Guardians of the Galaxy: Echoing Trauma in the Main Story
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we discuss Guardians of the Galaxy, and how to fold your main characters' tragic backstories into the main plot.
It's hardly revelatory to say that every major character in this film is dealing with trauma from their past. Not only that, but none of them are dealing with this trauma in a healthy way. (Well, Groot has healthy coping mechanisms, but we'll come back to him later.)
Peter Quill embodies one of the most common tropes in modern blockbusters: the loner, badass, man-child suffering from arrested development. This trend was spurred on by characters like Tony Stark, but where the Marvel films see these characters evolve, many other blockbuster movies with similar characters (often also starring Chris Pratt) miss that pivotal step. The first Guardians film isn't entirely critical of Star Lord's behavior, but it does justify them more deeply than many other films might with a similar character.
Like Tony Stark, Peter Quill lost his parents at a young age, and is now emotionally frozen in his teens. We see throughout the film that he hasn't even opened the final gift he received from his mother, because he can't move forward emotionally and process her loss. While it's very common for modern protagonists to regurgitate pop culture references with every other sentence, for Peter Quill it's motivated by his connection to Earth's culture, filtered through the traumatic loss of his mother.
Let's see this in action by comparing two Marvel scenes: one from Doctor Strange, and one from Guardians 1. In the former, during his introductory surgery scene, Dr. Strange first proves he's smarter than other people by... hearing a song and saying, "Feels So Good, Chuck Mangione, 1977." He impresses the other doctors by knowing the track name, artist, and release year better than anyone else in the room.
About 30 minutes into Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter is being processed into the prison when he notices a guard listening to his walkman, playing the music he got from his mother. The guard shocks him, and instead of reacting like a normal person, Peter shouts, "Hooked on a Feeling. Blue Swede. 1973. That song belongs to me!" That line gives away the entire game. He has linked the Awesome Mix to his mother, and when the tape is taken, it reminds him of his helplessness when his mother was taken by illness. (Keep that in mind when Ego squishes the walkman in the sequel, and what that symbolizes.)
So, when Peter finally allows himself to share his music with Gamora halfway through, we as an audience understand the significant step he is taken in letting someone past his barriers. For Peter and the audience, this connects Gamora to the music and to his mother... a bond that is cemented by the finale.
When Peter holds the Infinity Stone, Gamora reaches out for him to take her hand, and he glimpses her as his mother, in the hospital bed, reaching out for his hand. And in a clear sign of his growth as a character, now he can at last take her hand.
And when he gets back to the ship at the end of the film, he finally opens her last gift, and plays another tape of music she gifted him... which of course, opens with "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," in a moment that makes me cry every time I watch the film.
She speaks to him from beyond the grave, sending her final message through music, and reassuring him that her death is not the end of their love. And although he went decades without this comfort, now he is finally ready to receive her message and move forward with a new family.
Let's move the lens over to Gamora and her trauma. While it takes a more central role in the stories of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Gamora's issues with her family linger throughout the first film. She's someone who has very publicly been defined by her relationship to her abuser. Everyone knows her as "Thanos's daughter," but she hates him and seeks to undermine his plans.
Her struggles with her family become literal through her battles with Nebula, and while their relationship gets properly explored in later films, the first story establishes their dynamic: Gamora is Thanos' favorite, and Nebula resents her for it. And yet, Nebula wanted to love Gamora. When she tries to kill Gamora (and almost succeeds), Nebula says, "Of all our siblings, I hated you least." There was a potential for a healthy relationship but it never came to pass; and Nebula clearly lays the responsibility for that failing at Gamora's feet.
Gamora has plenty of moments where she denies that the main characters are a team, let alone friends. Thanks to her past, she has no reason to assume they will not be as treacherous and despicable as her first adoptive family. It's only as they complete their eventual character arcs that she comes to trust them and rely on them to save innocent people. Once they've opened up enough to be altruistic, she opens up enough to become part of the team.
While Gamora is guarded, Drax is anything but. He is open about his feelings at all times, and there's little reason to ever guess what is going through his head. His trauma is obvious - his wife and daughter were slain by Ronan the Accuser, the primary villain of the film. He joins the team not because of money or altruism, but purely for revenge. And this single-minded need for revenge eventually causes him to drunk-dial Ronan and bring the enemies down on their location.
In the aftermath of the fight, Rocket calls out Drax's behavior, and he admits that he has been masking his pain with anger and rage. This is hardly a revelation, as he's barely been keeping his pain concealed (and Dave Bautista's acting has communicated this idea very effectively throughout the film). But it's very cool that, by the time we enter the third act of the film, the revenge motivation is effectively dropped.
So many other movies bend over backwards to make sure the conflict with the villain is more personal by the ending, not less. In The Avengers, Agent Coulson's death gives the team more justification to rally and fight Loki (and helps rationalize the team name). But Guardians takes a different approach. Drax does not mention his wife and daughter when he next faces Ronan (although Ronan does bring them up in order to insult Drax). And when they fire their big Ronan-killing weapon, Star-Lord is the one wielding it, not Drax.
But the weapon doesn't work, the ship goes down, and Star-Lord challenges Ronan to a dance-off while Rocket and Drax prepare the weapon. This time Drax does fire it, but he has come far enough in his arc that he doesn't shoot to kill - he merely goes for Ronan's hammer. He's trying to disarm Ronan's doomsday weapon, not take the killing shot.
I'll admit that this is probably because Star-Lord is the lead character, so he takes the shots meant to kill Ronan in the finale. But it's a credit to the script that Drax's arc reflects this shift. He no longer needs to be the person responsible for killing Ronan, because he knows that it's no longer about vengeance... it's about helping others and finding peace.
Of course, at the end we get a joke about how Drax just wants to kill Thanos, so maybe he's actually learned nothing? But it's played for laughs, and it's realistic for how people backslide in their personal journeys, and it gives him a personal stake in the upcoming conflict with Thanos that the entire MCU was building toward... so I'll give that a pass.
Hey, let's talk about Rocket.
Rocket is obviously deeply scarred, both literally and emotionally/psychologically. One of the movie moments that always takes my breath away is the reveal of the damage on Rocket's back. The metal studs and patches of furless skin imply so much more, so much worse, lingering beneath the surface. And it brings into focus his bitter, angry attitude.
But Rocket spells it out for us later in the film, when he's drunk as a skunk and looking to pick a fight; he shouts, "I didn't ask to get made! I didn't ask to be pulled apart and put back together over and over and turned into some... some little monster!" It breaks my heart every time, because it's the perfect encapsulation of everything he's been through before the film. He's been through hell, just as much as any other character, and he turns his hurt into spite.
His damage may not drive the main plot in the same way as Peter's, Gamora's or Drax's, but it certainly moves the story of the group forward. The four of them are angry and hurt and jaded and guarded, and Rocket letting his guard down - even for a minute - makes him feel vulnerable. So he lashes out, despite the fact that they all want the same thing - to sell the orb and make some money. (Well, Drax wants vengeance, and that scene is actually the moment he leaves and makes his ill-fated drunk-dial.)
And Peter calls him out, saying it's the reason Rocket has no friends - but he doesn't address Rocket alone. He says that all of his companions have the same problem. Peter lumps Rocket's trauma in with the rest of the cast's, and thus reminds the audience that they all have the same problem - they're all hurt people, and they all hurt people. And even though Rocket tries to push them away, Quill's quick comment about them all being the same actually does more to unite them than anything they'd been through so far. Because they're all the same.
Well, most of them are the same. Groot is different.
We don't know much about Groot, thanks to his limited vocabulary and facial-features. But we know that he's close with Rocket, he enjoys helping his friends whenever he can, and he gives a flower to a little beggar girl.
I have no doubt Groot has been through trauma; I doubt he could hang out with Rocket if he hadn't. And the fact that the Collector is delighted to get the chance to meet one of Groot's kind implies his people are either very remote, or endangered/extinct. But in the first act we see his arms get chopped off, and a few scenes later they've fully regrown. So it makes sense that, of all of them, Groot has experienced the most healthy recovery from his trauma.
And of course, Groot gives his life to save his friends. He opens his body to them and forms a nest of trees around them, with branches that go off in different directions to keep it steady... a cocoon that looks quite a bit like a heart, if you ask me.
Groot is the first to let the rest of the Guardians into his heart. The metaphor isn't subtle, but it is simple and good.
(This somewhat contradicts my point about Drax moving on from revenge, because Rocket certainly wants to avenge Groot in the film's climax. So I guess the film does get to have its cake and eat it too. But at that point the film is almost done, and they've spent the past 20 minutes trying to kill Ronan, so I'll give it a pass again.)
But what's that? There's another character whose trauma drives the film forward? Of course there is. It's Ronan.
Ronan is not Marvel's best villain. In fact, I don't really know why he isn't considered as terrible a villain as Malekith; they're very similar. But the writers do something clever with Ronan that helps his story land better. When he first appears, he tells us about a ceasefire we don't care about, between two planets we don't care about, and how he doesn't believe in it, which is fine because we don't care about it. But we understand his motivation because of this one line:
"Because I do not forgive your people for taking the life of my father. And his father. And his father before him."
That's it. We don't care about the war between the Kree and Xandar, and we don't care about the ceasefire. But we understand someone who does not want to forgive the enemy his people have hated for generations. We understand someone who can't let go of a grudge, no matter who tells him he needs to.
And the only thing that separates him from the Guardians is that he never changes his mind.
Seriously, that's it. Even the fact that he's willing to do a genocide doesn't set him that far apart from the Guardians; Gamora has been a part of a few in her time, and Rocket builds a gun that can blow up moons and aims it at a spaceship full of pirates. Even another MCU film has a hammer-wielding warrior willing to murder millions to avenge an ancient war.
But Ronan never changes his ways, and never grows as a person, so he fails where the Guardians succeed.
Of course, the emotional work of recovering from trauma isn't as easy as all that, so we'll return to them soon for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, a movie lots of people didn't like, and lots of people are wrong about. That movie is great.