I liked Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 better than the first GotG movie, which I already liked a heck of a lot. It’s fun, it’s weird, it’s unabashedly space opera. It’s also got a lot of payoff for some emotional stuff that got set up in the first movie, particularly the relationship with Peter Quill and Yondu. And while in GotG 1, I never really felt like we got a firm grounding on why the team of misfits came together, this at least showed us why the stay together.
Spoilers within, so read cautiously.
A quick word about empathy as seen in the movie before I really rev up the engines and shout about family. The importance of empathy and emotional communication was prevalent and important in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever really seen in a superhero movie before, which is fantastic. And I don’t even mean the character of Mantis, though it was interesting to see her go from something of a comedy relief character to basically helping win the battle using her power of empathy.
Rather, when Rocket and Yondu have it out before they head to Ego’s planet, it’s all about empathy. Yondu sees himself in Rocket, and Rocket making all the same incredibly stupid mistakes, which ultimately led to Yondu losing most of his loyal men in a mutiny and being an outcast in his own organization. And in that moment of understanding, he tells Rocket to stop it and do better. And Rocket does, indeed, get his shit together, even if he’s still something of a jerk. He accepts that his fears are going to deprive him of everything good he’s ever had.
There’s also the reconciliation of Gamora and Nebula, which allows them find each other as adopted sisters again. What causes that is when Nebula out and says why she’s so angry at Gamora — and Gamora takes the step to understand. And she offers her own emotional openness in return — that it hadn’t been about winning, but because she was afraid.
Frankly, it was great to see in opposition to the normal toxically macho stoicism of people failing to work out their interpersonal problems by never talking and punching the shit out of each other. And I think it was important that we saw male characters having those moments — especially Yondu, who’s come to realize that he’s engineered his own lifetime of regret.
I really did not expect to like Yondu as a character after the first movie. What they did with him here was beyond fantastic.
But what I really want to talk about is the way GotG 2 engages with the idea of “family” in an atypical or less-than-typical way for the “summer blockbuster” special effects action film category it falls in with.
Generally with the effect extravaganza type movies, the story tries to find some emotional meat to slot between the explosions with either a romance or two, or some kind of family theme. And in the most usual case, the family theme is the repair or reconstruction of the ideal heterosexual, nuclear family with a romantically bonded opposite-sex couple and a kid or two. Jurassic World springs to mind as a particularly egregious example of this, in which the movie gives us two kids, and a woman, and whatever Chris Pratt’s character is named becomes the de facto man of the family because obviously that’s how the world wants humans to function.
I don’t have a problem with the nuclear family per se. I came from one. Some of my best friends are people in traditional nuclear families. But when that’s the only model presented and treated like some kind of holy ideal to which all roads should lead, it gets annoying. In effect, when only one kind of family is shown as an emotional center worth fighting for, it attacks the existence and validity of other families. (In other words: representation matters. Wonder where I’ve heard that before?) That’s why, say, Mrs. Doubtfire felt so important when it came out; Robin Williams’s character Daniel Hillard’s emotional journey wasn’t about reclaiming his traditional nuclear family, but rather coming to terms with there being other kinds of families that are just as valid and adjusting to his new position.
GotG 2 does something similar as a science fiction action movie. While it’s still incredibly heterosexual (can’t have everything, I guess), the “main” relationship between Peter and Gamora is very much in the background. They never even kiss. And it’s made clear that Gamora’s got more important things to worry about, particularly sorting out things with her adopted sister Nebula — and the whole saving the galaxy yet again thing.
In fact, we take a look at family relationships coming from multiple directions. There’s Gamora and Nebula, and then there’s Peter between his genetic father Ego and Yondu, who is ultimately an adopted father figure. We see the various team members acting parentally toward baby (and then teenaged) Groot. We see Rocket coming to terms with his own place in the family unit, thanks to Yondu (more on that later). And Drax is the one who names the Guardians as a family, in a simple, unsentimental statement because it’s a fact in his world. Looking back on it, I think the choice of Drax as the one who makes the subtext into text is important for two reasons: first, we know he states things baldly as he sees them; and second, because Drax has known the profound loss of his [much more traditionally structured] family and it’s made plain that he still mourns for them and misses them — but he’s found a new home in the Guardians and considers that just as valid.
While all the various relationships in the movie are important to this idea of a found family, the strongest thread is the relationships Peter has with Yondu and Ego. As the person who is genetically his father, Ego’s someone Peter has been looking for his entire life. His relationship with Yondu is a complex and not entirely happy one. But over the course of finding out that Peter wasn’t the first of Ego’s kids that Yondu got paid to abduct — but the only one Yondu decided to keep — we start seeing the bond there. Yondu and Peter give the same reason, word-for-word, for why Yondu kept him: “Skinny kid. Good for thieving.” Which sounds more like an oft-repeated excuse than anything else. And Yondu’s interactions with Rocket, his clear realization that they’re effectively the same person, acting out to keep others at an emotional distance, is so important. It’s the point where Yondu accepts his role as Peter’s “daddy” and Rocket accepts that he really is part of a family he’s found, and that’s all right.
It’s fascinating that Yondu, who seemed like a one-dimensional crook in the first movie, is the driving force between so many of the emotional realizations in the movie. And his final message to Peter: “He might be your father, but he ain’t your daddy.” Holy shit.
In the wider context of big budget movies so often being obsessed with family, this goes beyond its immediate emotional punch. By grace of the fact that Ego is a much worse person than petty shitbag Yondu, the argument it makes is clear: fatherhood, as imperfect as Yondu was at it, is about being there and caring. Blood ties don’t really matter. And Ego’s obsession with the genetic relation between him and Peter being his tool to basically overwhelm the galaxy drives the point home that blood relation ain’t all it was cracked up to be — and that it’s not destiny, either. (I love Peter’s response to Ego taunting him that he’ll be just like everyone else is basically, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”) And then Peter’s adopted family saves him and the galaxy, with Yondu finding his redemption in what could be considered an ultimate act of love, a parent sacrificing themself for their child. While this is another entry in the codex of MCU daddy issues, Yondu’s sacrifice sounds a different note in a cinematic continuity that’s generally preferred to sacrifice its mothers.
Furious 7 also hit this note with me when I saw it. I remember one of my friends complaining because the emphasis on family wasn’t exactly subtle. Well, nothing in that franchise is. But it was a emphasis that I appreciated because the family was, again, a group of people who had come together because they didn’t have anyone but each other, who forged themselves into a family over the course of the previous films. Seeing that type of family treated as valid, strong, and heroic is a big, big deal.
This all struck me so hard because the idea of “found family” is particularly important from a queer viewpoint. It’s often the most supportive and fully accepting family a queer person can find — and sometimes the only one you have, if blood relations have chosen to be less than loving and open-hearted. While the movie is still intensely straight, it still feels like a very big deal that found family is shown as the hero — and as saving lives.