What do a bunch of space outlaws, a raccoon, a sentient tree, and a handful of human and alien superheroes have to teach us about the church?
Quite a bit actually.
I had the chance to see Marvel’s summer blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy back in August. With its story of a group of space misfits and outlaws coming together for a greater cause, it reminded me a bit of the TV show Firefly, the brainchild of none other than Marvel director Joss Whedon. Firefly, which attained cult status after its very brief run on Fox in 2002, follows the adventures of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew on the ship Serenity. These characters, all brought together from various walks of life and for sometimes questionable motives, are initially at odds. But over time they become a quirky family who learns to work together for a greater purpose, which in Whedon’s follow up film Serenity becomes unmasking the corrupt Alliance government. What Whedon excels at is giving each character their own screen time and back story in which we learn about the ways these loners and oddballs have been broken or wounded, and why they really need each other.
Whedon, of course, went on to direct Marvel’s massive tag-team film The Avengers, in which Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and their associates come together to defeat the threat of Thor’s adopted brother, the scheming and narcissistic Loki. Avengers plays out this theme of misfits coming together on a larger scale. For a superhero film, it’s fascinating that Whedon spends almost two thirds of the time exploring the dynamics of these slightly dysfunctional, damaged, and extraordinary individuals coming together as a team. As Whedon has said about the film, “Ultimately these people don’t belong together and the whole movie is about finding yourself from community. And finding that you not only belong together but you need each other, very much.”
We see this theme played out in the film. At one point, Loki mockingly asks, “How desperate are you that you call on such lost creatures to defend you?” Even Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/The Hulk acknowledges at one point, “We’re not a team, we’re a time bomb”.
It is only after the death of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson that they learn to overcome their petty differences and save the world.
This brings me back to Guardians of the Galaxy, which follows a similar vein. Set in a far corner of the Marvel Universe, the film tracks the exploits of Peter Quill, an outlaw known as Star-lord, who was abducted from earth as a kid shortly after his mother died of cancer. Quill finds a mysterious metal orb as part of a job for a dark figure named Ronan, and in the process runs into the female assassin Gamora, who is betraying Ronan and is also after the orb, and the raccoon-like creature Rocket and his sidekick-tree Groot, who are trying to capture Quill for the bounty on his head. Along the way they pick up Drax the Destroyer, a warrior bent on revenge after Ronan murdered his wife and child.
This rag-tag team finds themselves together mostly due to circumstance and self-interest. As director James Gunn puts it, “All the Guardians start out the movie as bastards.” But when they find out that Ronan intends to use the orb to wipe out an entire planet, they find it within themselves to do something about it:
Peter Quill: When I look around, you know what I see? Losers.
[Everyone looks at him.]
Peter Quill: I mean people who lost stuff. And man, we all have, a lot. But now life’s given us a chance.
Rocket Raccoon: To do what?
Peter Quill: To give a s**t. And I am not gonna stand by and watch as billions of lives are being wiped out.
Through the film, they come to realize, like the Avengers, that they are greater together than they are apart. And having lost their families to murder or abduction, they find a new family in each other. In a touching scene at the end, the Guardians are stuck on Ronan’s wrecked ship as it plunges toward the surface of the planet Xandar. Groot, whose sole repeated phrase throughout the film is various inflections of “I am Groot,” begins to spread his branchy form into a protective sphere around his companions. As they rest safe inside, he says, “We are Groot,” which is enough to indicate how close these characters have become.
In thinking about these films, I was reminded of a quote from C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” about the power of myth: “The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores them to their rich significance which has been hidden by the ‘veil of familiarity’ . . . by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we discover it.”
We can often be blinded by this veil of familiarity as we sit in our places of worship week after week, and in doing so we too are often tempted to succumb to myopic pettiness and infighting. But the truth is much greater. Although we are broken and dysfunctional, we are extraordinary, and have been called together in the most unlikely way to save the world. I mean, look at the people Jesus called to be his disciples: fishermen, cheating tax-collectors, prostitutes, self-righteous Pharisees, and political zealots. To the world these would look like “such lost creatures” to call upon to save humanity. But it is God’s wisdom to call the misfits and disreputable into his family, to bind them up, heal them, and set them on a heroic journey for the kingdom. It can be easy to lose sight of this, but sometimes it takes a superhero film or a show about space outlaws to see that.