You might get the impression that this is a story about a boy who was taken up into a mysterious spaceship; who becomes a spacefaring smuggler, then petty criminal, and who follows the inevitable arc of destiny to become a hero.
Without any prelude, we’d be left to fight over dozens of lame interpretations (or pretend to none at all), having no clear commentary for a story that is essentially just a comic-based remake and recombination of many other themes and stories.
Without that prelude, it would have been just another self-consciously ironic and over-produced space opera, crafted in a manner sympathetic to contemporary sensibilities and assumed doctrines of American society. It might have been yet another rock opera, even, with some soft-shoe choreography thrown in along with the knowing asides and winking references and guilty self-deprecations thrown against the Fourth Wall to see what sticks.
In introduction to Guardians of the Galaxy, a boy is confronted with the death of his mother and confronted with the hopelessness of any actions to save her. He must be coaxed away from the private solace of music to be gently summoned to his dying mother. Some unknown disease is destroying his mother, and while surrounded by the disheartened family, she asks him to take her hand one last time. He backs away, then runs from the hospital, only to be stopped and presumably taken up by a bright light shining from the sky.
Every action and conversation following this opening scene tells us what this boy thinks of himself, what he thinks of the world and of his mother and of that moment by her death bed. Everything that follows flows directly out of his continuous need to escape pain and, by the end of the story, we might see that he wasn’t quite able to reconcile himself with reality.
Into the night, into the light
One of the epic Gods of Fate has set all destinies in motion. Soon, Peter will come face to face with a monstrous attacker of demonic dimension, one who effortlessly inhabits the rubble and vacuum of space and one who is singularly obsessed with the purity of his own soul and his own deadly purpose.
Of course it is ridiculous and referential. All of the elements of the story, from the comic book action to awkward romance, include symbols plunked from contemporary entertainment as interpreted and turned over in Peter’s adolescent brain. His adventure as an imaginary smuggler (equal parts Indiana Jones and Peter Blood) reads very much like a jumbled re-telling of The Wizard of Oz.
Making peace on the Yellow Brick Road
We see the many parts of Peter’s soul embodied in three companions (and then a fourth) who each, like an amalgam of the Tin Woodsman, the Cowardly Lion, and The Scarecrow, together lack in varying degrees, heart, courage, or knowledge.
I doubt many pre-teen boys are likely to easily identify with Dorothy. Wouldn’t he more likely prefer to be called Star Lord? We don’t pick up that the secret meaning of his mother’s Welsh name, Meredith means “great lord”, but we do pick up on the awkward humor of an adolescent nickname that clearly doesn’t fit his character or demeanor. Peter wanted to be like Han Solo or Flash Gordon and he sure didn’t wear ruby slippers, but he did wear a red leather coat. He is bewitched by his own need to escape the misery of his life. Dorothy was propelled into her fantasy after being convinced a particular crystal ball had power over destiny; Peter is propelled into his fantasy of destiny toward pursuing a similar sphere of bright and deadly power.
Groot was Peter’s Tin Woodsman; more inscrutable than the The Good Trees of H.R. Pufnstuf (or Chewbacca), but always ready to protect and serve. He needed a better vocabulary or was it just just a heart? He needed acknowledgement even more. He gave his own self to the very end, just like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. This Woodsman could be easily defeated by any axe, but could also be resurrected from death.
The scarified muscleman, Drax, crippled by his own loyalty and painful literal-mindedness, fled his fear and misery by fighting. He thought he had no understanding of metaphor, but is convinced of its vitality and, in the end, discovers it was in him all along.
The cynical and sociopathic raccoon, “Rocket”, is a cross between (as indicated by the protagonist), “Ranger Rick”, a film noir gangster, and every tough talking, New York cabbie from the movies. Rocket’s rival it seems had broken his body and his dreams by genetic manipulation. It was only a scratch and he always knew he’d be better as soon as he was able.
That Peter both adored and feared his mother almost doesn’t need to be said. She was untouchable and was abstract goodness, bright light, independence of spirt and a fighting power. She was also the assassin and witch of his imagination whom he feared and who demanded his attention. Guardians of the Galaxy is pointedly anti-Feminist: Gamora may seem like an independent hero figure and accomplished warrior who freely elects to work toward a common goal with an impetuous, undisciplined young man. But, she seems more to me to be an object of Peter’s confused and oedipal fascination, a maternal figure to be tamed.
Peter imagines a way, in alternate reality, to save his mother, his own Emerald City, the perfect and glowing city of Xandar, from the all-consuming power of the glowing Infinity Stone. With a single touch, that stone could destroy all life. The same touch he first feared, then desired from his dying mother.
We cannot know if Peter ever recovered from the loss of his mother or whether he “returned to Earth”, so to speak, to rediscover his small place in the world after his imaginary capture by the “Ravagers”. Few people find such perfect triumph after hard circumstances and many are permanently ravaged by them.
The story of Peter’s momentary fantasy ends with a heroic send off: He has heart, courage, and knowledge within his soul and is beloved by all. He saves the city.