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With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 on the horizon, an intimate family saga set against a cosmic backdrop, it’s worth taking a look back at where it all began for Peter Quill and our newly A-list A-holes. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is as strange a blockbuster as any in recent memory; a space opera that’s equal parts accessible and esoteric. It was a surefire hit the moment Marvel released its first trailer, beginning with something of a Raiders of the Lost Ark parody before going full gun-toting raccoon, but while its weirdness is what brought fans to the yard, it’s the film’s heart & soul that kept us there.
Guardians is a film about broken people, or as Peter Jason Quill calls them, “losers.” Quill lost his mother before losing his home. Gamora similarly lost her childhood to Thanos. Drax’s wife and daughter were killed right in front of him, and tiny, cybernetic experiment Rocket and humungous, barely-communicable Groot (characters who can’t even be certain of their own origins) have no real shot at “normalcy” in a system populated and run by humanoids, all of whom stand at around six feet tall. They’re the definition of misfits, struggling to find their place even in a galaxy where people of all colours (literally) seemingly co-exist. Beyond a point, part of their isolation even feels self-imposed. It certainly does for Peter Quill of Terra, whose mission to retrieve an ancient artifact coincides with betraying the closest thing he has to family.
Quill was a good kid. Really good, in fact. He was empathetic to the point of getting beaten up for protecting a defenseless frog, but with empathy comes a heightened sensitivity to loss. He was moody, taking solace in his mother’s mixtape as she lay dying of cancer, but in her final moments, he was unable to reach out and hold her hand. Accepting that one final show of affection would’ve made the pain real.
The next time we see Quill, twenty-four years and several solar systems removed, he’s a far cry from the kid he once was. He still listens to the same mixtape, frozen in the moment he cocooned himself from ever feeling pain, unable to move on to the second “Awesome Mix” his mother gifted him before her death. He kicks a reptilian creature out of the way like it’s garbage, grabbing another one to use as a karaoke microphone (his frog-defending younger self would be horrified, as would his mother), and the first woman we see him interact with is someone he forgot was even aboard his ship. Forget emotional attachment, he can’t even be bothered to remember her name.
Quill is a victim of circumstance, to be sure. Raised among Ravager bullies and a blue-skinned father figure whose leash was a threat of cannibalism, it’s not difficult to see how his environment helped mold his hardened, detached exterior. But when given a chance – seeing Drax about to destroy Gamora in the Kyln – he steps up to do something noble. His actions are certainly motivated by Gamora’s connections and their possible financial benefit, but it’s here that we first see “Star-Lord” begin to emerge, setting him on the path where he’s able to save Gamora from icy suffocation out of selflessness. Well, kind of. There’s still a cockiness to his motivation though, what with his (hilariously lampshaded) talk of romantically heroic impulse, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“Life’s giving us a chance” says Quill, at the now-iconic roundtable of jackasses. After having seen the destructive potential of Power Stone (a weapon he himself unleashed by retrieving the ancient Orb) he understands what’s at stake and that he now has a responsibility to more than just himself. He can run, he can hide, but he chooses to fight alongside people he has every reason to despise.
These are interesting pieces that Guardians of the Galaxy throws into play, and while there isn’t much consistency to how or when they’re dramatized – the connective tissue between Quill’s pivotal moments cannot, by design, manifest consistently in an ensemble action film that needs to stop to tease Avengers: Infinity War – they reach an emotional apotheosis of cosmic proportions, one that gives even the messiness of bigger puzzle an element of finesse. Whatever the eventual purpose of the Infinity Stones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, be it transporting matter or the destruction of planets, Quill’s connection to them (and to the universe, thanks to his Celestial lineage) not only affords him a sense of physical control, but the opportunity to look inward.
Grabbing the Power Stone from Ronan’s hammer is the culmination of his journey to selflessness. He has nothing to gain and everything to lose, but he takes the plunge regardless. This is not, however, the culmination of his entire story arc. If anything, it’s an opportunity. Selfless sacrifice is still ultimately an abstract concept in your average action movie. The fate of “the world” or “the universe” needs to have a tangible face to it, and in the case of Peter Quill, it’s his newfound family. Not only is this pivotal moment about protecting them, it’s about quite literally reaching out and holding their hands. Since he’s finally at a place where he’s able to do this, having gone from selfless protector to selfish prick and all the way back again, his reward for reaching out is a moment of catharsis.
The Power Stone provides him with a haunting vision of his mother on her deathbed, and an opportunity to correct the one mistake he truly regrets. Reaching out to Gamora to share the load of his physical pain becomes indecipherable from reaching out to his mother, and from accepting the pain her death caused him. The kind of pain you can’t experience unless you feel love in the first place, the emotional epicentre center of this massive fight for existence.
It’s in these little moments of reaching out, literally and figuratively (sometimes both) that Guardians of the Galaxy truly shines. Quill reaching past his selfishness. Gamora finding family again. The pair of them reaching out to each other to save the galaxy, followed by the rest of the team. Groot reaching out to comfort Drax as Rocket berates him for screwing up. Drax, having been shown that small kindness, in turn reaching out to comfort Rocket after Groot’s sacrifice, petting a character he was in a fistfight with just an hour before. Small but tender moments of love and understanding paid forward bit by bit, be it deciding to die among friends for a higher purpose, or finally opening that second mixtape and reading a letter from beyond, letting the pain of loss have its stay. Letting love back in. Letting kindness make broken people feel whole so they can finally be heroes.