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Monday, May 8, 2017

MOVIES: The Three Fathers of Star-Lord

Note: This post contains heavy spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Please do not read ahead unless you have already seen the movie or don't mind having pretty much everything spoiled for you.



I truly do not know how it got past me that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was going to be a coming-of-age story before I actually saw it. James Gunn presented us with Baby Groot, saying he was a baby for reasons other than marketing (but his wide-eyed cuteness was happily quite marketable). That, in a subtle way, was our early high sign that this installment in the "Rule of Cool"-led pop culture space-capade was going to be far more focused the characters we know growing up.

I could write a whole other piece (in fact, I may at some point) on Gamora and Nebula's emotional battle with each other and the unseen Thanos -- a subplot I refuse to let fall under the axe of the Bechdel Test because despite a male character being the core of the tension, this was the journey of two women and their relationship to each other. This secondary story of two women trying to escape the grasp of their father-figure falls neatly in line with the main event of the film: Peter Quill finally meeting his real father.

The parent-figure in fiction (and in psychology) is sort of the "final boss," if you will, of becoming an adult -- usually the conflict is between parent and child of the same gender, but many stories (and Gamora and Nebula's plot) show that this isn't a hard and fast rule. That said, father/son and mother/daughter tensions seem to resonate the most for people psychologically, because our subconscious will often tie our hopes and fears of what we could become to the personality and accomplishments of the same-gendered parent.

(There is a whole box wide open here for those who want to explore this from a gender studies standpoint. But I am a lowly Jung dweeb, so my ability to talk that talk only goes so far.)

When the protagonist in a coming-of-age story is male, we will almost always see him end his that chapter of his life by fighting -- and killing -- his father or a father-figure. Simultaneously or alternatively, we may also see him losing a father figure. Both represent two sides of the same coin: he must be out from under the influence of that father figure (or, more specifically, his impression that he is under that influence) before he can truly call himself an adult. In real life, regardless of gender, this is the equivalent of that awkward time in your twenties or thirties (or forties or fifties) when you finally feel you have demonstrated to your parents that you are their equal and either befriended them or gotten shot of them.

In the case of Peter Quill, James Gunn has thrown pretty much the entire playbook at us, giving our protagonist no less than three father figures, all of whom represent some element of his journey to adulthood.


Ego: The Dark Father


For fans who expected Peter to have an awkward family reunion with J'son of Spartax, the introduction of Kurt Russell as Ego was a bit of a shock. It's a major piece of Marvel lore being rewritten for the MCU, changing Peter's dad to a literal living planet who, in the comics, had contact with pretty much every Marvel faction except the Guardians. (For a run-down of the history of Ego, check out his Marvel Wikia entry.)

That said, the replacement is pretty much perfection for the story being told here, right down to his name. Add in rugged good looks and a battered space hero's costume and you have exactly what Peter would want in a father -- and exactly what Peter himself probably aspires to be.

In terms of fiction, the "Dark Father" is a figure representing a side to one's self that must be overcome: a potential for a negative outcome. Think of the aptly named Darth Vader, or of Voldemort in the Harry Potter series (he may not be Harry's father, but the two have much in common and he serves the same purpose stylistically). Actually, it may be more accurate to say that the Dark Father is your fear of a negative outcome -- what you look ahead of you and see as being what you will grow up into.

It's no coincidence that most Dark Father types have some variation on the "join me and together we can rule the world" spiel for the protagonist. What this archetype has is appealing; what it takes to get there and what you turn into... not so much. And making that choice not to become what That Road leads toward is an important part of the coming-of-age journey.

The Dark Father is very, very much like the hero. He will probably comment on this a lot. He'll have a lot of wonderful things to offer -- at a price. And when the hero says "no," he won't take it well. But with the Dark Father's defeat comes maturity, and the defeat of his own fear of what he could be.


Yondu: Jung's Father Archetype


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was a major piece of breathing room for Yondu. We got to see him at full-power, got to hear him essentially bare his soul, and found out the real reason he never took Peter back to his dad. (Then again, when you find out his dad's a giant angry planet who wants to turn every other planet in the universe into him, you don't particularly find yourself needing an explanation anymore.)

One of the things that I always enjoyed about Michael Rooker's performance as Yondu was his attitude -- he seems like the walking embodiment of "wait until your father gets home," and the importance of that never seemed to click until this movie. Fans of the comic know that the original Yondu Udonta is extremely different to his GotG makeover. While he has similar abilities, his personality and backstory (what exists of a backstory, anyway) are completely refashioned.

This Yondu fits firmly into Jung's Father Archetype: the disciplinarian, the authority figure, the guy who could kick your ass if you don't keep your head down and do what you're supposed to. Another strong example of this in action is Jonathan Hyde's Van Pelt in the 1996 version of Jumanji. And he serves the same purpose: a figure who must be stood up to rather than defeated, overcome and looked in the eye rather than done away with.

The Father Archetype is, unlike the Dark Father trope, not a character that needs to be completely eliminated for the hero to function. However, in order for a person to mature, the Father Archetype can no longer be the hero's superior. In some cases, that's addressed symbolically with death -- but that death is more a symbol of letting go than a symbol of conquest. In this case, it's learning that the Father never was a threat, and is even less of one now as an adult. It's an acknowledgment of equality.

(Also, as Yondu is a character with his own story arc, his life and death do not only serve Peter and his journey, so there will be elements that are solely his own. The two stories interlock and work in and around each other.)


David Hasselhoff: The "Safe" Ideal



No, seriously.

While Hasselhoff's name check and brief cameo were a source of entertainment for fans, his influence on the story of Peter and Ego is also extremely important.

For Peter, his few memories of 1980s Earth are his touchstones, and his TV and film heroes are elevated to almost legendary status in his eyes (and, by extension, those of his fellow Guardians). For a man far from home in a universe full of life, Knight Rider and Footloose genuinely do become the myths of his homeworld, and David Hasselhoff and Kevin Bacon its "heroes."

As Peter mentions in Yondu's eulogy, he did sort of get his Michael Knight dad after all without realizing it. Those parallels are laid pretty bare. But the main parallel -- a far-off dad too busy to see his son -- is the important one early on. Because picking an actor was safe. David Hasselhoff would likely never know that a fatherless boy named Peter Quill lived in Missouri. Peter would never have to worry about the day when he'd discover what his stand-in dad was like.

That in itself betrays something about Peter's view of his real dad: the longing for knowledge with the safety of knowing he'd probably never get it. We see that when the Guardians arrive on Ego the Planet, in the form of Peter's uncertainty. Because the only thing worse than a parent who disappears is a parent who disappeared suddenly coming back and wanting to be a parent. (Or a tyrannical megalomaniac. You know.)


I never learned parenting, my daddy was a planet.


The short version of this long-winded analysis is that Peter succeeded. He knows that defeating the Dark Father, defeating Ego, will destroy that sense of immortality, that sense of power, that freedom to act with reckless abandon -- all, in the end, childish things. Growing up is an acknowledgment that we are not invincible or all-powerful, a recognition that we are humans, and that isn't bad.

Embracing Yondu's Father Archetype, albeit in a eulogy, removes the fear and anger from their relationship. He can see Yondu not as a fearsome tyrant, but as a man, equally good and flawed, and no greater or lesser than himself.

And with the answers laid out in front of him, he no longer has a need for a surrogate. He has surpassed his father figures and grown and matured.

Does that mean the cocky a-hole Star-Lord is gone? Of course not. Growing up doesn't mean you scrap your entire personality for a new one. But going forward, as the other Guardians have had growth of their own (reconciliation for Gamora and Nebula, a friend for Rocket, catharsis for Drax, and literal growth for Groot), we now have a chance to see them evolve into big damn heroes together.

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