20 May 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 - A Theological Review [SPOILERS]

Every year, my birthday (5 May) aligns with the start of the "summer movie season" - a period of time marked by BIG MOVIES WITH STUFF ASPLODING ALL OVER. As much as home theater technology has advanced over the past 20 years, there's just no substitute for the theater experience: fresh popcorn, comfy seats, big screens, LOUD NOISES. This year was a doubly-special treat: Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 opened on my actual birthday, which fell on a Friday this year. So I had an absolutely wonderful birthday: early morning workout, golf, an afternoon of reading, grilled a steak for supper, then the whole famn-damily hopped in the car and headed off to the movie theater.

You've likely read several reviews of GotGv2 so all I'll say about the movie as a movie is what I heard from Glen Weldon on Pop Culture Happy Hour: "did you like Guardians of the Galaxy? Here's more of that." What amazed me, however, was the theological juxtaposition presented by the central crisis of the movie: what constitutes family? So, there are spoilers ahead - if you want to maintain some surprises, don't read past the jump!

Now that you're here, let's get the obvious out of the way: there are considerable similarities between this movie and The Empire Strikes Back, and I don't imagine this is an accident. Kurt Russell's "Ego" is a terrible father, perhaps more terrible than Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader because he knows he's abandoning his child when he leaves Peter Quill in the care of his mother on Earth/Terra. As the movie progresses, we discover precisely how terrible Ego is, and how aptly he's named: he's literally unable to consider anything beyond himself and his own expansion. Ego kills Peter Quill's mother because his love for her threatens to make him consider something beyond himself; he sacrifices his own children to further his expansionist dreams; in the end, he even tries to sacrifice Peter, the 'greatest' of his own children, because Peter will no subjugate himself and his 'family' to the desires of his father, Ego. There's a razor-thin line being walked here to avoid falling into the cloying banality of "unobtanium" (still the worst part of Avatar by far, IMHO); thankfully, director James Gunn and writers Dan Abnett and And Lanning manage to keep us out of the abyss by revealing the truth of "Ego" one troubling inch at a time. You know there's something wrong throughout, and you can't quite figure it out, but it's neither so opaque you don't care or so obvious you ignore it completely.

The ravager Yondu presents the yin to Ego's yang in an impressive performance by Michael Booker. We have a true rarity in GotGv2: a surprising plot development that is neither teased or revealed in trailers nor outlined in the reviews I read before seeing the movie. (Last chance - I mean it!) I did not know Yondu would sacrifice himself to save Peter. I didn't even see it coming until just a few minutes before watching it unfold onscreen. I nearly missed it because my daughters were sobbing loudly by that point. This. Never. Happens. Anymore. Reviewers and trailers just can't seem to help throwing bits of the plot out into the public, so being genuinely surprised by a movie is a rare treat I don't want to take away from anyone.

From a Lutheran perspective, Yondu and Ego present the dialectic of sin and righteousness developed by Martin Luther when he discussed incurvatus in se and the crucifixion. In his Lectures on Romans Luther wrote,
"our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, [being] so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake."
This, obviously, is how Ego approaches the universe - the self so turned in upon itself that it cannot and will not consider limiting or even changing its desires to account for the right of other selves to exist. Ego is a sociopath, but is able to appear healthy, even beneficent at the start - he has learned to cloak his deeper desires in a shell of magnificence and higher purposes which do not expose his callous disregard for anything that is not Ego and thus not worthy of consideration in his long-range plans for unlimited existence and expansion.

Yondu provides the reverse to Ego: the character who appears to consider only himself and his own good but is in reality deeply troubled by the suffering of others and ultimately chooses to limit himself for the good of the universe. In enfleshed terms, the position Yondu takes is the self-opened position of protection and vulnerability - much the same as Christ adopts the position of ultimate embrace upon the cross, where he is literally unable to turn in upon himself for protection and self-preservation. Yondu's love for Peter is kenotic - self-emptying - giving all of himself for the sake of others rather than sacrificing others for the preservation of himself.

This is where the theological juxtaposition really takes hold of us: what does it mean to be "family"? Is it DNA/blood, or something else? We realize that the theme is hammered at the viewer throughout the movie. Several characters note the constant bickering between the crew of the Milano, even the crew themselves. Each main character deals with family issues, but the final battle forces each to make a choice that reveals their understanding of family. Wandering plot lines that look unconnected and sloppy throughout connect in the last 20 minutes and make an incredible theological argument: family is constituted by sacrifice, love, and forgiveness, not blood, race, or even creed. Family are those who give of themselves for the sake of others. Family are those who, like the Ravagers, forgive one of their own and welcome that one back into the fold (posthumously, in Yondu's case, but the welcome holds). Family are those who do argue, but also hang with and for one another rather than abandoning one another when the going gets tough.

It's a surprisingly complex and thoughtful movie cloaked in explosions, sarcasm, and excellent special effects. I imagine it will hold up well to repeated viewings, much like the first GotG movie, and I expect to discover these themes teased in many other ways that I missed in the first viewing. In a cinematic universe where thoughtless spectacles like the Transformers provide a ton of style with a noted void of substance, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 provides style and substance that I didn't expect, and I'm glad for it.

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