The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is not exactly known for its profound insights into theology, philosophy, or the human condition. Great spectacle, enjoyable characters, and a never-ending story that expands out toward its climactic finales have made it a tentpole for modern audiences. While the movies still rake in cash to the tune of hundreds of millions, if not billions, the MCU as a whole is something of a falling star, even for diehards.
Critics have never quite bought in, but fans are beginning to opt out as well. The franchise reached its zenith with the two-part finale of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019), and it has been struggling ever since to recapture the magic. An overabundance of new releases, worsening special effects, shallow characters, shallow writing, and a hearty helping of wokeness have caused many hardcore fans to lament that “it peaked with Endgame.”
Maybe you’re one of those ride-or-die fans; maybe you fell off the superhero bandwagon a while ago; perhaps you never got on. Whatever the case may be, it may come as a relief to know that the MCU’s latest installment, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (Guardians 3) is a return to the good action/adventure/sci-fi romp, avoiding the Phase Four pitfalls with excellent story and spectacle, and no wokeness. More surprisingly, it’s also profound thanks to its shocking religious themes. This analysis of those must, alas, contain spoilers.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I didn’t really go into Guardians 3 expecting to come out pondering what philosophers call the “problem of evil”—much less a Gospel truth. But that’s exactly what writer/director James Gunn accomplishes. I don’t know Gunn’s religious views, but he’s doubtless on the political left.
Gunn’s personal character is certainly questionable: he was fired from Disney/Marvel due to a series of obscene and disturbing Tweets from almost a decade ago. But his films prove that Gunn possesses a deeper artistic insight into the nature of life. This tendency for great artists to be questionable men isn’t new. If you look into the Renaissance, you catch on pretty quickly that artistic excellence and moral excellence don’t necessarily correlate.
Guardians 3 retroactively infuses the previous Volumes 1 and 2 with deeper meaning, and so I’ll have to give a brief sketch of those movies to get across the overall story, considered by some to be the “heart” of the MCU. That deeper meaning is, of course, provided in contrast with the absurd and bombastic characters, situations, and action, so bear with me.
The central characters are, obviously, the Guardians of the Galaxy, a crew of cantankerous misfits who wind up fighting the forces of evil. Peter Quill, “Star-Lord,” (Chris Pratt) was abducted from earth as a child by alien criminals. His 1960s-2000s music obsession is the film’s excuse to layer the soundtrack with fun, nostalgic pop and rock.
His love interest is the green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), adoptive daughter of the MCU’s “big bad” Thanos. Along for the ride are the foul-mouthed cyborg Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the hulking Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and the living tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).
The first movie depicts how the Guardians are forced together by circumstance. Despite their alien ridiculousness, the brokenness and messiness of their lives is entirely human: they suffer from daddy issues, mommy issues, abuse, and abandonment. They lash out in violence, greed, lust, isolation, suspicion, and violence. For some characters, this interior pain is symbolically represented by their cybernetic modifications. While these are wicked cool and a tactical advantage, the films never let you forget the suffering they represent.
By the end, the characters have come together just enough to save the galaxy. Guardians 2 establishes their dynamic as a dysfunctional family, defined by petty, defensive bickering, while forcing each character to examine his or her own suffering and take responsibility for how they’ve caused others to suffer as well.
The Guardians return in Volume 3 (after a few pit stops in other Marvel projects) to confront the ultimate question: How do you move on from suffering, and more philosophically, why is there suffering at all? Rocket Raccoon serves as the focal point. It’s revealed that he was created by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a despotic, mad eugenicist. He’s a sci-fi social Darwinist, obsessed with engineering the perfect society and worshiped as a god in some regions of the galaxy. The Guardians return in Volume 3 to confront the ultimate question: How do you move on from suffering, and more philosophically, why is there suffering at all? Tweet This
Rocket was created as a throwaway experiment, but he manifests a unique consciousness and free will absent in the Evolutionary’s other creations. The supervillain spends the film in a manic search to find Rocket and study his inexplicable mind. Rocket winds up grievously wounded in the High Evolutionary’s first attempt, and so the Guardians race to save their friend and confront the past.
The source of Rocket’s intelligence turns out to be, of all things, divine Providence. Thanks to his materialism, the High Evolutionary is blind to this. It is by contrasting the Guardians and the Evolutionary that Gunn explores two responses to the problem of evil: hope in Providence, and despair. The High Evolutionary embodies the latter.
His utopian ambitions reveal a desperate refusal to deny the fallenness of creation, and he believes he must weed it out himself. In real life, this despair is at the heart of every totalitarian ideology out there, from Machiavelli to Marx. All of them insist that the world is awful, there is no higher power to fix it, and so we must order the world ourselves. When his quest for Rocket devolves into madness, one henchman begs him to stop “for the love of God.” He bellows: “There is no God! That’s why I stepped in!”
The context ensures that this is not a movie in which the filmmaker subtly speaks his worldview through the villain; rather, the heroic Guardians embody hope in Providence, posited as the correct answer. As he lies dying, Rocket’s soul stands at the literal Pearly Gates. There he speaks to another experiment, a dear friend, murdered by the High Evolutionary. He reveals his grief over the monstrousness of his creation. He wants a purpose, but he has despaired of ever finding one.
His friend tells him that “there are the hands that made us, and there are the hands that guide the hands.” That is to say: we are shaped by our suffering, but that suffering is a tool for the good. I don’t know any way to read that except as Christian Providence. You can’t even render it a vague New Ageism like “the universe”; in saying the “hands that guide,” Providence is implied to be personal, intentional, and benevolent. By the end of the film, each Guardian comes to a similar conclusion; and by embracing the mystery of Providence, they can fly off, free and joyful, to discover their true callings.
Good stories should entertain, this is true, but great stories throw you back into your own life, refreshed and reconsidering. Guardians 3 is one of those. Maybe most fans will miss the point; I urge you not to. We are all fallen; the absurdity of the Guardians is meant to highlight the fallenness of every man.
The solution it suggests is a good one—in fact, the only one. It is madness to try to avoid or subvert life’s sufferings; we must live in Providence and accept suffering as a tool to make us who we need to be. This is no easy lesson. And by saving it for the end of three movies, Gunn doesn’t sugarcoat the agony and so is able to dance in the joy of freedom.
We need good stories to remind us of these things. Fiction uniquely allows the Gospel to enthrall our hearts as well as our minds. You probably didn’t need a Marvel movie to tell you any of that—but isn’t it wonderful that it did?