where self-love is lauded like no other (as evidenced by Kim Kardashian’s recent release of a book of her pictures of herself), we should not be too quick to declare the obviously narcissistic and self-absorbed “selfie” an entirely useless medium: the best part of a selfie is that it reveals the self’s desired relation to itself. To the willing eye, it can be a helpful mirror.
The 2014 Marvel blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, in addition to being a genuinely fun and (at times) funny run-of-the-mill superhero flick, is also a thinly veiled self-affirmation of America’s political role as global policeman, despite the apparent threats posed by its burgeoning economic rivals. Taken in this context, we could say the film serves as a national “selfie”—a largely self-centered image taken by the self of the self, portraying the self in the way the self wants to be seen by itself, rendering others the spectating horde and would-be worshippers of the self’s self-affirmation.
The film opens as a proper selfie should—with itself: The main hero, the foremost of the “Guardians,” nota bene, Peter Quill, a.k.a. “Star Lord” (itself a telling moniker), listening to classic rock ’n’ roll on his Walkman (for you teen and pre-teen metaphilmers out there, a distant analog ancestor to the iPhone, which only played music—how boring!), wrapped up in his own little world, smashing rodents and dancing (while we, the American film audience, validate the spectacle by watching, in a structure directly equivalent to the role we play for each other daily via Snapchat). After some self-referential dialogue and inevitable ass-kicking, we see clearly that our original intuition was confirmed—Quill is iconic of Americana, with his rock music, desperado leather style, well-intentioned but ultimately only self-referential communication (and that primarily through jokes, irony, and superlatives), and lack of any sacral sense. But, of course, also his obvious ability to kick major ass.
Not too much later, we meet the film’s vile enemies—two angry, power-mongering warlords from a distant land: Thanos, the gravely serious apparent emperor of this evil dynasty, and Ronan, a younger, equally dramatic, but more active lackey who has contracted with him. The names here are telling: Thanos, not far from the transliteration of the Greek thanatos—a rather obvious reference to death. Basically, the bad guy’s name tells us that he is bad—his success would mean the death of the “galaxy.” But beyond his short, obscure role in the film, we should note that his intentions are largely aligned with those of Ronan. When one considers that a Ronin was a Japanese samurai without a master, it is rather obvious (as if it wasn’t from his face in the presence of Thanos) that Ronan will eventually cast off Thanos’s control and strike out on his own. More generally, and more relevant for our purposes, we should note that we’ve already established a bit of an East vs. West standoff—the “good” guy, the guardian of the Western galaxy, and the “bad” Eastern warlords who hunger for the destruction of the West. Er, the galaxy. Right. (Note also how the prime potential purchaser of the “orb” in the film fits this pattern as well—the rich Collector’s servants are simply stereotyped anime girls, complete with ponytails, short skirts, and subservient mannerisms—though not without a desire to strike back.)
Moving on, the racial palette becomes more colorful: the green Gamora (played by notably non-white Zoe Saldana), whose family (in a lovely historically revised reading consistent with the logic of the selfie) was made a slave of the evil Ronan, decides she wants to stick it to the axis of evil. She is an honor-focused rendition of twentieth-century “strong-woman” feminism, and once our heroes are all imprisoned together she has to fight the omnipresent discrimination against her, keeping her eyes on the prize of a better life. She is quick to remind Quill that the orb is her only hope for changing her situation. Naturally, in a classically perfect picture of famed American tolerance, she and Quill provide the required romance for the blockbuster film formula. In fact, this “romance” reaches its apogee when the white male Quill (whom the film later explicitly labels a Christ figure by stating that while his mother was a human, his father is superhuman, perhaps divine) rescues her after her ship is destroyed, after which he praises his own ability to find something heroic within himself. How humble and sacrificial of him! He must be a really great guy.
These two Guardians team up with a few less-notable others: First, the well-intentioned but dull Drax the Destroyer, whose people can only take things literally, incapable of irony, symbolism, or metaphor. Drax—who, in our reading, could fit any number of stereotypes, from a Putinesque jab at Russian aggression to a mockery of continental Europe’s economic differences from its growth-focused American and Chinese competitors—lost his family and cannot think clearly because of his overwhelming drive towards revenge. Second, Rocket, a genetically modified raccoon who happens to be a tech-wizard, perhaps a subtle nod to technological “improvement” on nature (which, in the film, gives the West the upper hand, despite the East’s seemingly equivalent, if not more advanced development). And last, Groot, the bumbling, mystical tree humanoid whose speech is a semi-idiotic repetition of his own name. We should again pay close attention to the name: not only does Groot refer to nature explicitly by including the word “root,” but in Vin Diesel’s deep voice, it sounds more like “Grooth,” or “truth.” Groot utters the ultimate mystery of the film at his apparent disappearance—we are Groot/grooth/truth. The ironies abound: the technologically superior West overlaps with the much more Eastern “Atman is Brahman”-style oneness with nature, dissolving personal identities into something mysterious and perhaps “spiritual,” though quite out of place with the rest of the film’s tone. (It wouldn’t be too far-fetched here to read him as a Native American, either, who gives himself for the sake of the survival of the rest of the West.)
The real content of our cinematic selfie comes towards the end, however. After a nod to the RAF’s air superiority during the WWII bombing of London via dive-bombing, and the chief Nova pilot’s clear British accent and sensibilities, Nova Prime (Glenn Close, leader of the English-style civilization that here embodies the larger “West” that our Guardians guard) lauds the Guardians, but most specifically Peter Quill, the Star Lord, for his sacrificial service. The Nova Corps people tell him that it is all thanks to him that they are alive, and they are so thankful. On the way out, Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly) reminds the Guardians that they are still subject to law. Our techno-friend Rocket shows that he doesn’t recognize stealing as illegal (a nod to piracy?), while Drax proves his “barbarian” status by showing that he has no respect for “human rights,” showing that murder wouldn’t be out of the question for him. But the real icing on the cake is Quill’s response—along the lines of “Don’t worry about them. I’ll be looking after them.” Of course—Quill-America, the global policeman, whose international politics on his own terms will no doubt cover for the obvious “faults” of his allies in the eyes of his Western protectees.
When this American-imperialist narrative is combined with with loads of CGI, occasional first-person shooter style camerawork, loads of puns, and great rock music, it’s a blast. It’s really fun—no argument there. What is despicable, however, is that it’s the sort of fun that turns the rest of the world into nothing more than a bastion for its own exaggerated self-importance. Sure, there’s a “Christ figure” here, but one who in no way resembles the love which makes a Christian sacrifice worthwhile. It’s the story of a self-validating Christ with an absent Father, one who, after giving himself for the salvation of his own, rises from the dead and says “Wow, look how great I am!”