Peter Quill, Jesus, and the death of God

This post contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

It is common in stories, perhaps especially in the kind of sci-fi and fantasy which specialises in black hats and white, with the good ending happily and the bad unhappily, for heroes to take on certain aspects of Jesus. Sometimes this is at the level of character traits or plot twists – Gandalf’s self-sacrifice and return from the dead is perhaps one of the classics of that. Sometimes it’s at the level of imagery or cinematography – Man of Steel appeared to be under the impression that it was possible to make us think that Superman was a bit like Jesus by giving him halo-like light effects, if I recall correctly. (I may not. I think I fell asleep.)

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Peter Quill is compared with Jesus at the level of narrative. As a character, the self-important, cocky, and music-obsessed Peter isn’t a good candidate for this, but the plot of the movie has some features which make the comparison clear. His father is unknown, then turns out to be a god (the word he uses for himself is ‘celestial’, but when another character offers the word ‘god’, he agrees, noting that it should have a small ‘g’), immensely powerful, loving, and with a plan for the universe.  Peter, discovering this, is able to take on some of his father’s power and use it.

There the similarities with the actual Gospel narrative are at an end. However, since God has been suffering from Kirk Drift for a while now, there are a number of other similarities between Peter’s father in the film and the popular image of God: he is an older man, bearded, alone, genial at first but capable of great anger, creating planets from nothing and willing to manipulate people to fulfil his plans.

This being a comic book movie, he can also be thwarted entirely by a well-timed explosion. More significantly, the character of Peter’s father is named ‘Ego’, and his actions, even those which seem altruistic at first, all turn out to be selfish when his true motivations are revealed. On the one hand, this takes us well beyond any comparison with the God actual Christians believe in. On the other hand, this is more than Kirk Drift: I suggest that it tells us something about how the character of a god is now understood in popular culture.

I maintain the comparison to a Christian God for three reasons: the closeness of the narrative comparison between Peter Quill and Jesus in the early stages of the plot arc about Ego; the availability of Christianity as source material, subconsciously as well as consciously, to the creators and audience of this mainstream American film; and its monotheism. In some ways, the actions of Ego would not be out of place in a Greek drama about many deities – but there would be many deities. Ego’s position is distinctly one of aloneness, which in many ways he longs to but cannot really break. The relationship with Peter’s mother, and then Peter (and also Mantis, a female character who is almost never treated well by Ego, the script, or the other characters) are symptoms of this.

That being so, I read back from this film’s treatment of Ego an understanding of Christianity which is fundamentally sceptical. It is sympathetic to Jesus – that is to say, to Peter, an unwitting pawn in his father’s plans, then almost a knowing collaborator, then a fighter against the system who overcomes death and symbolic burial with the help of his friends rather than his father. It is slightly sympathetic to Mary/Meredith Quill, Peter’s mother, who is fridged in accordance with modern tradition in order to let the men have their manpain and battles. (This isn’t, I don’t think, a Biblical tradition: contrast the Pieta.) It is deeply unsympathetic to God, who is shown to be self-centred – named Ego! – and to be using his power for evil, ultimately to control the universe, and it’s hinted that this would wipe out (sentient? human? all?) life in the process. Nietzsche – at least in the mood in which he wrote that line – might have appreciated this film.

In a narrative where the ‘good guys’ steal things they are paid to protect, run away rather than owning up, play cruel pranks on one another, seek only to win, and demonstrate any love they have for one another through arguments and explosions, this is an interesting claim. I think it is only a claim we as viewers can accept without question if we have an ethical assumption something like: monopolies of control are bad, the richness and messiness of people is good – even if the people aren’t, as individuals, very moral. It might be the ethical equivalent of the Rule of Cool: actions and characters become more morally acceptable as their entertainment value increases.

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