[This post contains *SPOILERS* for Guardians of the Galaxy.]
In this Hero Worship column I’ve often written about superheroes from a perspective of what I call applied mythology (i.e. practicing and living out mythical themes in real life). Being a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve managed to write at least one essay about each of the major series that have been put out by the MCU (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America). But I never wrote a Hero Worship article about any of the Avengers films. The reason for that, even though I liked them, is that I knew what themes I wanted to write about for the Avengers before I saw the movies, but when I did see them they didn’t contain enough of the specific symbolism I was looking for.
But then along came Guardians of the Galaxy and saved the day, and so in this post I’ll discuss themes that I’ve wanted to discuss since The Avengers came out but which only now Guardians has given me enough cause to.
The themes are extraordinarily simple and prosaic, yet they are ones that people forget too often. They are three-fold:
(a) Within each individual there is great latent power.
(b) We are connected to each other more profoundly than we realize.
(c) When we come together with a common goal, our power is exponentially amplified.
Yes, I know, once again it sounds so obvious. But think about it for a moment: how much do people really understand and willfully live these principles? Well, actually, nowadays many do, and increasingly so. When I see things like the Occupy movement, for instance, I see an increasing awakening that people have of the tremendous power that comes with numbers and a united cause.
Yet at the same time, I also sense a prevailing sense of powerlessness that depresses people in their day-to-day lives. Meanwhile we perceive certain individuals as having great power: politicians, celebrities, business executives, etc. But all such power is completely illusory and imaginary—or rather, it is a tacit social contract. It is we who, in numbers, either consciously or simply unconsciously and out of habit give permission to these individuals to wield imaginary power. Without our permission, no one has power—not the president of the U.S., not the biggest celebrities, or any of the richest, most famous and most powerful people you can think of. The very moment that people in numbers decide to stop buying a product or patronizing a service, stop supporting a leader—basically just stop paying attention—the individual(s) in question loses all perceived power.
And that’s just one example. But it’s an easy one and I hope it makes the point clearly enough.
This simple but beautiful truth is gorgeously visualized in Guardians of the Galaxy in which you have a core group of characters who are all, in a certain sense, “losers” as Rocket Raccoon himself puts it. (This practically holds true at the meta level as well since before Marvel announced that it was making a movie out of it, Guardians was one of its least popular comic titles.) True, Gamora may have been adopted by Thanos and raised to be an elite assassin, but like the others she is still a kind of outcast. In this way, on a subconscious level, the Guardians are a more relatable and moving heroic team for the masses than the Avengers (except for Captain America whose initial weakness is also very relatable) in that many of us constantly struggle with feelings of inferiority and estrangement. They are losers who save the galaxy, and this loser-becomes-hero mythical model is one of humanity’s perennial favorites.
Now, to say that together we are powerful does not automatically mean that alone we are weak. One must not doubt the difference that individuals can and do make, and faith in the importance of oneself as a single being is the starting point of any heroic journey. But there are many endeavors which we just cannot tackle and accomplish alone. Think of the scene in which Dax the Destroyer stands alone in the foreground, ready to meet Ronan’s army as it arrives in the background. How does that work out for him? Not very well. In fact, any time in the film when any of the characters try to do something by themselves, especially for selfish motives, it doesn’t work out. But of course as a team, when working together while united by a single cause that not only benefits themselves but benefits others, they thrive and succeed.
This is best symbolized, with stunning beauty, in the climactic face-off against Ronan the Accuser on Xandar when Peter Quill (aka Star Lord) grabs the Infinity Stone.
But first a quick recap: remember that the Collector, in his ultra-brief summary of what the Infinity Stones/Gems are, says that only ones with great power can touch or hold any of the stones without being destroyed. And almost as if in helpful demonstration, his rebellious assistant grabs it and explodes.
Yet Quill is able to hold the stone and not immediately die. How? Two ways that both symbolize something in terms of the Hero’s Journey.
1. Within every hero (i.e., you) there is latent potential and power even if you do not think so or are not aware of it. Quill is able to hold the stone by himself for a long time and still survive because there is power within himself that he does not know of. We learn later that it is due to his cosmic paternal lineage but this is simply a symbol of the inherent power (i.e. goodness, courage, strength, etc.) within us all that many do not believe they have.
2. Nevertheless, even with this great individual power, the hero would have died had it not been for the magical sequence in which the Guardians all reach out and hold each other, sharing the agony and the burden of the struggle. And then the villain cannot believe his eyes as our heroes stand tall and triumphant, glowing with resonant energy. They have unlocked the power of their mutual cooperation and union. Together, they are powerful enough to hold the stone, as powerful as Ronan, as powerful even as Thanos.
This is the most dramatic and beautiful scene that illustrates the power-in-numbers principle, but there are still three other effective ways that Guardians manages to convey this, two very obvious and symbolic, one more subtle and unspoken but still detectable.
The first symbolic way is when the Nova ships form the blockade that prevents Ronan’s ship from descending upon Xandar. One Nova ship obviously couldn’t do this and not even a hundred could if they were scattered. But united they become a formidable obstacle against the encroaching evil.
The second symbolic way is when the team is trapped aboard Ronan’s ship as it plummets towards a fiery doom on Xandar. Groot extends his limbs and branches outwards and encapsulates all his friends in a protective cocoon. Rocket realizes what this means and asks Groot why he is doing this when it will mean his death. And in one of the most moving and affecting lines in the film the sentient tree answers thus:
“We are Groot.”
Groot is a tree and trees symbolize life, nurturance and perennial renewal amidst death and decay and we are all part of this cycle together. Truly, so long as you live your life for the sake of something greater than just yourself, then no amount of suffering and sacrifice will be in vain because we are Groot. In the end, all vines and roots are but extensions of whatever great cosmic force creates, sustains and recycles life. At the relative level there are many lives. At the ultimate level there is only Life and it is all interconnected and interdependent.
The other, more subtle and unspoken way that Guardians symbolizes our interconnectedness and the potential power that comes with cooperation lies in the role that our heroes play within the bigger context of the overarching story being told by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They may not know it, but we the viewers know that this is just a piece of the puzzle. We know that eventually, somehow or other, the events of this film will be connected to the earthbound events, and the Guardians will be connected to the Avengers. Neither team realizes it yet but they are profoundly linked.
So, too, with us. The next time you feel completely alone in your struggles, and even if that feeling is exacerbated by actual physical isolation, try to contextualize the experience from this symbolic, mythical perspective. Imagine you are a Peter Quill still in his lone scavenging days. Back then, he could not possibly have imagined that he’d end up as part of a heroic team saving the known universe called the Guardians of the Galaxy. And even once united, the Guardians as a whole could not have imagined that they’d be invisibly linked to a certain team on earth called the Avengers.
Do you want to miss out on the unfolding of this exciting, epic tale just because you felt defeated and gave up? Just because you did not realize your small role was an important piece of the galactic puzzle? Of course not.
There is always a bigger picture to whatever you may be going through, and you are part of a collective human journey which, if you realized, would free you (at least sometimes) from that feeling of self-enclosed futility. But our habitually myopic ways of thinking prevent us from seeing this bigger picture. This is why myth and story are useful. They are templates to superimpose upon our private, subjective experiences to sheath them in a cosmic context, and to shed light on new ideas and realizations that can offer us comfort, strength and hope.