It's funny, surprisingly moving at time, and loaded with great special effects. It's not perfect (it's got some crude language, and the scope and severity of the violence was minimized and at times too light-hearted), but as far as summer blockbusters go, it's very good. I was certainly entertained. I was equally challenged by a thought-provoking scene near the end of the movie.
When Peter Quill realizes that he finally has a chance to stop running from hardship and do something truly noble, he tells the other soon-to-be guardians of the galaxy what he has in mind. Rocket soberly summarizes what is painfully clear to all of them:
“You’re asking us to die.”
As I left the theater, a line from a very different kind of hero kept running through my head: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. Don’t get me wrong – Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t meant to be a spiritual parable. But that unexpected, sobering moment lingers with me.*
It was an odd cast of character to whom this challenge had come.
- Peter grew up without a father. When his mother died he was raised in a brutal, soul-hardening environment by a group of space pirates. When we first meet him, he's just a big kid who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world because he doesn’t care about anybody but himself. He flaunts the law, beds women he forgets are still around, and refuses to get too close to anyone ever since the fateful day when he couldn't find it in himself to stay with his mom when she needed him the most.
- Rocket's catch phrase is "There's nothin' like me except me." He is a bitter misfit, constantly mocked and never respected, with no hope of finding anyone else like himself. He responds by trying to be the toughest, uh, raccoon in the room everywhere he goes. All that matters is that he matters. He's a lean, mean, surgically altered machine with a gun that I promise is bigger than yours.
- Groot, the last of his kind, is a bodyguard for Rocket. "Speak softly but carry a big stick" takes on a whole new meaning here. Groot seems to have little sense of the impact of the things he does.
- Gamora was horribly abused as a child after her family and entire planet were wiped out. Her new father turned her into an assassin-for-hire. All she knew of men was that they were anxious to own her but not to love her. He goal is to be free. She will do just about anything to make sure no one manipulates, uses, or owns her again.
- Drax simply wants revenge on those who have killed his family. His loyalties belong to his friends and his cause - and he is willing to jeopardize his friends to further his cause. He's not too bright, but he knows what he wants.
“You’re asking us to die.”
This is the last group of people you would expect to respond to this challenge. Death is their enemy. It has robbed them of family, friends, and in some cases their entire race. Now Peter is asking them to willingly give themselves to the greatest destroyer of hopes, dreams, and life itself. If they expect to rise to the occasion, they must overcome their selfish plans for revenge and be willing to selflessly lay down their lives if they wish to guard the galaxy. One does not become heroic easily. It may well cost everything.
Yet in the midst of all their problems, there are hints that something good inside of them is waiting, simmering beneath their tough exteriors. Like Peter noted, he's not100% a jerk (I paraphrase). Peter has always had a heart for the helpless and abused (which is probably why he can put up with his difficult companions). Gamora is determined to fight for a world where no one has to suffer what she suffered; Drax deeply loved his wife and children and transfers that passion to his new companions; Rocket knows the horrors of being used and controlled; Groot will give everything he has for his friends.
It's a superhero story, so you know they rise to the occasion. They may die, but they will die with friends, a new kind of family comprised of the loners and losers of the galaxy. Everyone else thinks they are worthless, but sometimes it's the foolish things that confound the wise.
“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
I know – it was just a superhero movie. And while the heroes have certainly changed, they have hardly become role models (Plugged In notes, "They may be redeemed, but they are hardly reformed.") So why can’t I quit thinking about that moment? Probably because I feel like I have failed far too many times to step up and be the kind of man who lays down his life not only for Christ, but for my family, my friends, and my neighbors? It's not just the bad guys out there that need to be overcome; it's also the darkness that lurks inside of me. The fault line between good and evil runs through my heart.
I can’t guard a galaxy, but this summer blockbuster reminded me that I must guard my heart, my mind, my soul, and my strength – not just for my sake, but for the sake of those around me as well. I must die to selfishness, anger, and pride so that I can live with compassion, humility and love.
That’s a pretty good reason to die. And it's the only way I know to truly live.
*Thanks, Karl, for your thoughtful additions to this post. And check out J.W. Wartick's further discussion of some unexpectedly Christian themes in the film.