see people who are more often than not pushed from some comfortable life toward one of heroism. Some great accident befalls them, or is caused by them through neglect or hubris, and suddenly their comfortable, normal life is upended and perhaps even destroyed, and they are plunged into chaos, into Hell. Here they are faced with a choice: attempt to return to what they were before, or embrace what fate has placed at their feet. There is cost, and there is consequence.
It is the classic hero’s journey. It is Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter and Neo and Dorothy Gale, and… well, name just about any protagonist from any of your favourite films and you’ll likely see some version of this archetype; a lightsaber may become a magic wand or ruby slippers, but the song remains the same.
When we first meet our protagonists in Marvel’s James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), they are anything but normal. And a damn sight short of heroic. They are in an underworld that is both personal and indifferent. It is full of violence and uncertainty, and they have been there for a long time. They’ve made a nest there, called it home, and almost fooled themselves into believing it. And when you’re in a place like that long enough you tend to do whatever you need to do in order to survive, no matter the cost.
Peter Quill is a boy who dreams he is a man. He is tall, strong, and handsome; he goes on adventures, and he gets the girl. He is Indiana Jones, and Han Solo, and Kevin Bacon, dancing his way across the barren hellscape of Morag with only ghosts and skeletons to see his sick moves. But it is only a dream. A life lived in the space between his mother’s death and the acceptance of that moment, without true connection. He only seeks to fill himself with whatever will take his mind off of the emptiness that threatens to swallow him.
Like Quill, Gamora was stolen from her home as a child and forced into a life of violence and villainy. She is a woman who once had a dream that she was a child, but that dream has faded. It is blood-stained. Warped. Years of brutality have taken their toll.
Yet, the dream remains. She longs to return to it, or at least to the life that she believes it promised. One away from her servitude to adoptive “father” Thanos, away from her cruel “sister” Nebula, and away from the nightmare of terror she has helped to spread across the galaxy. If she can but escape from those things, perhaps she can escape from her own guilt.
Rocket is pain. His life, his dreams, his hopes. It is all he has ever known, and all he feels he ever will know. He is unique in the universe, and alone because of it. Yet he has survived, and has done so alone. Yes, he has Groot at his side, but he keeps him at arm’s length, seeing him in purely pragmatic terms. He is the muscle. But Groot is also the wall. Rocket on his own is diminutive, and fuzzy. He is cute. Without Groot to act as barrier it would be too easy for people to get close, and for Rocket to allow them to get close. If they get close, he might come to rely on them, and reliance is weakness. In this galaxy if you can’t do it on your own then you’re not worth a damn.
And what does Groot dream of? What series of events led him to partner with a surly cybernetic rodent? Aside from being a sort of Jiminy Cricket to Rocket’s twisted Pinocchio, I think that he saw a broken creature he thought he could help. Groot has a purity and a näivité (and a stature) that Rocket can’t help but take advantage of. Yet his selfish nature is tempered by the arboreal giant at his side.
It seems thematically purposeful that these characters first cross paths on a planet as pristine as Xandar. A shining, modern, multicultural paradise protected and ruled by the Nova Corps. It is everything that they turn their backs to, and yet everything that they covet. It is comfort, safety, and harmony. From the depths of the metaphorical underworld in which they exist, any potential flaws fall away. It is merely a bright star in the darkness, a distant and beautiful reminder of the ugliness that clings to them, and that they could never find acceptance here.
And then it is taken from them, and they are thrust into the darkness of the Kyln.
It is here that Drax the Destroyer is housed for crimes unknown, a pit stop in his mission to kill Ronan, murderer of his wife and daughter. There is perhaps nothing as destructive as the impetus towards vengeance. Aside from often being confused with justice, it is a nakedly self-serving desire that rarely if ever results in the catharsis that feels like it should come afterwards, should you even succeed. More often than not, that impulse only draws us toward our own destruction, the true goal of our actions.
Unable to quiet the demons of guilt that gnaw at him, Drax has become The Destroyer, a warrior of infamous renown, feared and respected even here, in space prison.
Escape (The Piña Colada Song)
If Xandar is a shining beacon of ordered perfection, then the Kyln is ordered imperfection. They are not opposites, but dark mirrors of the other, each susceptible to stagnation. In danger of erupting in disorder with the slightest push.
The arrival of the nascent Guardians is just the push needed. Thieves, outlaws, and murderers – they belong here. They don’t like it, and they won’t accept it, but they understand it.
I like the idea that the Kyln here uses “heat” to forge these disparate souls into something cohesive. Something greater than the sum of its parts. There is a nice poetry to that idea. A kiln turns clay into something new, and better. Or at least, more useful. And Gunn uses the prison Kyln in much the same way.
There’s only one problem: it’s not hot enough. Soon after they escape – using teamwork and ingenuity and communication – the unit they were becoming begins to crumble. The ingredients are flawed (aren’t we all?), bound together by greed and selfishness in a moment of alignment that isn’t and can’t be enough. It’s an important first step on the path to becoming the Guardians of the Galaxy, not just because in a movie called Guardians of the Galaxy you need some actual guardians of the galaxy, but because for the first time they feel at home, just a little bit. It’s a frightening thing for them, and they rebel against it, and the clay fractures.
So, Gunn turns up the heat by adding a dollop of Infinity Stone (those crazy Marvel cats sure do love their magic rocks), and a dash of Ronan.
Fooled Around and Fell in Love
Redemption is catalyzed through our relationships. It is our bonds to others that allow us the opportunity to grow, and to heal. But only if we are open – and it is far too easy to segregate ourselves from those who might lift us up, and whom we might rely upon. The walls we build to protect ourselves can become a tomb. Our heart mummified within, unable to feel anything.
This is what a villain does. It is what Ronan has done, closing himself off from even the people he claims to fight for. He is beholden only to himself and his own pain. His own ghosts. He wishes to destroy not for justice, but for revenge. He wants to share his pain, and his loss with the galaxy, to spread it like a disease. It is easier to fall than to rise up, to snuff out the light than to keep it burning bright.
It’s even harder to fan a spark into a flame.
Discovering the sparks within, thought long extinguished, is perhaps the greatest surprise to this band of broken toys. They thought they were beyond repair, and yet there it is. A connection. For the first time they are able to glimpse the world beyond their own walls. Beyond the hell in which they have struggled for survival. And more importantly, they actually step outside of that shell of comfortable pain. They put themselves on the line. They do it for themselves and for their friends, and in doing so realize and accept not just the connection they have to each other, but to everyone. And that they must fight to preserve it.
And that success is less important than effort.
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Heroes are no strangers to being the underdogs. Falling is effortless, but ascension is an act of discipline and purpose. The end of the film is filled with imagery that reflects this. Ronan’s ship plummets toward the ground, barely struggling against the net of Nova Corps ships and the Space Invaders-like defense of the Guardians and the Ravagers. Ronan has but to touch the Infinity Stone to the ground in order to destroy, but the heroes must rise up and hold their ground against it, and they cannot do it alone.
As Star-Lord2 grasps the Infinity Stone he is threatened with not just death, but the destruction of everything he ever was on a cellular level. In this moment he returns to his child self, the dream of being a man stripped away as he is faced with the decision that has shaped his life up until this point: his mother’s outstretched hand, the hand he did not hold while she was dying. The hand he ran away from.
Except now he takes it. And it is Gamora’s hand. And Drax’s hand. And Rocket’s hand. It is the acceptance of the connection they had all been resisting and sabotaging; the acceptance that they can give love and receive love. And that even in the face of loss it is important not to turn your back on it. They rise up against the darkness together, and they defeat it.
And in the end they ascend, above even Xandar, into the heavens, ready to do “a bit of both.” A little good, and a little bad. It’s an interesting place to leave the characters as the credits roll, serving as a reminder that the Guardians are not heroes, but anti-heroes. They have lived in the underworld and come out redeemed on the other side, able to operate in the space between the innocent and the evil. It is a place of balance, and it is their home.