I want to invite you to take a trip with me back in time, to July of 2012. San Diego Comic-Con is going on and the Marvel Studios panel is well underway. It is during this panel that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige announces that Marvel Studios will be making a film titled Guardians of the Galaxy. This is the point at which all but the most hardcore of Marvel fans let out a loud and collective “Who?”. Just a month later it was announced that director James Gunn would be helming the project and once again all but the most hardcore of film geeks said “Who?”. Fast forward back to the present day and not only are the Guardians of the Galaxy household names and pop culture icons, but they are the subjects of not one but two films considered by almost universal acclaim to be representative of the very best that franchise film making and the Marvel Cinematic Universe can offer. How did this happen? What is the secret to their success? In one word? Family. In seven? Family, a tree, and a talking raccoon.
Some spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to follow.
You see, Marvel Studios’ greatest accomplishment may be that it’s most obscure and most out there property, one in which only one major character is even half human, has, at its heart, the most human and relatable story they’ve produced yet. All credit for this goes to James Gunn and the faith Marvel has placed in him. In an era where they say that it is impossible for a person with a singular vision to get a major studio franchise film made, James Gunn has emerged as an auteur architect while working in the biggest franchise in the world. He has brought a singular vision to bear within a studio that has a reputation of noting its creatives to death. He has produced two films that while immensely personal, have proven to be almost universally relatable. It is the tale of a group of profoundly damaged characters coming together to make a family where they had none, and learning to sort out the messes that are their lives.
When we meet the Guardians at the beginning of their debut film, they are all trying to get by pretty much on their own, due almost entirely to their severely scarring pasts that have left them quick to run and slow to trust. Peter Quill, or Starlord as he prefers to be called, lost his mother to cancer at the age of 8 and was abducted by the alien criminal gang The Ravagers immediately after. He spent the rest of his childhood and several of his adult years being mistreated by these criminals and is incredibly emotionally stunted as a result. Gamora is the adoptive daughter of the Mad Titan Thanos and has been a direct recipient of his cruelty her entire life and is thus quick to anger and refuses to let anyone in. Rocket Raccoon was a regular animal that was mercilessly experimented on to grant him higher intelligence and humanoid mobility and the shame and disgust that he feels cause him to push away anyone that gets to close, lest they hurt him first. His only friend in the world being his sentient tree and bodyguard Groot. Groot is… well Groot as he will gladly tell you. He doesn’t really have any issues, he’s a pretty happy guy, though shockingly violent when the moment calls for it. Drax the Destroyer lost his entire family at the hands of Ronan the Accuser and is so blinded by his grief and rage that he finds himself incapable of caring or thinking about anyone else or their problems. It’s worth noting that all of these issues stem directly from family (minus Groot). In short, these people are severely damaged (once again minus Groot, he really doesn’t have any complaints).
These issues and their familial origins make these characters relatable. Even those of us from the most stable and normal of households can point to one bit of damage or another that was visited upon us by our families. The Guardians are caricatures of this but it works because we see them find a way forward and it lets us know that we can too. They like the rest of us built a secondary family which allows them to cope with all of the issues that their primary ones bestowed upon them. This idea, of making your way forward with the family that you choose is a powerful one. We surround ourselves with people that will challenge our natural deficiencies and pull us out of our comfort zones. People who may grate on us and frustrate us at times, but upon whom we can rely on without question. This is what the Guardians found with each other. They’re still a fundamentally flawed family, but a family nonetheless and the importance of that cannot be overstated. Because when you have to rely on others and have others who rely on you, you can’t allow your issues to drag you down, you have to put them aside for the good of the people that you care about.
The core through line of the first two Guardians films, is all about the journey from independence to codependence and about learning how to accept and work on your issues with the help of others. It’s not the overarching plot of the first film that keeps us coming back for more, but rather the team dynamics at play and the progression that we see in these characters. When the film starts out, all of these characters are horrible team players. They are vicious and sarcastic and far too prone to violence. They go at each other not from places of understanding but from places of pain and isolation. The idea about caring about something bigger than their own issues and day to day existence is totally foreign to all of them save maybe Gamora. She at the very least is trying to do the right thing at the beginning of the film but is dead set on going it alone. These individualistic streaks in all of them render them utterly incapable of seeing a bigger picture or allowing themselves to be real for even just one moment. Peter is hiding behind his sarcasm and the Han Solo light persona that he has crafted for himself. Rocket is actively trying to push everyone but Groot away. Gamora’s general contempt for everyone that isn’t her is palpable. And Drax is so focused on killing Ronan and Thanos that he is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to do it. The interplay that comes from these issues results in plenty of good comedy but it also results in a lot of growth, as just out of pure necessity they start to function as a unit. This all comes to a head when Peter convinces them to set aside their issues and hang-ups and step up and put their lives on the line to protect the planet Xandar from Ronan. And in the end, when Peter takes hold of the Infinity Stone to stop Ronan, risking almost certain death to do so, it’s quite literally their bonds of family and friendship that save the day as they join hands and share the awesome power amongst themselves. They have been bonded by their struggle and by their shared pain and sorrow and came out the other side stronger for it.
Just because they came together and beat the bad guy in the first film it doesn’t mean that things will be smooth sailing from there on out though. They transitioned from strangers to a quasi-family in the first film, but the second film is all about testing and straining the bonds of that family in order to make it stronger. At the outset of Vol. 2 the team clearly still has some issues to work out, but they are obviously further along than they were the first time. Their primary issues are threefold: they are suddenly raising a kid, as Groot died and was reborn at the end of the first film, Rocket is still hesitant to really connect with the others and make himself vulnerable, and Peter’s biological father has suddenly appeared and is pulling him away from the family he has created. These forces are pulling on and straining the group and threaten to tear it apart, perhaps even permanently.
All of this taken into account, however, we can still clearly see signs of progress and development. Drax is no longer a ball of rage and sorrow, but a wild, garrulous, and mischievous, if still hyper-violent ball of laughs. He’s learned to live with his pain and move forward enjoying what he has. Peter is noticeably changed. He’s adjusted to his role as leader and has become more serious and open as a result and now shows a consideration for the feelings and concerns of others that the Peter of the first film would not be capable of. His relationships with the other Guardians have noticeably deepened as a result of this. Drax and he have struck up a strange and humorous brotherhood with Drax having decided that he is a source of sage wisdom to impart in Peter. It is his relationship with Gamora that has most notably changed and wherein we can perhaps see Peter’s growth the most. His new willingness to be somewhat serious combined with a burgeoning ability to articulate the rather impressive cocktail of daddy issues that he has been carrying around has allowed her to let go of much of the contempt that she showed for him in the first film and has fostered a rather fierce bond between the two. They share many moments together throughout the film, some that even begin to border on tender and romantic, and in these moments we can see that the time they have spent around each other has noticeably pulled them back from the far edges of the people that they were at the outset of their cinematic journeys. While Peter has become more serious, Gamora has softened. She is learning to love and care for others, a luxury that her childhood did not afford her. She’s still not likely to intentionally crack a joke and sounds a bit too enthused over the prospect of potentially killing Ego, but she’s able to have fun now and might just be willing to dance if you twist her arm.
The events of Vol. 2 prove to be catalysts for even further growth and development for the Guardians and some of the supporting players in their stories. In the second film Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula, and their fraught relationship takes center stage, serving as one of the primary through lines for the story. While both experienced extreme brutality growing up as the daughters of Thanos, Nebula most certainly fared the worst of the two. Constantly losing to Gamora in individual combats set up by their father, Nebula was forced to endure excruciating pain as, one by one, Thanos replaced her body parts with machinery in order to bring her up to her sister’s level. The primary result of this monstrous behavior is that two sisters who should have been each other’s refuge from their father came to view each other as enemies. Nebula’s hatred of her sister comes second only to her hatred of her father. Over the course of the film we get to see the two come together as sisters and stop blaming each other and start placing the blame solely at the feet of their abuser where it belongs, resulting in a truly powerful level of catharsis.
Baby Groot plays a fairly significant role in Vol. 2 as well, as his diminutive size and childlike mind and demeanor have forced the entire group to develop a nurturing side, and some have coped better than others. Peter while not overly sweet or emotional with our leafy rapscallion has developed quite the protective streak and is constantly seeking to ensure that he is safe. Gamora surprisingly takes to this role of parenthood better than any of the others, resulting in one of the sweetest moments in the film as she goes to cheer up young Groot when the group must separate for a few days and shows a surprising degree of patience and nurturing instincts with him throughout. Drax… doesn’t like him and it’s pretty much mutual, though the two do eventually bond. It’s Rocket’s relationship with him however that is most fascinating. Rocket has gone from being the bossy best friend to a father figure and he’s coping the best he can. While more patient than we would honestly expect him to be, he often has difficulty communicating with the little rascal and it results in some stellar comedy throughout the film. Groot is mostly here for the cuteness factor in this one but can often still serve to show a great deal about the characters that he interacts with.
Peter’s relationship with his biological father has to be discussed because while the stakes are absurdly high and fantastical, the dynamic is one that is quite familiar. While early on attempting to present himself as the cool dad that Peter always wanted, Ego is soon revealed to be a manipulator of the highest order. He has had tens if not hundreds of children and his love for them never extends further than their usefulness to him when it comes to furthering his grand plan. Peter, who turns out to be the most special and gifted of all of Ego’s children, quickly becomes the source of his obsession. While his villainy occurs on a cosmic and grand scale, Ego’s particularly brand of horrible parenting is disturbingly common. He’s only a more extreme version of those parents that obsess over capitalizing and profiting off of the abilities of their children. Whether those children be athletes or musicians, or what have you, the love of the parent becomes contingent on what the child can do for them. Ego only shows up when he realizes that Peter can be of use to him, and when his own actions cause Peter to turn on him, Ego lashes out, attempting to force his son into this nightmarish partnership. The father that Peter never had turns out to be the monster that Peter would have been better off not knowing, and Peter’s ultimate rejection of him and everything he has to offer is one of the most powerful and stunning bits of character development to ever come out of the Marvel universe. The boy desperate for a father becomes the man with the strength to reject one.
The film also tracks Rocket, and Peter’s surrogate father Yondu Udonta and their relationships with Quill as well as the rest of the group. Vol. 2 is in many ways as much Yondu’s story as it is anyone else’s and Yondu and Peter’s relationship is tricky at best. Yondu being the alien that both abducted and raised Peter, honestly has a lot of damage to answer for and some pretty massive sins to his name. Choosing to protect Peter and raise him himself rather than turn him over to Ego, Yondu put himself in a situation he was woefully unprepared for and Peter in a situation that no child should be in. It’s no wonder that Peter is a little messed up when he grew up amongst space pirates and with a surrogate father who thought threatening to eat him was a funny joke. As we learn more and more about Yondu we come to realize that saving Peter from Ego may have been the only thing he’s done right in his entire life. He may have not been able to show it, but Yondu did love Peter, and his arc is that of becoming able to express that love to the only son he’s ever known. In the end Yondu ends up giving his life to save Peter one more time, depriving both of them of the chance to truly appreciate the new relationship dynamic forming between the two of them. This revelation is not in vain though as it in the end gives Peter some form of closure, allowing him to stop focusing on the things he lacks and appreciate what he has. He embraces the imperfect man that Yondu was and the fact that Yondu raised him in the best way he knew how, even if he sometimes came up short in this regard. It isn’t just Peter however that Yondu impacts in this story. After the Guardians end up separated early on in the film, Rocket and Yondu end up spending a significant portion of the story together and find in each other kindred spirits. Yondu however does not like what he see of himself in Rocket, recognizing all of his flaws in our raccoon friend’s personality. Having experienced a similarly tortured existence Yondu is able to more effectively than anyone call Rocket on his nonsense and warn him of the potential consequences. Yondu serves himself up to Rocket as a cautionary tale. He tells him of all the friends he’s lost to his arrogance and cruelty and warns Rocket that the same will happen to him if he doesn’t change. This combined with Yondu’s death has a profound effect on Rocket, and when the Ravagers return to bid Yondu farewell it hammers home that it’s never too late to change.
It’s honestly remarkable how much these characters have shifted and evolved over the course of just two films. Every single major character has had a clear and defined arc and they all tie back into the relationships that they have forged along the way. They’ve created their own family when the ones they were originally saddled with were lost or failed them and it speaks to the truth that the family you choose is often equally if not more important than the family you don’t. They couldn’t control he circumstances that left them damaged and brought them to where they were, but they were able to control how they responded. They banded together and formed something true and powerful. They built up bonds of love and friendship that allowed them to weather the storms that life threw at them. They challenged each other to be better and gave each other the strength to do so when it was not easy. This group of aliens and misfits found comfort and strength in the arms of each other, and there’s nothing more human than that.