The Most Popular Movie in America Right Now Is All About Toxic Fatherhood

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with one of the first movie’s trademark groovy 1970s songs, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, as we pan into an idyllic forest scene in 1980. A man and a woman drive past a Dairy Queen and go into the woods, and we realize we’re meeting Peter “Starlord” Quill’s father, played by a digitally-facelifted Kurt Russell. It’s comforting, friendly—until we go inside the strange flower that Peter’s dad has planted, and we see glimpses of some biological monstrosity, as the music echoes. This sequence is our first clue that the mystery of Starlord’s paternity will have turn out to have an ugly resolution.

Warning: Enormous spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ahead.

The word “family” is spoken a few times in this sequel to Marvel’s enormously popular 2014 space opera, in a way that’s intended to let us know that it has thematic significance. But the real over-arching theme of Guardians 2 is fathers—and more specifically, evil patriarchs. Peter’s father, Ego, turns out to be a narcissistic psycho who wants to spread his genetic code all over the universe—basically, turning everything into more of himself. Meanwhile, the conflict between two alien sisters, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), is resolved when they realize they were both abused by their adoptive father, Thanos.

 

Ego and Grant

Ego, whom comics fans will know as Ego the Living Planet, appears at first to be a classic hippie dad, full of remorse at leaving his son behind and eager to make amends. He’s sentimental about his old romance with Peter’s mom, Meredith, and full of hokey stories about how he wanted to walk among other life forms after millions of years as a self-aware planet. It’s only after a nice dayglo father-son game of catch that the yuckiness appears, and it starts with that Looking Glass song: Ego explains that just like the singer in “Brandy,” he had to leave the woman he loved, because his true love is the sea.

Or rather, Ego’s true love is his own psychedelic polymorphic life-energy, which he wants to use to turn the entire universe into an extension of himself. He’s killed all his other children when they turned out not to have inherited his control over this energy, but Peter (Chris Pratt) is his true son. This is only because he can help with Ego’s project of becoming the ultimate patriarch and, essentially, fathering an entire universe. Ego wants to squirt his seeds all over creation, and infuse everything with his DNA, but he needs his son’s help to do it. Too bad about all the people Peter loves, who’ll have to die in the process.

The figure of the evil dude who wants to turn everything into an extension of himself is a familiar one in writer-director James Gunn’s work. His earlier film Slither (2006) features an abusive husband Grant (Michael Rooker, who plays Yondu here) who terrorizes his much younger wife, Starla (Elizabeth Banks). Starla wants to break free, but Grant gets infected with an alien parasite, which allows him to impregnate another woman, Brenda, with millions of his half-alien children. These slug-babies then infect other people, all of whom speak with Grant’s voice, parroting whatever Grant says. Soon, the entire town becomes part of Grant, except for Starla and her childhood crush Bill (Nathan Fillion).

Slither plays like an elaborate metaphor for the way that an abusive relationship can feel as though it shuts out the rest of the world, with loads and loads of grotesque body horror.

Meanwhile, Ego’s fatherhood isn’t just gross, it’s actually cancerous. His attempt to colonize the entire universe is represented by huge dark growths that spread everywhere, consuming all living matter. And to drive the metaphor home, we learn that Ego gave Starlord’s mother the brain tumor that killed her, so he wouldn’t feel tempted to keep coming back to her and become diverted from his purpose of reproducing himself endlessly.

 

Yondu: Father of the Year?

The story ends up by offering us a hopeful alternative as Peter’s father: Yondu, who kidnapped Peter from Earth as a child and kept him instead of delivering him to Ego. Yondu basically raised Peter. And he was a terrible daddy who kept threatening to eat his “son”—but he also sacrificed for Peter, and taught him to fight. (And yet Peter believes the stories Yondu told, that he was just kept around because he was tiny, and thus useful for thievin’.)

After the literally poisonous, exploitative version of fatherhood we’ve seen from Ego, Yondu starts to look like a candidate for Father of the Year, especially after he gives his life for Peter’s.

Yondu, meanwhile, has his own daddy issues, because he’s been rejected by Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), who rescued Yondu from slavery among the Kree and made him a Ravager. Stakar is clearly the closest thing that Yondu has to a father, and when Stakar disowns him for breaking the Ravager code, he’s heartbroken. This is what sets off the brutal leadership battle among Yondu’s Ravager crew, after Yondu’s not willing to sacrifice Peter in turn, to get back on his feet.

The other huge arc in the film is the Nebula/Gamora battle, which continues from the first film. They were both raised by Thanos, that sadistic purple dude who sits on an armchair, floating in space. Thanos forced them to fight each other every day, and the loser (who was always Nebula) had to be cut up and cybernetically enhanced each time. It’s a nightmarishly extreme story of parental abuse, which has left both women at each other’s throats. They’re only able to start communicating, as sisters, when they put the blame where it belongs: on Daddy Dearest.

Even then, they can’t agree what to do about Thanos. Nebula, who suffered the most, wants to go kill the Mad Titan. But Gamora, who came out healthier both emotionally and physically, believes that’s impossible, and just wants to move on with her life.

We do meet one apparent matriarchy in the film: the Sovereign, led by high priestess Ayesha. But they’re really a eugenics cult, who have rejected the whole concept of parenthood and family in favor of some kind of sterile Brave New World-style engineering. By the end of the movie, Ayesha is in trouble, and she’s abandoned all pretense of creating a perfect society, in favor of engineering the ultimate weapon: Adam Warlock.

The real counterpoint to all the evil and inadequate fathers in the movie, though, is Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). In the first movie, Drax’s grief over the deaths of his wife and daughter made him into a homicidal maniac—but now he appears to have made peace with his loss. Until we see the empath, Mantis, touch Drax as he thinks of his family, and she bursts into tears. It’s a small moment, but it’s intensely moving because Drax just sits there, head bowed.

Drax, unexpectedly, becomes the steady heart of the team, and you never doubt for a second that he was a good husband and father. When he’s not shrieking with laughter and making poop jokes, Drax has a quiet fatherly stoicism. And by the end of the film, he seems to be turning into a warped kind of surrogate father for Mantis, an orphan who was raised alone with Ego. (Even though, yes, he keeps telling Mantis that she’s ugly. Shades of Yondu’s parenting.)

 

Raising Baby Groot

Which brings us back to the theme of family—Drax is one of the main people who insists that’s what the Guardians are. And in a universe populated by narcissistic dads (Ego), sadistic dads (Thanos), rejecting dads (Stakar) and societies that have rejected the concept of parenting altogether (the Sovereign), the Guardians make for an appealingly bizarre sort of family unit. They all act like both kids and parents at different times, and their bond comes from not just watching each other’s backs, but also caring about each other.

They’re the ultimate expression of the 1990s “family we chose” idea: people who stay together because they want to be together, not just because of birth or bonds of marriage.

And they have a baby to raise, whom they all take turns looking after: Groot. Groot is sort of a mischievous toddler, not quite smart enough to be of much use, but a giant distraction. At the end of the film, he does prove useful at getting into small spaces that an adult can’t crawl through (the same benefit that Yondu keeps claiming he kept Peter around for.) Seeing the almost indestructible fighting machine from the first movie transformed into a teeny, yawning, squalling infant plays on your protective instincts. And even though you might expect Rocket to be Groot’s main parent, they really do share parenting duties among themselves, handing him off in the middle of a space battle.

 

Whose Tunes?

That Looking Glass song, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” keeps coming back throughout this movie, and it gets creepier every time. It’s a seriously ugly song: an offshoot of the mostly undistinguished genre of “I’m a rock musician who needs to love ’em and leave ’em, time to go, bye” songs that ruled the 1970s. You don’t realize just how gross the lyrics are, until Kurt Russell recites them, emphasizing the condescension of “What a good wife you would be.” It’s stomach-churning.

In the first Guardians, classic rock and pop mostly belonged to Peter Quill. They served as a reminder of Peter’s dead mother and lost innocence, and reflected his emotional state at every turn. This time around, though, 1960s pop and 1970s MOR belong to everybody: Groot, Rocket, and even Yondu make use of Peter’s tunes for their own dance scenes and killing sprees. But the movie still plays with our lingering expectation that the nostalgic songbook is a window into Peter’s soul—which is what makes the twist of the knife with “Brandy” so effective, when we realize the song isn’t what Peter thinks it is.

Peter also loses ownership of his old-school music, just as he’s having to learn to understand the people around him, particularly Rocket and Yondu. He also has to grow up, by choosing his family over the father-son reunion he’s dreamed about. It’s fitting that the film’s soundtrack begins serving the needs of other people, as well as reflecting a more complex inner landscape for Peter, at the very moment that he has to perform that quintessential coming-of-age action: killing his own father.

All the Birds in the Sky Charlie Jane AndersBefore writing fiction full-time, Charlie Jane Anders was for many years an editor of the extraordinarily popular science fiction and fantasy site io9.com. Her debut novel, the mainstream Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. Her Tor.com story “Six Months, Three Days” won the 2013 Hugo Award and was optioned for television. Her debut SFF novel All the Birds in the Sky, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Nebula Award in the Novel category and earned praise from, among others, Michael Chabon, Lev Grossman, and Karen Joy Fowler. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney’s, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, theWall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.

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