Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2
When my son (the writer) and I walked out of viewing Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2, we turned to each other and said (literally simultaneously), “Theme mirroring!”
In other news: The Quinn House is a House of Geeks.
We formulated a plan to re-watch the movie when it came out on DVD so we could analyze all the ways theme was mirrored in the movie–a plan which my mother (the writer) also wanted in on, so it came to fruition this Christmas holiday when she was out to visit, Adam was home from college, and we had a moment to glory in all our geekitude as a family. Given FAMILY is the main theme of the movie, it was a somewhat meta experience.
So I took notes during the rewatch, downloaded the screenplay, and spent some time writing up my thoughts. Take this for what it’s worth–a peek into what happens inside my brain when I watch a movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy Theme Mirroring
Theme Mirroring is when you take a central theme of the story and expand it through its many different permutations by mirroring the story arc of the main character in the story arcs of the minor characters. The key is to have multiple aspects of the theme fleshed out by looking at it from different angles. The effect on the reader is one of resonance—each time the theme is echoed, it resonates stronger with the reader. This resonance gives a cohesiveness and depth to the story. Readers may or may not realize what the theme is, no matter how baldly you state it… assuming you integrate those statements into the story, especially if you place them at high emotion turning points (which is where they should be anyway).
GUARDIANS II is unique in how replete the theme of FAMILY is throughout the film (and how well done). In particular, Guardians contrasts FAMILY vs AMBITION, asking throughout the story what comprises family, what prices has family paid for ambition, and why you would choose family over ambition. It’s the Work-Family balance writ large and dramatic, and the film even makes a subtle inference that even in pursuing Work/Ambition, we are still pursing Family (albeit in a misdirected way).
Each of the characters starts the story with one or more unresolved family conflicts.
Peter/Star Lord – “What is your heritage?” Peter is asked in the opening sequence with the Golden Perfect People (the Sovereigns, our first explicitly anti-family antagonist). We know he’s conflicted—he calls himself Star Lord—but he claims his dad’s not from Missouri, but that’s all he knows (or cares) about it. (This is contrasted with the Sovereigns who genetically engineer their children to be “perfect” and thus have obviously created a race of assholes.) Peter offers to introduce her to the “old fashioned” way of procreation, introducing us to the second family conflict—Gamora, who Peter is tentatively in love with. He quickly apologizes to her—he doesn’t want to ruin his chances with her—but she’s having none of it. There’s unspoken attraction that they have yet to act on—Gamora is potentially his future family—and you can tell Peter wants it. He’s missing something in his life, and maybe Gamora is it. Meanwhile, Rocket picks a fight with Peter, who is mystified by this. “What’s your goal here? To get everyone to hate you?” In fact, yes, as we see later. This is a great example of how you can baldly state the theme and still not have the audience beaten over the head with it.
Gamora – Her sister is her enemy, literally trying to kill her, and Gamora claims not to care about her—but she does. And she claims to not care about Peter either—but she does. Gamora has unresolved family conflicts (her father is a super villain), but unlike Peter who is seeking to form new family with her, she’s perfectly happy to just keep things the way they are—she doesn’t want to be vulnerable to being hurt. That’s how she survives. In fact, she considers the Guardians her new family, and she wants to keep it that way—which is one reason why she’s later angry when Peter ‘s father shows up. Again, this is explicitly stated, “I thought you already had a family.” Gamora’s mirroring is particularly heart-wrenching—she comes from a broken and dysfunctional “family,” (her “father” killed her actual family and adopted her) and she doesn’t know how to bond because of that. Her arc is about holding together her “chosen family” of the Guardians while risking opening up to Peter and creating her own, personal family as well as facing her past “family” in the person of her sister, who is trying to kill her.
Rocket—He claims to care for no one but himself, and keeps taking actions to push people away. Because he’s terrified of being part of this “chosen family” of the Guardians. His origins—a genetically modified raccoon—continue to haunt him, so he’s out to prove he’s better (than Peter or anyone else). This is the first taste we get of AMBITION as the anti-thesis of FAMILY. Rocket can be the “best” pilot, but only by destroying his relationship with Peter (his family). He uses ambition capriciously—stealing batteries he doesn’t need—to ward off the possibility of family because it terrifies him.
Nebula (Gamora’s sister)—says she’s out to kill Gamora. She wants to kill her father for all the torments he put her through, pitting her against Gamora then replacing pieces of Nebula’s body when she lost (literal physical abuse, but also erasure of identity), but she can’t kill her father so killing Gamora will do. She feels inferior, so she’s out to prove she’s better than Gamora, but this isn’t about ambition, but revenge. It’s visceral and screams her terrifying NEED for family even more than Rocket.
Yondu (Peter’s “adoptive dad”)—Brilliant open with this character. He starts in a hotel room with a robotic prostitute, just after the act, obviously feeling empty from the soulless experience. He goes from there to have confrontation with his Ravager clans, who claim he “betrayed the code” by keeping Quill/Peter alive and trafficking in kids. Ravagers have a strong moral code, and he broke it—they are his tribe/family and they are exiling him. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a man stuck between two terrible choices—losing Peter(his son) or losing his tribe. It’s a great example of how we have different levels of family and sometimes we’re forced to choose—in this case, Yondu is a man who had no family (his family sold him into slavery with the Ravagers) and has a chance to claim one (with Peter) and he chooses that over the collective/tribe. Yondu claims “I don’t give a damn what you think!” to the Ravagers, but it’s clear it hurts him. Then he goes with the Soveriegns to go after Peter.
Drax—the least developed family theme is with Drax. He’s inappropriate with everyone, which they seem to tolerate. He’s not trying to drive his new family (Guardians) away (his old family was killed). He accepts them. As awkward and offensive as he is, he’s unquestioning that the family is a unit. His pining for a more intimate family is not readily apparent—he’s literal about everything but hidden about his emotions, which we see come out later with the empath.
Baby Groot—he’s everyone’s child. No matter what they’re doing—fighting space aliens, fleeing across the galaxy—everyone takes care of Baby Groot, watching out for him, keeping him safe. He is the literal glue that holds everything together—he is what MAKES them a family. He has a small arc—he can’t get anything right until he does—but he’s the emotional center of the family. His existence IS the family, so he gives them a reason/way to work together, tolerate each other, get along… all to stay together for Baby Groot. There’s a great scene where when they split up for their various adventures (and not on good terms), it’s Baby Groot who cries. He’s the family BROKEN at that point.
There are several turning points all through the movie that illustrate the evolution of the characters through their arcs and finding the families they need. Almost all are vulnerability reveals—a character has to open up about their true feelings about the family conflict in order to grow closer and form those family ties. We also get to see how the Anti-Family/Ambition challenges (and attempts to destroy) the various family permutations.
Nebula and the fruit
This is a humorous turning point. Drax warns Nebula that the fruit she wants to eat isn’t ripe-he stops her from eating it. This is a tender action by Drax-treating her like family even though she’s not part of the “Guardian’s Family” yet, and even though, if pressed, he would say she means nothing to him. It’s revealing of him, but later, when Nebula is being tough, breaking free of the Guardians and leading the ravagers on a hunt for her sister (to kill her), she takes a bite of the fruit, a sort of defiant FU to Drax and the Guardians… only it’s not ripe. She spits it out and grumbles, “Not ripe.” This is her bowing to reality (no matter your anger at your sister), but also a tacit acknowledgment that Drax was actually looking out for her. It’s a fast moment that you might just take for laughs, but there’s a pull of emotion underneath it – one of the many ways Guardians is brilliant in planting these mirrored moments deep where they cumulatively affect viewers.
Yondu and Rocket Bond
This is one of the best character arcs of the movie, I think. These two are both men without families—Yondu is the heroic version (he saves Peter, he yearns for honor, he feels sharply the emptiness of his life) and Rocket is the anti-hero version (pushes everyone away, a hero only when he’s dragged into it, angrily will deny that he needs anyone anywhere – the ultimate hyper masculine hero rendered in a raccoon body, which vexes him to no end. He has a chip on his shoulder the size of Montana.). These two are put in a jail cell together, reliant on the unreliable Baby Groot to win their release (through their typical mayhem and bloodshed). Even before they co-parent Baby Groot through his task of getting them out of the jail cell, Yondu confronts Rocket about how “I know you steal batteries you don’t need and push people away… I know what you are because you’re me.” Both were abandoned as children and now are in search of family—the great mirroring in this lets us see the two paths these men have taken, illustrating both that we have a choice how we deal with life, even when it gives us lemons, and that even when we choose unwisely, that it’s never too late for redemption. We’re rooting for Rocket the whole way.
Peter, His Father, and Gamora
At first, Peter is angry and untrusting with his father; Gamora has to talk him into giving his father a chance. This is an artful reveal about the depth of their relationship—the “unspoken thing” that’s between them that apparently involves Peter revealing intimate details about his past. We see that Peter already trusts/loves her like no one else, and it’s that trust that he relies on in deciding to go with his father (Ego! Such an obvious name, yet it totally works). While Gamora’s encouragement was the right thing for a loving family member to do, she stalls out, because she won’t allow herself to take the next step in the relationship—the part that requires HER to be vulnerable, not Peter. But when Peter is suddenly taken with Ego, falling fully under his temptation of finally having a father (the father he’s always dreamed of, only this one lets him discover his true power, throwing energy balls back and forth like a baseball—God-like Fathering!), Gamora suspects something isn’t right. She tries to warn Peter, but he’s unwilling to trust her now because when he pushed for her to acknowledge there was something deeper between them, she balked. So he pulls back. He “finally found his family” with Ego. Gamora says “I thought you already did.” She’s saying their Guardian family should be his family, but Peter is looking for more than a band of adventurers, no matter how family-like—he wants the intimate bonds of blood and love. A father (Ego). A lover (Gamora). And she’s not ready for that leap, which pushes Peter towards Ego.
Peter’s Father (Ego)
This is an example of how you can be very LITERAL with your symbols/names and still not over-do it. Peter’s Father is EGO, the self that is put above others, the Anti-Family. Not only is he the embodiment of ambition (he wants to take over the universe) he literally KILLS HIS CHILDREN. And yet… in a sly nod to the fact that even the most baldly ambitious among us are actually looking for family, the writers have Ego say how his “search for purpose” was because he came into consciousness as the only being of his kind and “he didn’t want to be alone.” The drive for connection is primal, even for gods. Yet, Ego takes that drive and does everything wrong with it. He creates his “children” to serve his ambition. He wants Peter to “partner” with him in taking over the galaxy, but when he balks, Ego’s willing to turn him into a “battery”. Ego put the tumor in Peter’s mother’s head because he didn’t want to grow too attached and be tempted to give up his ambition to take over the universe.
Drax Brings Empath Girl Into The Family
The cute scene with Drax, in his literalness, telling the Empath Girl that she’s ugly, “But that’s good because when you’re ugly and someone loves you, know that it’s real” is the mouthpiece for the true pro-family values of the story. The mirroring of this is great. As everyone else struggles to keep their true feelings hidden, Drax is always completely and totally honest – simple, never malicious truth. He’s the one who says “we are family; we leave no one behind” then turns to Nebula and says “except possibly you” indicating he’s not completely sure she’s part of the family yet. Drax is also family-less – his was killed – just like Empath Girl who is a slave to Ego. He recognizes this and instantly brings her into his definition of family, later physically risking his life to save her. His offer of family/connection to Empath Girl is what saves them in the end, as she warns them that Ego is not what he seems before it’s too late. In another sly nod to the tension between Ego/Amibition and Family, Empath Girl’s power is that she puts Ego to sleep—as though empathy (our keen awareness of other people’s feelings and thus our ability to bond with them) is the key to taming the Ego and allowing us to engage in the vulnerability and intimacy that family bonds require.
Do You Have Any Tape?
This comic scene is brilliant. Every family has its petty arguments, its quirks, its fights over stupid little things that become Family Legends—the Guardians are saving the galaxy, but it all hinges on keeping Baby Groot from pushing the wrong button, hence we need tape. The banter is fast as everyone is trying to fight off Ego, but it’s a quick interplay where everyone weighs in with their own “No, I don’t have tape! Why would I have tape?” and “You’re the one who should have tape!” “Did you ask Drax?” “Yes.” “Did you really?” “He’s right next to Gamora, and I asked her, so he heard.” “So you didn’t ask him.” And on and on… it’s hilarious and EXACTLY what a family sounds like. Interestingly, this banter is not in the screenplay, and it has an improvisational feel, so I wonder if they didn’t improve it as a bonding moment in the filming. This is like the “family” scenes you often see in romances where you know the romantic interest has been accepted into the family when there’s a banter scene like this—the little in-jokes and personality clashes that show the collective character of the family unit.
Baby Groot Tunnels In
Baby Groot is the only one small enough to fit through all the crevices to go plant the bomb to blow up Ego. As he’s running along and we’re wondering if he’ll push the right button, it’s an interesting parallel to the supposed reason why Yondu kept Peter (“because I was small and could fit in places to steal things”). Only Baby Groot really is part of the family, and he’s using his smallness to help for real… and not to steal things, but to defeat Ego and save his family. It’s a nice bit of parallelism.
Peter vs. Ego
The showdown between Peter and Ego has several stages. Much earlier, Ego presages this with the song “Brandy” (which the movie opened with), which is about a girl who falls in love with a sailor who returns to the sea. It’s Ego’s first play to convince Peter that he has to leave his family (Guardians) and come with Ego to fulfill Ego’s (and he argues, Peter’s) ambition. Then, when Ego is dazzling him with the power he can have, he reveals that he killed Peter’s mother. This violent anti-Family action snaps Peter out of the haze of ambition and turns him against Ego. Ego says “You can’t deny the purpose the universe has bestowed on you” but Peter does… even with Ego forcing him. We watch as Ego’s rampant ambition (embodied by these glowing blue tentacles) destroys families all over the galaxy. Then, as Peter and Ego battle it out, Ego is still trying to win him over… but failing that, he’s more than willing to destroy Peter to serve his needs. As Peter is being overcome by Ego’s power, he justifies himself by saying, “What possible meaning does life have than ambition?” This sparks Peter’s dig-down-deep moment when he discovers his own power—and it’s directly tied to his mother’s love. His original family. That gives Peter the strength to defeat Ego. This is another example of a literal stating of the theme—Peter doesn’t answer verbally, but his visual-montage answer is clear: the reason to exist is to love/have family. In the end, Ego cries out that Peter will lose his immortality if he kills Ego, and be “just like everyone else.” Peter retorts, “What’s wrong with that?” It’s the most direct repudiation of Ego/Ambition/Specialness that is the central tenet of the movie.
Yondu knows the only way to save Peter is to sacrifice himself, and he wants to do it. Rocket wants to stop him, but he insists that this will let him make up for all the mistakes he’s made. This is redemption through self-sacrifice for family, and Rocket allows it, finally, saying “Welcome to the Guardians of the Galaxy” a nod to the idea that what binds them together is shared self-sacrifice as Guardians. Yondu is “earning” his role as Peter’s father through this sacrifice, and he claims it by saying “(Ego) may have been your father, but he wasn’t your daddy.” In the end, his sacrifice is recognized by his Ravager tribe as well, earning him a place posthumously, even as his “true” family (Guardians) bury him. In a touching mini-arc, Yondu’s first mate is the one who truly celebrates his place of honor with the Ravager tribe. It’s then that we see Yondu’s first mate was actually the neglected son all along, while Peter was the favored son. Yondu’s first mate was the one who, earlier in the movie, protested that Yondu was always going after Peter and saving him, “as if he’s more important than the rest of us. The ones who’s stood by you.” It’s a call for Yondu to recognize the family right in front of him, not just chasing after his guilt and Peter. That declaration is what inadvertently led to mutiny, and Yondu’s first mate apologizes for that later and helps get Yondu free. Together, they go to save Peter. In a touching symbol of Yondu’s first mate’s place as “adopted son”, Peter gives him Yondu’s signature arrow.
Nebula and Gomora
Nebula is still hell bent on killing her father, but the scene when she departs recognizes that they are truly sisters now. Gomora tells her outright, “You will always be my sister.”
As the movie closes, we get closure on all the arcs. Gamora recognizes that there’s an “unspoken thing” between her and Peter. Rocket has the first real admission ever of his desire to be in the Guardian family, using the lens of Yondu’s death/redemption with the Ravagers. “He didn’t chase them away. Even though he was mean.” Peter acknowledges that Rocket didn’t chase them away; he’s still part of the family. Finally, we get Teen Groot, and Peter chastising him just like a father would… and acknowledging that “now I know how Yondu felt.”
The whole thing, start to finish, is one long resonant theme about the many ways family bonds are broken and formed and how ambition is the anti-thesis of family and the literal destruction of it.