Warning: This post contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – if you haven’t seen it, go watch it and then come back and read this!
At the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy, young Peter Quill loses his mother to cancer. At the end, he gets something to remember her by: an additional time-capsule cassette tape with even more sweet ’70s jams that she loved. It’s the main fixture of the series’ sentimentality, but like all reminders of life, it’s also a symbol of the loss Quill continues to bear every minute of his star-bound existence. Even more than the Yondu-led Ravager ship that abducted him, this emotional talisman, though a source of comfort, separates him from his youth, his home, and his family.
By the time he has the courage to unwrap Awesome Mix Vol. 2, Quill has also acquired the green warrior, the tattooed berserker, the bullet-drunk raccoon, and the Groot as his adopted family. Five jigsaw pieces from different puzzle boxes that roughly fit together. Messy family lives are our surest reminder that superhero stories are essentially fairy tales, but Guardians 2 is the culmination of a theme laced throughout all of Marvel’s movies.
Tony Stark’s parents are both dead when we meet him, living still partially in his father’s shadow. Thor has a love/need-to-murder relationship with Loki, who at one point impersonates their kingly dad. Bucky is the only “family” Steve Rogers has. Bruce Banner wants to join Betty Ross’ family but ends up at war with her father (and himself). And Black Widow is the archetypal loner. It’s not until Age of Ultron that we find out Hawkeye has a blissful, atomic family–an aberration. Moreover, the Avengers are less of a chosen family than a crew that gets together from time to time to bicker while closing Earth-threatening portals.
The Guardians, on the other hand, are best friends sharing a single HBO GO login, and giggling about how unrealistic The Fate of the Furious is before jetting off to battle a thousand-toothed space squid.
While earlier MCU movies touched on the concept, Guardians of the Galaxy made The Chosen Family its main concern, forging a bond between the fate-drawn criminals who have tragically lost or run away from their families. They reluctantly learn to appreciate each other’s skills, and, then, their intrinsic value as companions. Its sequel doubles down by focusing primarily on that bond.
Guardians 2 is an ode to the family we choose, even when that relationship is at odds with biological family. Quill (Chris Pratt) finally meets his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), who is a living planet that traveled to Earth and fell in love with Quill’s mother. What follows is a cosmic, feature-length version of that time on Fresh Prince of Bel Air when Will’s exciting, deadbeat dad came back for a hot minute. Just like the sitcom trope, Quill’s desperate, aching need for acceptance from his biological dad blinds him to the harm it might do to his chosen family (and the entire galaxy). Bolstered by swarthy charm and a shared knowledge of Meredith Quill’s favorite tunes, Ego’s plan is to take over Quill’s life and replace everything in it with himself. To stop this Dormammu-esque absorption program, Quill has to battle the man who gave him life, the last immediate family he has and the most direct living connection he had to his mother.
Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) exile from the larger Ravager community mirrors Quill’s struggle to fit in a strange galaxy, even though Yondu’s outsiderness is the direct result of an illicit deal with Ego. But Yondu’s affinity for Quill is why our hero survived the fate of all Ego’s children. That position, in part, causes a mutiny that forces Yondu to forfeit the Ravagers for a new family. Yondu’s long list of sacrifices–including, ultimately, his life–make him Quill’s real father, blood be damned. As Yondu says, Ego was Quill’s “father, but never his daddy.” By the look in his eye, it’s clear who was.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) offer a clear-eyed look at the complexity of sibling relationships with Nebula’s lonely, brooding hatred for her adopted sister. Her pain stems from Thanos favoring Gamora, which stings far worse than your normal helping of sibling rivalry. Nebula is the product of a traumatic childhood, but she ultimately understands that she is not alone in this. Gamora and Nebula’s ability to choose each other as family in adulthood just requires honest introspection and communication.
Meanwhile, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) tries to push people away by being a rotten asshole, protecting himself from the potential pain of being rejected by rejecting others. He can’t quite bring himself to choose the Guardians because he’s terrified they won’t reciprocate. Once again, Rooker’s outstanding, layered performance of Yondu acts as the beating heart of the story. He reveals his aggressiveness is a mask for his insecurity, verbally slapping Rocket upside the head with a fresh, burden-dissolving perspective.
For all the pain of his past, Drax (Dave Bautista) is the only one who understands that the Guardians’ shouting matches and seeming incompatibility is the true hallmark of their familial relationship. As we learned in the first film, Drax already lost one family because he couldn’t protect them. He’ll be damned before he lets that happen again.
Every single thing in this film is about family. Even the Sovereign play a symbolic role: the race of genetically-engineered, “perfect” beings are basically siblings and parents to each other, so it’s fitting in the celebration of chosen families that the Sovereign all visibly hate one another.
Yet the most important symbol from Guardians 2 is also the most important symbol from Vol. 1: Quill’s mixtape. In the first movie, he regularly listened to it, headphones on, drowning out the rest of the world. His sharing the music with Gamora is a major step in their relationship and in his maturity. In the sequel, he rarely enjoys it on his own anymore. The movie opens with Awesome Mix Vol. 2 blaring through speakers for the entire team to enjoy during battle, and its music also becomes a shared language between Quill and Ego. It’s only when Quill is in contemplative conversation with his mother that he listens to it alone. Finally, his old cassettes are replaced by the cutting edge technology of the Microsoft Zune, which is an absurdly funny reference, but also a brilliant signal that he can finally let go of his security blanket. It’s not that his mother can ever be replaced; it’s that he can finally share her music.