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Family Values: FORGING BONDS IN THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY FILMS.

Notionally minor instalments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy films are among the most emotionally complex, pairing edge-of-seat action with a consistent focus on their characters' vulnerability and need for connection. As REBEKAH BRAMMER describes, the theme of familial relationships whether biological or chosen - shines through.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) and its follow-up, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017), heralded a refreshing direction for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The relative unfamiliarity of the characters and storylines to a mainstream, non-comicbook-fan audience actually worked in the films' favour, with the Guardians given the status of loveable underdogs in comparison to the MCU's more well known heroes. As is true with the best of the Marvel films, great characterisation and an emotional core elevate the experience above pure spectacle. While audience expectations for a superhero film have traditionally been based on stereotypical muscle-bound heroes saving the world, as the genre has matured, audiences have come to expect more diverse portrayals of characters (who are often dealing with their own vulnerabilities and personal tragedies). With characters appearing across several films in the MCU, the series' capacity to sustain fully rounded personalities and develop strong emotional ties between them has been vital to retaining the element of authenticity that elevates these films within the genre.

In the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, we find a group of characters thrown together largely by circumstance within a classic 'quest' narrative. They initially present as a group of ragtag adventurers, but, over the course of the two films, their interactions become far more familial in nature. As reviewer Scott Beggs states, 'Messy family lives are our surest reminder that superhero stories are essentially fairy tales'; he goes on to say that the Guardians represent the strongest incarnation of the 'chosen family' theme that is woven through the MCU (1) This is initiated by the fact that some of the characters have either lost or become displaced from their own families, while others have never experienced having a family at all.

Bound by tragedy

Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff as a child / Chris Pratt as an adult), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) have all lost family members to tragedy, and each hides their grief with rage and isolation. The lynchpin of Quill's storyline is the loss of his mother: his abduction from Earth on the night of her death, seen in the first film's prologue, is the catalyst for his new life and identity as the lone wolf Star-Lord, but it also holds the key to his unwillingness to bond with others. In childhood and later life alike, Quill is damaged and heartbroken, concealing it in adulthood with cocky swagger and a series of flings across the galaxy that point to an avoidance of intimacy. His precious mixtape, the only memento he has to remind himself of his mother, plays a key role in the first film, not only in providing it with a brilliant late-twentieth-century soundtrack but also in allowing him to honour her memory. This is especially poignant when, at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, he finally opens the gift from her that he has been carrying around for so many years to reveal a second mixtape. Reading her accompanying letter is an act of both acceptance and acknowledgement of his grief.

Likewise, Gamora's loss of her family is worn as both a cloak of grief and a suit of armour. While she seemingly has family ties including half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) - she tells Drax that she is 'no family' to her adoptive father, MCU supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin), and it is later revealed that she was taken from her mother by him and raised to be an assassin. Like Quill, she comes across as an independent agent, defiantly rejecting others in favour of her own strength.

For Drax, the literally minded muscle of the group, his grief is as obvious as the tattoos he sports: red and angry. He, too, initially presents as a loner, with his motivation for remaining with the others being his drive for revenge against Ronan (Lee Pace), who killed his wife and daughter.

Otherworldly orphans

The characters of Rocket and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively) are unique alien beings who appear to have no family ties of any kind. Rocket alludes to being created in a laboratory as a genetic experiment, and, in a scene from the first film, drunkenly laments his frustration with his own murky origins. His companion Groot is a bizarre tree-like creature who communicates using only a few words, one of which is his own name. An arresting officer in Guardians of the Galaxy describes Groot as Rocket's 'house plant slash muscle', but it becomes clear that there exists a unique bond between these two creatures that is strongly fraternal in nature. Despite his formidable size and fighting abilities, Groot displays a childlike nature at times, whereas Rocket is like a big brother to him: extremely protective of his friend, though also given to teasing him relentlessly, Rocket is the only one who can understand and interpret Groot's language.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 introduces the character of Mantis (Pom Klementieff), another alien being who seems to have no family ties. Although she lives with the alien Ego (Kurt Russell), she seems to be more of a servant to him than anything else, an orphan who refers to him as 'master'; he certainly displays no fatherly affection towards her. With the Guardians, she finds acceptance and a renewed sense of self. She is initially teased by Drax for what he perceives as her hideous appearance, but they develop a kinship over the course of the film. Bautista has stated that he and Klementieff respectively play the pair as a big brother and little sister, as the characters share a 'childlike innocence'. (2)

Daddy issues

Clashes with fathers and father-figures are at the heart of some of the key relationships in the two films. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Quill discovers that Ego is his father, and that his abduction from Earth was at the latter's request. Quill's delight at finding his father after so many years clouds his judgement and breeds mistrust about the other Guardians' suspicions about Ego; during an argument with Gamora, he says, 'I've finally found my family,' to which she replies, 'I thought you already had.' When Ego's betrayal becomes apparent, with the revelation that he caused Quill's beloved mother's cancer, the Guardians are there to defend their comrade.

Quill's relationship with Yondu (Michael Rooker), leader of intergalactic smugglers the Ravagers, is also complicated. We discover they were his abductors, and that he spent the remainder of his childhood with them before branching out on his own. When we first meet them, we can see why Quill left: apart from constant comments about wanting to eat the young Quill, the group are the antithesis of what the Guardians come to represent - they are militaristic outlaws with a 'code' and little sentiment, although the other Ravagers do chide Yondu for being 'soft' on Quill. Despite this, Quill and Yondu both use the line 'the only family I ever had' to describe the Ravagers. We discover that Yondu deliberately kept him from Ego to save him: 'He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn't your daddy. I'm damn lucky you're my boy.' When Yondu finally chooses to sacrifice himself to save the Guardians, Quill refers to him at his memorial as the dad who was 'right there by [his] side all along'.

Gamora and Nebula's father, Thanos, is a ruthless warrior who, rather than nurturing his daughters, instead trained them to become elite fighters before pitting them against each other, seemingly for his own cruel amusement. In the first scene with the three characters in Guardians of the Galaxy, Thanos refers to Gamora as his favourite daughter in front of Nebula, compounding the hurt and jealousy that fuel the sisters' relationship. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 allows Nebula to tell the story of how she became a cyborg: her father replaced parts of her body each time she was defeated in a fight by her sister.

Sisters and brothers

The relationship between sisters, especially those close in age, is often a complicated one. It's commonplace for sisters in films to be depicted as either polar opposites who constantly bicker and compete, or soul sisters who look out for each other and are more like best friends; sometimes, they need to go through the first phase to reach the second. In the case of Gamora and Nebula, the foundation of their relationship rests upon the cruel machinations of their father. Threats about killing each other exchanged by squabbling siblings are not an uncommon occurrence in many households, but in this case it's literal - the two women come to violent blows in each of the films. Early in the second him, Gamora says of her sister, 'She's worth no more to me than the bounty due for her.' However, their relationship with Thanos, which first divided them, ends up bringing them together. After a final showdown, they discover that they are incapable of killing one another: Nebula's robotic artifice is stripped away when she utters, 'You are the one who wanted to win, and I just wanted a sister. You were all I had.' They recognise Thanos as the architect of their extreme sibling rivalry, and, with a final embrace towards the end of the him, Gamora tells Nebula, 'You will always be my sister.' While it's clear they are not going to become best friends, there is now at least an alliance grounded in forgiveness.

The brotherly bond that is apparent between Rocket and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy is extended to include Drax when Groot (translated by Rocket) insists that the three of them save the other Guardians from danger. Rocket's grief at ostensibly losing Groot at the end of the first film is profound, but also provides the catalyst for Drax and Rocket's relationship to grow. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, with Groot now a 'baby', Drax and Rocket have become like a pair of naughty brothers, laughing at each other's dirty jokes and getting up to mischief. Rocket and Yondu are also revealed as kindred spirits in the second film. In a wise, big-brotherly way, Yondu calls Rocket out for pushing away the love and friendship of the group, revealing his own mistakes in having done the same. He confides that he was sold into slavery by his parents, and therefore can be seen as another of the films' 'otherworldly orphans' who unexpectedly discover what it is to find familial acceptance and compassion.

Who's holding the baby (Groot)?

One of the cutest sequences committed to film in recent memory is the post-credit sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy, which depicts the regrowth of Groot into an adorable potted baby plant, dancing to the Jackson 5's 'I Want You Back'. The resurrection of this character may prove a relief to viewers, but it also leaves us with a new character of sorts, as Groot is not what he once was. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 amps up the cuteness factor with an opening sequence depicting a 'toddler' Groot making mischief while the Guardians try to work. Images of him being cared for by the Guardians visually signify their family ties: Groot's seen being passed from Quill to Gamora to Drax, on whose shoulder he adorably drifts off to sleep. At Yondu's funeral, little Groot sits on Quill's knee as they listen to Cat Stevens' 'Father and Son', the touching tableau revealing Quill's capacity for love and forgiveness - the fatherly qualities lacking in his own life. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's end-credit sequence gives us a third incarnation of Groot as a brooding teenager, with Quill firmly ensconced in the paternal role as he reprimands him for the usual teen pursuit of playing videogames in a messy room. This sequence also reveals that, like Rocket, the other Guardians can now understand Groot's language.

Family ties

There are a number of instances of the Guardians making the transition from unlikely allies to friends to a family. In Guardians of the Galaxy, not long after the group have escaped prison together, Quill says of their bickering that 'this is why none of you have any friends' (a statement that he could easily apply to himself as well). He later adds, 'I look around at us, and you know what I see? Losers [...] folks who have lost stuff [...] our homes, our families, normal lives.' Before their final showdown with Ronan, Gamora says, T have spent most of my life surrounded by my enemies. I will be grateful to die among my friends.' Drax also thanks the group for their friendship, signalling an end to his single-minded need for revenge as well as a willingness to embrace the company of others to achieve a common goal and companionship. When Groot sacrifices himself to save the rest of the group at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, his statement 'we are Groot' can be interpreted as 'we are family'. Later, as the Guardians depart together in his ship, Quill reassuringly states that he'll 'keep an eye on them', supported by Gamora, who adds, 'We'll follow your lead, Star-Lord.' Quill and Gamora's will-they-won't-they romantic relationship also positions them as the makeshift parents of the group. As reviewer Alasdair Stuart notes, the pair are 'now the designated heads of a newly-forged family, one built out of friendship and choice [...] two broken people who've repaired themselves on their own terms'. (3) When we see the group again in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, the family bonds have been consolidated. In one scene, Nebula says in exasperation, 'All any of you do is yell at each other. You are not friends,' to which Drax replies, 'You're right. We're family.' In the final group tableau in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, as the Guardians watch the fireworks at Yondu's funeral, we see the full family unit together, including new member Mantis.

The Guardians are a welcome addition to the last two Marvel Avengers films - Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019), both directed by Anthony and Joe Russo - and when we catch up with them, their familial pattern is well established. As Anthony states, post-Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 'They're closer, and they're tighter, and they've been doing it for a while [...] they have cemented their chemistry as a team.' Joe adds, 'The relationships have deepened.' (4) While the dense, character-packed plot of these two films spreads the potential for character development a little thin, we are treated to a flashback of Gamora's separation from her mother in Infinity War. After the more sobering events of Endgame, we can look forward to catching up with this 'deeply weird, hilariously dysfunctional, and surprisingly close family' (5) in the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (Gunn).

Rebekah Brammer teaches English as a second language in Brisbane. and has studied drama, film and television, and applied linguistics. She has been contributing to Metro and Screen Education since 2008. Her favourite Guardian is Groot.

Endnotes

(1) Scott Beggs, 'How Guardians of the Galaxy Celebrates the Family We Choose', Nerdist, 9 May 2017, <https://nerdist.com/article/how-guardians-of-the-galaxy-celebrates-the-family-we-choose/>, accessed 16 September 2019.

(2) Dave Bautista, quoted in Eric Eisenberg, 'The Truth Behind Drax and Mantis' Relationship, According to Dave Bautista', CinemaBlend, 5 May 2017, <https://www.cinemablend.com/news/1655590/the-truth-behind-drax-and-mantis-relationship-according-to-dave-bautista>, accessed 16 September 2019.

(3) Alasdair Stuart, 'Guardians of the Galaxy Is a Story About Finding, and Choosing, Your Family', Tor.com, 28 April 2017, <https://www.tor.com/2017/04/28/guardians-of-the-galaxy-is-a-story-about-finding-and-choosing-your-family/>, accessed 16 September 2019.

(4) Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, quoted in Matthew Erao, 'How the Guardians of the Galaxy Have Changed in the Years After Vol. 2', Screen Rant, 15 March 2018, <https://screenrant.com/guardians-of-the-galaxy-avengers-infinity-war-changes/>, accessed 16 September 2019.

(5) Stuart, op. cit.
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Author:Brammer, Rebekah
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Date:Dec 1, 2019
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