As of May 2018, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is 10 years and 19 films old. In celebration, we’re talking about the deeper elements of the MCU, mostly film-by-film. We’ve already talked about how Iron Man is about finding truth, why Incredible Hulk might not be in the MCU, that Iron Man 2 is the true beginning of the MCU, how Thor does the work to make the Avengers great, why Steve Rogers was alone BEFORE he fell in the ice, why the Avengers weren’t the Avengers until they beat the tar out of each other, how Iron Man 3 exposes the hidden symbolism of Tony’s life, that no matter what the advertisements say, Marvel TV isn’t connected to the MCU, that Loki’s greatest illusion is Loki himself, that the Winter Soldier represents Steve’s darkest fear, how Peter Quill didn’t know who Star-Lord was, my crazy fan theory about the Infinity Stones creating Ultron, that Ant-Man is the unfortunate casualty of the greater MCU, and why Steve Rogers had to sacrifice the Avengers for the good of the world.
Guardians of the Galaxy
For a studio that is so often accused of sticking to a formula, Marvel seems to thrive on taking risks. Combining storylines across movies, crossover events, refusing to compromise when adapting “out of touch” characters, and switching from a science-based narrative to one that allows for space-gods and magic. There are so many times that I’ve come out of an MCU film and said “you wouldn’t think it work on film, but it does.”
It’s been said that the film based on Guardians of the Galaxy was the result of a specific assignment by Kevin Feige to screenwriter Nicole Perlman to find obscure Marvel properties to adapt to the screen. While James Gunn deserves the lion’s share of the credit for how the final product came out, we can thank Perlman for pulling a lesser known superhero team out of relative obscurity.
While DC struggled to get Wonder Woman on the big screen, Marvel gave us a movie in which a giant talking tree-man and his machine-gun-toting raccoon friend go bounty hunting across the universe. Guardians of the Galaxy was so unusual and unexpected that people started talking about it the way that people talked about Star Wars back in the late 70s.
Behind all of that CG and makeup, however, is a group of relatable and human characters. There isn’t a member of the Guardians that doesn’t bring some emotional truth to the story. While Drax is a super-powered murder machine, he cares deeply for a family that was taken away from him. Rocket is sarcastic, antisocial, and nihilistic, but his actions sit on the frame of questioning his own existence in a world he never asked to be a part of. Gamora, “the deadliest woman in the galaxy,” is, inversely, the moral backbone of the team. And Groot, a giant, nearly unstoppable tree monster, delivers one of the most emotional moments of the film. Of course, bringing it all together is Peter Quill.
Peter is a human who is trying desperately to deny his humanity. There is so much about who Peter is that we see in the first scene of the movie.
When we first meet Peter Quill, he is a child, sitting in a darkened hallway of a hospital by himself. Most of the lights are dim and there isn’t nurse in sight. The grownups are all in a nearby room with Peter’s mother, and despite the fact that there are more than half a dozen people in that room that care for Meredith Quill, none of them are there for Peter. We learn in the next film that his mother has been slowly dying since before Peter was born. And that little boy who is not yet equipped to deal with a loss, is handed an emotional burden that would bring a grown man to his knees. Peter is reaching out for something to give him comfort, and he seems to find it in his Sony Walkman.
While the director of Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn, hasn’t explained his reasoning behind every song he included in the film, I believe that every song has a reason. If you’re not familiar with the track that starts the film, it’s “I’m Not In Love” by 10CC. This song is told from the perspective of a man denying his feelings for someone who has rejected him.
“I’m not in love, so don’t forget it. It’s just a silly phase I’m going through.”
That’s exactly where Peter is. He’s dealing with his pain by denying he has a reason to feel pain. His mother is going to leave him. The woman who gave him life, comfort, and a place to belong is going disappear, and that’s not fair. Peter’s grandfather, distracted by his own pain, takes the headphones away, telling Peter to “take these fool things off” and come face what’s about to happen.
“Why have you been fighting with the other boys again, baby” Peter’s mother asks. The black eye that Peter is sporting says that the odds were probably not in Peter’s favor.
“They killed a little frog that ain’t done nothing” he sniffles. It wasn’t fair. Peter was angry and stood up against those boys because that’s all he could do. Peter stood up to the bullies who were picking on a defenseless frog because Peter doesn’t have the ability to stand up to the cancer that is taking his mother away. She didn’t deserve to die. Peter didn’t deserve to lose his mother.
“Take my hand” she says. And Peter, who’s been holding back a river of pain and despair, turns away. She begs him again to hold her hand as she dies, and before he has the chance to reach out, the beep of her heart rate monitor goes constant.
His mother is gone, and Peter is completely and utterly alone. So he runs as far as he can.
For such an overall light-hearted movie, Guardians of the Galaxy trades pretty heavily on the lives of people functioning with remarkable pain. Fast forward 26 years and we get to see how Peter has adapted to life without his mother. He’s charming, debonair, and incredibly immature.
He takes whatever shortcuts he can to get what he wants. He beds women and then forgets they exist. He steals and robs in the company of the Ravager faction that’s “the wrong kind of disreputable.” While it all works out for the good of the galaxy, it’s never explicitly stated why Peter betrays Yondu and retrieves the Orb from Morag before the Ravagers can get to it. The fact that he goes straight to the Broker to sell it seems to indicate Peter was cutting ties and moving on.
Peter seems attached to the name Star-Lord and he mentions every time he gets the chance. At gunpoint, he makes sure to mention it. The Nova Corp has it on file. He tries to use it to pick up women. It seems a little confounding that he’s worked so hard to build up a name he probably would have been made fun of for back on Earth, where his mother called him her “little Star-Lord.”
Maybe Peter Quill is on a personal quest for redemption. Maybe if he can build the reputation of that name and be a hero, he can make up for letting his mother down when all she wanted was to hold her sons hand one last time.
So he lies to others about what Earth is like and lies to himself about what a hero looks like. Peter is wandering aimlessly, pretending that fulfilling his childhood fantasies about talking cars and flying in space will fill the hole inside himself. All these years later and Peter is still that 12-year-old boy from the 1980s. He’s just taller with more facial hair.
Over the course of the film, that sense of belonging that Peter never quite reclaimed comes back to him in the form of taking ownership of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Gamora, originally there to steal the Orb and claim her freedom ends up being the moral compass that Peter has never had since leaving Earth. It’s appropriate that a strong female presence in his life is the thing that starts to bring Peter back to world.
So, when Peter finally comes to that moment of sacrifice and grabs an Infinity Stone to stand in the way of Ronan, he’s finally living up to the name his mother gave him. And, as Gamora reaches out to him, he finally gets the chance to make things right.
“Take my hand” Gamora says. And he does. At that moment Peter Quill faces the pain he’s been running away from for the last 26 years.
Just before she died, Peter’s mother gave him a gift and told Peter not open it until after she had gone. As Peter sits on the newly reconstructed Milano, Peter is finally ready to open it.
In it is a letter absolving Peter of the guilt he’s been carrying for so long. “I’m going to a better place and I will be okay” his mother tells him. And as a new mix tape starts to play, Peter realizes that across the galaxy, his mother is still there for him and he can finally move on.
Next up: Avengers: Age of Ultron