Guardians of the Galaxy and Philosophy
“We are Groot!
Jeffery L. Nicholas
Guardians of the Galaxy! What a film. Packed with action, story, special effects, humor, and a walking, talking tree. Much press release and on-line babble treated GotG as another super-hero movie, but I think the movie makes clear that, it’s, not a superhero movie, but a space opera in the tradition of Star Wars and Fifth Element. The difference, for me, lies in the fact that, first, GotG is set, not on, but completely off-Earth; second, that victory comes, not from the hands of some super-powered person, but from mostly typical people (though Rocket and Gamora are the exceptions that prove the rule here), and, third, that our “heroes” sacrifice themselves, not for the public, but for each other (Gamora perhaps being an exception again).
That idea—that the heroes of this movie sacrifice themselves for each other and not for the public—distinguishes this movie even more from other science fiction, superhero, and space opera movies. We can see in the relationships that build between the characters a movement from one form of friendship to another, as discussed by our good friend, Aristotle. This movement contrasts nicely with the major form of depicting superheroes and science fiction heroes, reflecting Nietzsche’s Übermensch—the original “Super Man.” I have reflected on this theme already in my article “Of Gods and Buggers: Friendship in Ender’s Game” (published in Ender’s Game and Philosophy) and on Nietzsche in an article on nihilism in The Big Lebowski and Philosophy (“Bowling Our Way Out of Nothing”). Here I want to reflect on the themes raised in those papers on friendship and nihilism and relate those themes to GotG (and as a build up to a paper I will present in October for NEPCA). I shall do so through a brief reflection on Dune.
Readers of Dune may be aware that Frank Herbert wrote Paul Mad ‘dib and Leto II as warnings of Nietzschean Übermensch. The proper translation of that Nietzschean term is Over Man. For Nietzsche, human individuality was dying out in the late modern period. Individuality shrunk in the face of new social sciences that categorized human behavior and in the face of market forces that sold to the lowest common denominator. For Nietzsche, nihilism comprised, not something to be grasped, but a threat to humanity. The great mass of humanity bought into universal values, which, because of their universality, lack any ground to support them. In contrast, Nietzsche sought an Over Man. An Over Man is an individual who rejects universal values. Instead, s/he adopts values that reflect his or her underlying drives—deep psychological impulses. These drives grounded values, not because of, but despite any universality, because of their individual nature.
What does any of this reflection on Nietzsche and Dune have to do with GotG? Quite simply, unlike the heroes of most space operas, science fiction, and superhero movies, the heroes of GotG are not a form of Übermensch. What singularly distinguishes Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and Drax are their growing friendship as a basis for working together and saving the universe. I will use two examples—Star Wars and Avengers—to make this point.
At the beginning of Episode IV, Han and Luke meet via Obi Wan Kenobi. Obi Wan pays Han to fly the Millennium Falcon to Oberon to meet Princess Leia and then to rescue Leia from Darth Vader. Han, Luke, and Leia, after the death of Obi Wan, have what Aristotle calls a friendship of utility. Their relationship is based simply on utility—Luke and Leia need transport; Han provides it in exchange for currency. While Luke is attracted to Leia, their friendship is based on working together to stop the Empire and Darth Vader. Similarly, in Avengers, Tony Stark, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk join forces because of their utility to each other. An outside force—Nick Fury and Shield—bring them together to help defeat Loki and his (unknown) allies. In both cases, though more clearly in Avengers, strife occurs easily. Thus, Luke and Han bicker, as do Luke and Leia, and Han and Leia. In the Avengers, Thor battles the Hulk, while Iron Man and Captain America posture to see who walks bigger. At the end of Episode IV, Han does save Luke, and we see the beginning of something other than friendship of utility. But the motivation is missing from the story itself—Han’s arrival is a surprise. Likewise, the Avengers team up, but motivated mostly by empathy for a fallen comrade for whose death they all feel responsible.
In GotG, our heroes begin from a friendship of utility as well (except for Rocket and Groot who were already good friends before the story starts). Gamora needs Star-Lord for his orb, Star-Lord needs Rocket for an escape, Rocket needs Groot for his strength, and Drax needs Gamora to get to Ronan. Many friendships start out as friendships of utility, and that is perfectly fine. They are still a type of friendship for Aristotle. “Those who love each other on account of utility, then, do not love each other in themselves, but only insofar as they have something good from each other” (NE VIII: 1156a10-15). Each of our heroes loves something and befriends the other because of that something. This love of something grounds the friendships I spoke of in Episode IV and in Avengers.
Notice, however, how things change in GotG in relation to the other movies. In Episode IV and Avengers, none of the main characters risks themselves for the other main characters. (Yes, in Episode V, Han risks his life for Luke when he goes out in the storm on Hoth to find him, but that is three years later.) Iron Man/Stark does risk his life by taking the nuclear weapon into the wormhole when he is nearly out of power; but he does not risk his life for his comrades. He risks it for New York. I am not saying that Stark would not risk his life for his comrades; rather I am noting that in the story we are presented on screen, neither he nor any of the others risk their lives for each other. In fact, in an intentionally hilarious scene, the Hulk punches Thor in the middle of battle.
In contrast, in the middle of GotG, Star-Lord risks his life for Gamora, and he has no real knowledge that he will be saved in doing so. His intended sacrifice has nothing to do with Ronan or saving the universe—it is for Gamora herself.
More telling, of course, is Groot’s sacrifice. The heroes have seemingly defeated the bad guy, but it looks like it will cost them their lives. They sit on a massive starship plummeting to the ground. Groot begins to weave a web of wood fiber around them, cushioning them for the impact to come. In one of the more moving and memorable moments of the film, Rocket begs Groot to stop. “But you’ll die. Why are you doing this?”
“We are Groot.”
That simple statement is a statement of love and friendship that has moved beyond a friendship of utility to true friendship. Groot loves Rocket for Rocket and Rocket’s sake. He wishes the best for Rocket. Likewise, he loves all of his companions, and they too have formed a friendship upon which they have sought to defeat Ronan. Gamora says that she has spent her life surrounded by her enemies; she is happy to die among her friends.
Even more telling than this melodramatic moment, on the other hand, is how they actually defeat Ronan. In our other films, the heroes act independently of each other. Han shoots Vader, and Luke blows up the Death Star; Black Widow destroys the device holding open the wormhole, and Tony Stark steers the nuclear device through. In the climatic scene of GotG, however, Star-Lord is being torn apart acting on his own. Only when he reaches out and grasps Gamora’s hand is he able to maintain some semblance of his integrity. Likewise, Drax and Rocket clasps hands with Star-Lord, and for a few moments they can control the power necessary to destroy Drax.
What we witness in GotG, so different from the Nietzschean moments of the other films, is an Aristotelian moment. For Aristotle, “friendship is a certain virtue or is accompanied by virtue … and friendship is a help to the young, in saving them from error” (NE Book VIII: 1155a4-5, 13). Gamora begs for Star-Lord to help her give the orb to the Nova Corps, but he refuses seeking money instead. Only after they have developed a true friendship does each of our characters develop enough virtue to do what is right—stop Ronan and hand over the infinity stone to Nova Corps. Their friendship of utility has taken a possible, though rare, turn and developed into true friendship where each wishes the good for the other. Only on this basis will they be willing to sacrifice their individual lives for the other person.
Yes, the Avengers work together, but, in my humble opinion, their unity is functional rather than constitutive. None of them changes who they are from their friendship.
Some might contend that the characters in the Avengers were friends like those in GotG. If we look at, for instance, the science bros—Tony Stark and Bruce Banner—we can begin to see a true friendship develop. This friendship, though, is the exception that proves my point. Why are Stark and Banner friends; why do they alone drive off together at the end of the movie, while everyone else goes their separate ways? The reason is that they share a love—a love of science. Each is impressed by the work of the other. They are virtuous in similar ways, sharing the Aristotelian virtue of Epistêmê. Stark also has techne—craft (he makes wonderful weapons and Iron Man suits and potato guns—which Banner lacks (otherwise he would not be a big, green, giant). None of the other characters share a similar relationship or love the same things like Stark and Banner do. I contend, though, that the characters of GotG share this kind of friendship between all of them. Thus, Star-Lord says to the Nova Corps that he will watch over the others, and Gamora says that they will follow his lead. No such unity binds the Avengers. (As a conciliatory movement, let me add that, while I believe that the friendships differ, I am both willing to listen to the other argument and that I have a certain prejudice. I love the Avengers, but I’m not keen on Captain America. Captain America harbors too much, I think, the American spirit of individualism to really be part of a true friendship. But, again, I’m willing to be convinced by those who want to argue that the Avengers share the same kind of friendship as do the Guardians.)
In the end, Luke, Leia, and Han save the day; likewise, the Avengers defeat Loki and his army. Yet, we can ask questions about why they did so? Why did Han come back and save Luke’s behind? Why did Stark sacrifice his life for New York? The simple answer, the one Nietzsche thinks lies behind their actions, are universal values. In contrast, we do not have to ask why the Guardians risk their lives. They sacrifice their lives for each other. This distinction is important, for most of our contemporary literature reflects one approach to superheroes and ignores the other. More importantly, we need to ask ourselves how this approach affects the way we view our selves, our world, and our own need for superheroes.
Jeffery L. Nicholas is Associate Professor at Providence College. He publishes in critical theory and political philosophy (Reason, Tradition, and the Good (UNDP 2012)) and pop culture and philosophy (including editor of Dune and Philosophy (Open Court 2011) and entries in Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, The Big Lebowski and Philosophy, and Ender’s Game and Philosophy (Blackwell 2014, 2012, and 2013)).
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