Plot spoilers ahead.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is the most fun Marvel can offer you. Some might say, with the innocence of adults, the fun is all about hot bodies, adorable critters, sarcastic humor, and explosions. But it’s really about therapy. This is a movie for kids. Manliness, danger, or taking risks—all that is a soon-abandoned facade. Instead, you know for sure that the good guys will win at no cost to themselves or anyone who matters.
Unimportant beings, who look as human as anything, will be destroyed in clever ways, but their lives are worth nothing anyway. They’re just there to be tortured by the deep, seething anger of the lovable audience. The audience—well, we’re all perfectly nice people, we just enjoy cheap murderous revenge! What’s so bad about that? We’re just having fun!
There’s more than a little that’s strange in combining so much sentimentality about new heroes with such innocent cruelty. After all, no real harm will ever come to the protagonists we like to see. The danger always falters. It’s only minor characters who face the ugliness we like to see in stories! The mindless motions that thrill us are only interrupted en route to a happy end by moral commentary that reduces to love, peace, and understanding. Why cannot we all just get along?
Marvel conceives of its audience as emotionally crippled and psychologically brittle in ways that require therapy. With their therapy, we, the audience, can become part of the worldwide democratic audience. We throws billions of dollars at Marvel spectacles every year. We cannot get enough of this stuff!
Sacrifice Doesn’t Need to Actually Cost Anything
Maybe we need it. After all, the world can be shockingly insulting or indifferent. Who’s to say any of us is worth anything? This is our safe space, even if we’re not honest enough to admit it. But we have to admit it, because this newest story is the most earnest thing Marvel has yet made, and therefore the most revealing.
Sarcasm is out the window. Characters turn from wisecracks to sharing their feelings in a heartbeat. These are supposed to be the tough guys with unspeakable pasts! Well, monstrous stuff can always be shrugged off, apparently.
These characters seem desperately eager to say what’s in their hearts, waiting just for the right moment—indeed, chasing after it through any number of plot holes, and then seizing the moment to make new friends and show that the world is all about mutual understanding. All is forgiven, all is forgotten. Sure, everybody hurts, but a magical friendship will make it all better.
Everyone shows sacrificial love in sacrificing their lives, but none of these protagonists ever die. None of the sacrifices are ever real. It’s just that the characters apparently cannot live without this self-importance, and why shouldn’t they: there is never any price to pay for anything! Are we just like them, or is Disney-Marvel wrong about us?
The Ultimate in Participation Trophies
Well, we’ll soon learn: the Guardians are multiplying. With every movie, more and more arise, because none ever die. That’s broadly true of the shocking increase in numbers of heroes in Marvel blockbusters. The money keeps pouring in, so, soon enough, there will be as many guardians of the galaxy as inhabitants. This is the ultimate in participation trophies. Everyone will then be included, except people nasty enough not to want to be included in this suffocating friendship.
In the world of Marvel, there is never any real problem. There’s a lot of sarcastic cleverness about how tough things are and how everyone with a mouth is an anti-hero. But there is no potential for tragedy. The future, though indefinitely postponed, is always hunky-dory. The bad stuff is part of the past.
Indeed, the two characters from the past, talked about as fathers, are killed off in a great show of sentiment. That’s American freedom for you. One does what American parents are supposed to do at the movies: Apologize to their children. The other one is the villain. The alternative to apologizing to your kids is being a monster. They both die, and then can be loved and forgotten.
Thus resurfaces orphanhood, the most coveted experience in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Over the end credits, “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens plays, the story of a boy who justifies his abandonment of his father. The father tells him to get married and abandon his dreams. The boy is sentimental to a fault. Dad never listens, so I’ll abandon him! Charming ‘70s stuff.
Profiting from Pretending to Address Our Pain
The universe itself guards the guardians of the galaxy. This is a game you just cannot lose. It doesn’t matter that most of the characters who make up this fiction of a new form of family do not have any experience of what family might mean. The audience does, and that’s all that matters. It’s really therapy for people who are in important ways broken.
People who already have a family cannot really look forward to this other fake family. They would stick to their own, and even disdain the weak efforts made in the story. But people who feel existential loneliness in their hearts might jump at it. It makes suffering fun, even cool.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is about learning to live with disappointment and to help someone else instead of being obsessed with yourself. These are good things to learn. At the level of a PBS special, it may be said to work. But not with the effects it has on the audience or the industry. Not with the sentiments invested in it. That just drains people of their real concerns.
With every blockbuster that teaches us to throw billions at corporations who learn how to exploit our vulnerabilities, artists who have something worth saying are deprived of any chance to reach us. Our taste is confirmed, even hardened. Recycling nostalgia is now a massive corporate business in America. But it’s the same as saying there’s no future. No one but a few people working in these franchises gets a chance to say something to America, and only in interviews controlled by corporate lawyers.
How infinitely strange this is! Mr. America Chris Pratt participates in any number of utterly mediocre shows that suck the money out of movie-making, and that’s the best we have now. We lack any serious stories about ourselves. Only corporations tell those stories, for their own consumption, the better to get our money and attention and hopes and dreams. It’s, in a sense, useless to complain.
This really is how we live now.