This summer, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy became a box office smash, grossing more than $650 million worldwide as of September 2014 – and all this despite the relatively obscure fictional universe that Guardian of the Galaxy is based on. While DC Comics’ Batman and Superman are household names and Marvel’s string of Avengers movies brings together a string of already beloved heroes, Guardians of the Galaxy is, for all intents and purposes, an enigma. How did a movie with no widely established international fan base, whose heroes include a genetically modified talking raccoon and a tree get so big so quickly? The answer may lie in what it says about our own culture, rather than those of other worlds.
First, let’s make one thing clear – we are both huge fans of this movie (and Reid can boast that he was a fan of the comics long before the leap to screen). It’s a space epic that relies just as much on witty and engaging characters as it does on a complex, high-stakes plot. It’s also a movie that, despite being based on comic books (or perhaps because of it) deals with some decidedly PG-13 stuff. Guardians of the Galaxy has it all: explosions, danger, snappy dialogue and relatable characters. More than anything, it’s a movie that speaks about one thing: being human.
Guardians of Humanity
Who doesn’t want to be a hero? We all dream, as kids and as adults, of being special, being placed in a situation that demands something extra and stepping up to save the day. This isn’t anything new. What do Star Wars, Star Trek, Spider-Man, Iron Man – in fact most action movies – have in common? Family and friends are in danger, there is fracture and loss, a mission to overcome a threat, and the promise of a newer, safer community as a reward. Guardians gives us all of this while managing never to lose the characters’ individual human touches – something with which many great movies struggle. Groot, a sentient tree, has time to give a single flower to a child as a simple act of kindness in a world that’s falling into chaos. Gamora, adopted daughter of Thanos (which is, let’s not forget, Greek for ‘death’), turns her back on a life of cruelty and subjugation in search of freedom and heroism. They may be aliens, but they’re aliens that audiences can relate to and root for. It’s this relation – between audiences and the characters of Guardians – that’s the true secret to the movie’s phenomenal success. Guardians’ heroes, you see, are far from perfect. Instead, they’re just what people want most in the 21st Century: murderers, assassins, thieves, and bandits ... with good, even noble, hearts.
Guardians of the West
‘Be good ... but not too good’ is, arguably, one of the most prevalent messages in our culture today. The rebel with a cause – the gentleman thief – seems to speak to something in modern Western civilization that’s never quite been here before. When did it become a bad thing to be too good? At Guardian’s heart is its protagonist, Star-Lord – a thief with a conscience, who has no problem breaking rules. That’s why Guardians works: it’s managed to present its main character in the perfect sweet spot between do gooders and baddies. We’re told increasingly by society that the best place to be, morally, legally, and even spiritually, is in the middle: rebels who act nicely, but are happy to break the law. We’re told to be our own persons, as long as we temper our bad sides with a little charity every now and then. Guardians exemplifies and glorifies this world view (and does a fantastic job of it). The movie ends with perhaps the most succinct summation of this philosophy: Star-Lord defending himself in the face of his obvious flaws, explains that while he “may be” difficult, he’s “not 100%” selfish. Well, he uses some language that is a bit more salty than this. Is that a good thing? Is it better to openly be a bit of both, good and bad, than to strive to follow a path that is good, right and true? In the Guardians universe, the answer’s a resounding yes. In our universe, things aren’t so clear.
Towards the end of the film, after clear acts of heroism and virtue, some of Guardians main characters engage in some witty and fun dialogue. Speaking to a police officer-type, Rocket Raccoon asks about a new moral dilemma he faces: "If I see something someone else has, and I want it really bad, can I just take it?" The cop, of course, answers that no, that would be stealing. Rocket, stuck on this line of thought alone, goes further: "But what if I want it really bad and much more than them?"
Similarly, Drax – one of the more muscled fighters of the Guardians – asks: "If someone says something irksome, can I rip out his spine?" The answer? "No, that would be … murder." It's all goes to show us that now that the characters are good, they really don't want to be that good.
Years ago, the French philosopher Simone Weil made an astute observation. In her book Gravity and Grace she wrote the following:
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
― Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, 120.
What she wants us to see is that while evil in the fictional world can be exciting and fun, in the real world it is terrible and inhumane. Too much goodness in our books and movies gets boring, while our world is greatly starved of bold, courageous virtue.
Guardians of the Galaxy is just a movie, of course, so we don’t have to worry about the victims of the thieves and the assassins we’re told to love. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. You can love Indiana Jones without worrying that he doesn’t follow international treaties for the removal of antiquities. You can love this movie without worrying that it glorifies violence and law breaking. It’s worth thinking about, though, how different things in the real world might be if, in place of self-justifying rebellion, sacrificial love were the basis for community. This is what we strive for in the church: clear and compelling love and an embrace of truth and goodness. In fact, this sort of sacrificial love and goodness is what forms our rebellious guardians into an actual family on a mission.
We see Drax thanking his friends for forgiving him his many blunders. We see Groot have his only line in the film, "I am Groot," turn into "we are Groot” precisely at the moment where he is giving up his life for his friends. In Guardians of the Galaxy we see a group of misfits and losers formed into a new family - one that lives out a bold mission. How does this happen? It is not through selfish, rebellious and evil-doing behavior. It is sacrificial love that forms their community.
One of the rallying scenes towards the end of the film shows the Guardians coming together to undertake an impossible task: deciding why they should give their lives to save the universe. Star-Lord, going beyond his earlier reasoning that they should save the galaxy because they are part of it, says this: “I look around and see losers. Life has given us a chance to give a #^&*...” His friends know that his call to action may very well mean a call to die. Drax’s reply is simple: "You are asking us to die? I would gladly die among my friends.”
Such sacrificial love, and real communities of friends built upon it, aren’t hard to find in this world. Jesus himself said there was no greater love than to lay life down for his friends. In Jesus we see exciting goodness, clear truth and compelling beauty. In his leadership and sacrificial love, we see a new community emerge with a glorious mission and hope. Jesus’ call to us is to die to ourselves as we live out his mission among friends. In fact, he already died for his friends and showed himself to be the greatest leader this world has known.
We have been called to be guardians of the galaxy, in a sense, because we have indeed received good news. No misfit is too far away or too far gone to receive forgiveness and grace from God. The good news is that Jesus takes a bunch of screw ups, puts them together as a new family, calls them to give their lives for others so that many will be saved and join the team of redemption throughout the world.
In our world today following after God in true righteousness might just be the greatest rebellion there can be. Is it possible that we can be bold and bad by truly joining a revolution for good? The late British journalist and literary critic GK Chesterton says this so well:
In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the Orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.
The Guardians of the Galaxy, a rabble band of misfits from various backgrounds, stories, skin colors, sizes and shapes sought to restore peace to a war-troubled universe. We bring a higher call to the table as we seek to see people restored to peace with God and one another. This is the precise reason that Jesus has a people.