The year is 2017 and family entertainment is a movie about a demigod reuniting with his long-lost son so they can get into an incestuous ménage à trois with every planet in the galaxy. I confess: I was really not expecting mass planet-fucking when I took my students to see this film. Spoilers will abound.
A brief word on identity politics: yes, the sisters talk to each other about sisterly things like their abusive adoptive father and how he mutilated one of them into a psychopathic cyborg while the other justifies her viciousness on her childlike innocence or something. But the core question this raises for me is: does it pass the Bechdel test if the characters are ostensibly female, but not human? Once you’ve got your answer to that question: What if the actors are female but the characters aren’t, as is not-uncommon in live theater? Or if male actors are playing female characters? What degree of representation do we need to have to actually be doing a good job at providing an opportunity for representation here? Do Black and Latina women feel as represented when Zoe Saldana is green as when she’s her usual brown? I think she’s an attractive woman and capable actor either way (though I prefer her natural coloring) but the larger point is that while basic tools of critique are valuable for gaining preliminary information, they can’t be relied upon when determining the depth of cultural impact. My students were, however, impressed that wardrobe managed to keep all of the women’s chests adequately covered, unlike in Captain America 3.
The script for this film is simply not up to snuff. Honestly, the Marvel properties have not been able to get back up to their high point of Captain America 2, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 eschews physics for slapstick, visual coherence for spectacle, and character development for set-up. It’s not a good way to be, made worse by how actively repellent and immature the characters–most notably Drax and Rocket, though also Peter–are made out to be. This is intentional: they are supposed to be showing their cultured toxic reactions to long-term exposure to hostile environment, but the effect is overdone and comes out with the message that masculinity is de facto toxic.
The key scene that is supposed to draw the audience into sympathy with the guys is Yondu providing Rocket with therapeutic insight. It’s a tiny little bit of the film, but it serves to explain why the guys are each acting the way they are. Fast forward to the climax of the film and Yondu tells Peter that he controls the arrow not with his mind but with his heart, allowing Peter to brawl with his father. Really, Yondu’s full of good advice in this film–a point we’ll come back to in just a moment–but step back to when Yondu was departing from his ship: he used his arrow to viciously cut down most of his former crew. Really, only Kraglin survives the mutiny, a mutiny that was somewhat precipitated on his noticing how utterly disposable the crew was to Yondu when compared to Peter. So when Yondu tells Peter that he controls his arrow with his heart, we have to remember that Yondu’s heart is merciless to any he thinks might be an enemy and disdainful even of his allies. Some heart, but he’s really the best man in the film.
On a related note: male sexuality is once again presented as dominant in this film as none of the women who got laid actually survived. The sisters Gamora and Nebula are presented as somewhere between cautious to the point of celibate and single-minded to the point of asexual, respectively.
On a brighter note, Yondu really was a good mentoring character in this film both to Rocket and to Peter. The role of mentor refers back to The Odyssey and Odysseus’s son, Telemachos, and serves to define the difference between the biological and social roles of a father. See, the goddess Athena went (disguised) to visit Telemachos and she asks him “Are you, big as you are, the very child of Odysseus? ” (207) to which he replies “My mother says indeed I am his. I for my part do not know. Nobody really knows his own father” (215-6). And so Athena advises him–and later reinforces the message while disguised as Mentor; yes, that really was that dude’s name–on how to take his proper place in the social structure by going out to socialize with neighboring warlords and adding “You should not go on clinging to your childhood. You are no longer of an age to do that” (296-7).
The point here is that there is a functional difference between being a biological father and doing the work necessary to raise a child into civilized society, a practice that the Greeks gendered as masculine. In an idealized family, the biological father is also the social dad, but the modern family often doesn’t work that way and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 works with this: while Yondu didn’t exactly raise Peter into civilized society, Peter does realize–in retrospection–how much work Yondu actually did put into raising him, work that his biological father–driven only by his selfish and incestuous agenda–did not. It is still a masculine-gendered practice, of course, since–being a Disney film–Peter’s mom died at the beginning of its predecessor.
When I’m mentoring my students, I try to keep Athena’s example in mind: the goal is to get the kid to find where they can grow into adult society. And my students are generally the ones who find me, a practice which helps ensure that I’m not trying to teach kids who don’t want to learn. But, like Yondu, my ability to instruct frequently comes from the errors that I made and can thus advise my students to avoid. For me, this is the key to regarding murderous space-pirate Yondu as a sympathetic and ultimately tragic character; he’s the kind of guy I’d commiserate with in a bar with sighs and mutterings of “Kids these days.”
But I lead with planet-fucking, so let’s get to Ego. Ego is named for the uninhibited Freudian ability to plan out the fulfillment of biological drives: dude wants to fuck every planet in the galaxy, but he can’t do it alone so he works on spawning Peter. Without going too far into the often-disavowed Freud, in a properly developed psyche, the ego is capped by the super-ego whereby the individual learns to control their actions to maintain their social place. We see this progression in Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh is only really able to accept his mortality and the limits of his ego because of the city and civilization he knows will live beyond him. But Ego has no such control: he specifically prefer to live in isolation to cultivate his sense of mastery over the small shell he’s built around himself. He’s disdainful of all other naturally-occurring life and really just wants to fuck the planets until they’re all part of him. Even Goethe’s rendition of Faust was generally motivated by allowing his people to expand their dominance of the land; while his super-ego was underdeveloped, Faust was still driven by his need to craft a legacy that would survive beyond him. Ego has no mortality so his impatient push to fuck every planet in the galaxy until they are all barren is bizarre. He’s gone so far into the hypermasculine egoism of allegedly rational goal-pursuit that he has a sole companion whose job it is to feel things for him, another example of masculinity being somewhere between bad at and intentionally incapable of managing feelings.
Ego’s ineptitude at managing feelings makes it impossible for him to understand why Peter’s upset that Ego intentionally killed his mom with a slow and agonizing brain cancer. (I would’ve thought it was an accidental side effect a la Dr. Manhattan’s McGuffin, but no, they went for “I killed her, cha-cha-cha!“) Upon receiving that bit of news, Peter violently lashes out against his father in much the same way Hamlet, despite swearing to avenge his father, only goes after Claudius when his mother is dead on the floor in front of him at the end of Hamlet. The hyperextended climax only seems to vaguely be Peter fighting for the fate of the galaxy or to protect his friends; it seems mostly to be that he’s got some daddy-issues that just got massively amplified with the admission that his father’s to blame for his mother’s horrible death.
When Peter (basically) kills Ego, Ego warns Peter that Peter will become mortal just like everybody else. Peter answers “what’s wrong with that?” but that wasn’t necessarily the best answer for the situation. The more salient point is that being a god in isolation didn’t make Ego any happier than the mere mortals who lived and were destined to die together; Ego only intuitively realized but could not rationalize that his power only mattered when it could be put on display. The super-ego works because strong bonds and social connections are supposed to override our selfish and sociopathic impulses. Beyond that, however, Peter had only known he was immortal for like two days so giving up immortality–regardless of its worth–didn’t seem like a huge loss compared to the burdens he’d taken on in his childhood; Ego’s failure to make a slow play into Peter’s immortality precipitated his demise. Also: “I killed her, cha-cha-cha!”
So Peter (basically) kills Ego and apparently loses all of the powers that he’d gained the day before that were only available to him when he was literally hopping on pop. This actually irks me, not just because it felt like the film was wasted filler, and not just because that’s not how genetics work, but also because of how The Playboy of the Western World ends: Christy Mahon kills his father, but Old Mahon stands back up and they leave together. The child can’t simply kill off the influence their parent had on them, can’t kill off the experience they lived as a child that set the relationship. Peter is always going to be stuck resenting Ego but now has no visual connection that hole in his mind. Never mind the “genes don’t vanish when you become an orphan; that’s not how they work!” argument–I mean, it’s correct, but “genes don’t turn you into a minor god but only on some far-off planet that’s actually your father’s candy-coating shell; that’s not how they work!” is basically the same thing and also valid. No, my concern is that Peter’s troubles with his parents should’ve been massively compounded with how violently they were surfaced in this film but I suspect–hope, honestly–that we’re not going to be hearing about them again.
By way of comparison, the preferable handling of the subject matter was the original Hellboy, in which the title character maintains both his natural heritage but develops according to the social development his adoptive father was able to afford him, meticulously crafted into a by-the-numbers B-movie shell, with a variety of performative masculinities. But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.