The last thing anyone might expect from a swashbuckling science-fiction superhero adventure flick is deep parenting advice, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has it in spades.
Many critics have poo-pooed the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with PJ Media’s own Christian Toto declaring it a “summer bummer.” But the film opened with a smashing $145 million opening weekend at the domestic box office, the second largest opening of the year behind Beauty and the Beast‘s $174.8 million, and $425 million worldwide. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an 82 percent rating, and this reviewer was blown away by the cinematic effects and deep themes of Guardians 2.
While the sequel’s soundtrack falls well short of the original Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the plot features much deeper character development in subtle ways. The humor may fall short of the original, but Guardians 2 still keeps audiences laughing from start to finish.
In a truly impressive feat, the sequel shows fight sequences from the perspective of an uninvolved observer, in order to highlight a character more than the action itself. This style pervades the film, as dialogue and plot points focus on personal themes even more than the impressive eye-popping action.
What does this have to do with parenting? Here are the three key lessons Guardians 2 teaches about raising little (and not so little) ones.
1. Be there for your children.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 introduces Peter Quill or “Star-Lord,” played by Chris Pratt (Jurassic World, 2015), to his father Ego, played by Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight, 2015). The relationship is fascinating, and the movie develops it well, but even after meeting his father, Quill realizes that the damage of never knowing his dad has left a permanent scar on his heart.
The most important thing a mother or father can do for the kids is to stick around and be there. In one moving moment, two characters in Guardians 2 lament how their parents abandoned them. This neglect led them to develop bristly personalities, concealing their true needs and desires under a humorous and insulting exterior.
Most parents won’t abandon their children entirely, and most won’t be tempted to do so. But by presenting the unlikely extreme of abandonment, this movie can teach parents how important it is to invest in their children, by spending time and developing close connections with them.
Peter Quill and his gang of guardians are really cool superheroes, and it is a real treat to watch their antics, but no parent wants to see their child struggle with these heroes’ emotional problems.
2. The value of adoption.
“Sometimes, the thing you’re searching for your whole life, it’s right there by your side all along,” one character muses. This line can be applied to a certain kind of parenting which makes an emergence in the film — adoption.
Adoption can be tricky, and it presents multiple problems. The recent show This Is Us (2016-2017) powerfully portrays the struggles of white parents raising a black boy — Randall Pearson, played by Sterling K. Brown (American Crime Story, 2016). Randall struggles with his identity, always desperate to meet his real father and to connect with other people who look like him. He is loved and treated well, but he still feels out of place.
Children are famously ungrateful. Kids can even say they want a different father or mother, and this can be crushing for any parent to hear. But being there for a child, and caring for him or her, is important and dignifying, even when done by someone who isn’t a biological parent.
Guardians 2 beautifully portrays the value of adoption and the impact of a surrogate father. Even though adopted kids like Randall may always long for their biological parents, it is his adoptive parents who are there for him every day, and that matters more then he can say.
3. Heart over head.
Even the villain in Guardians 2 is deeper and more nuanced than the antagonist of the first film. This evil character claims to be obsessed with discovering “meaning,” but that seemingly benign quest inspires a truly wicked crusade, and the guardians of the galaxy must unite to save the day once again.
In the ultimate struggle, what matters most isn’t knowledge or thinking power, but good old-fashioned “heart.” It is the moral goodness of Peter Quill and his fellow guardians which leads them to fight the villain and save the galaxy. Yes, the guardians are misfits and indeed they have been criminals, but Peter Quill’s heart makes him care for other people, and risk his life to save them from an impending threat.
This may seem simple, even self-explanatory. What makes a man a hero, other than his heart? But this theme is arguably counter-cultural.
In an information economy, where “knowledge is power,” and people “march for science,” it is easy to fall into the fallacy that what matters most in raising children is to make sure they know a lot.
Knowledge is important, but something else is much more fundamental. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, wrote that “the little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”
Modern education tends to focus so much on cultivating knowledge in the head that it neglects the heart, which was the focus of classical education. “The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man,” Lewis wrote.
This “heart” or “spirited element” arguably makes people truly human — “for by his intellect [mankind] is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” Through the heart, the virtuous man restrains his appetites to void gluttony and other excesses. But he also uses his heart to restrain his head, to keep his mind focused on the things that are good.
This is the goal of classical education, which Lewis contrasted with modern education, which teaches young people to debunk morality and follow their own course. This produces “Men without Chests,” men and women without the grounding in right response to reality which makes it possible to live a truly good life. This failure of education arguably explains the craziness on college campuses today.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not set out to teach this fundamental lesson, but it is there for the discerning eye to pick out. The villain’s emphasis on mind over heart is dangerous, and it arguably has a cultural application.
Like Star-Lord, parents and educators should turn to the heart, cultivating the right response to reality which produces courage and true humanity, rather than merely the knowledge of the head. That battle between Peter Quill and the overly mental villain may indeed be playing out all around us, in this information age.
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