My Sweet Lord – A Mormon Interpretation of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Growing up in the Latter-Day Saint church (LDS) there was only one official portrait of God the father I ever recall seeing, it was a painting by Del Parson, The First Vision, an artist whose work is featured all over official church buildings and publications in the last thirty years, and in it God is appearing in front of Joseph Smith for the first time alongside Jesus and gesturing to his only begotten to his right. Heavenly Father is clad in white, with a full white beard, pale skin, and glowing with white ambience. Making out his features to compare them against Jesus is like a painting of a rabbit in a snowstorm. For all the genuine emotion that this artist usually conveys in his soft toned portraits God’s features are unremarkable and virtually identical to Jesus. Which is weird for an official church portrait where the usual Christian doctrine of the trinity are rejected in favor of insisting that not only are the father, son and holy ghost separate individuals but that God’s perfect body has consistent measurements that correlate to his far distant past mortality. Its easy then for a person to forget the face of God in favor of Jesus who does all the work anyway, if you really think about it God is like a celestial shareholder who lets his favorite kids run the universe. But this God has character if you really look for it and I’ve never seen a better depiction of him, even on accident, than Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Ego the Living Planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
This isn’t a joke, making analogies to serious or sacred subject matter that reference hokey or silly stories has been a compulsion of mine since I was a kid. When I was 8 my first scripted public speaking experience was just like this, I wrote a long lost talk making comparisons between Star Wars and LDS scripture characters. It was a big hit, and I’ve long thought about revisiting it by either trying to recreate the talk or give an adult reinterpretation. Here it is, and too bad for my old fans this isn’t a flattering analysis for the god character.
I shouldn’t feel the need to write such a long preface and maybe I’m procrastinating because I have yet to outline the whole argument despite knowing better but this shit isn’t for a class or academic publication so if you’re unfamiliar with my “real” writing style just know I’ve recorded over 12 hours of rambling about tea and I’m not stopping until I reach 100 hours at least so its going to be long, winding, entertaining, a little sad, and for about 1 in five of you very funny. 1 in 5 is my guess at the proportion of people who find me funny when I’m being 100% serious, I don’t think its my attribute its some defect in 20% of you but thanks for laughing anyway. Almost done with the meta shit hold on. I’m sure some of you wonder “Why Gardeners of the Galaxy? Its just a fun movie and I liked it why do you have to ruin it by injecting [religion][politics] into everything? Can’t a guy just enjoy a story of Burt Macklin, a shirtless alien, green Uhura, a raccoon and his baby tree? ” Guess what? You still can, there is no way that James Gunn wrote this story with the specific allegory that I’m about to read into it but frankly I don’t give a damn what the author intended. In that universe the only people qualified to have anything to say about art would be the artist and then I’d have nothing to do and kill myself so just let me have this, subjective interpretation gives each person’s experience meaning and sharing our experiences helps both the writer and the audience understand the world better than it did before. And as I’ll get into later, how good a story is has jack shit to do with how silly the idea is. Somewhere out there in another timeline the greatest film ever made is a story about teenage dinosaurs who are too old to play Pokémon and rebel against the totalitarian nazisaurus rex by filling their pokedex. And its good because of how well it follows the proper structure and tells the story of how relateable characters change.
Whats this Mormon shit about anyway? Help me I have no idea what this niche topic is about.
I could spend the next thousand words talking about the history of the LDS church, about their basic theology and organizational structure, but I won’t because none of that is relevant to this article, go check it out on Wikipedia if you want to know about how many teenagers Joseph Smith slept with or what that whole polygamy stuff was about. In 30 years the future missionaries knocking at your door won’t know what an urim and thumim was, but they will tell you that Families Can Be Together ForeverTM, because that’s what its all about. Its about buying hellfire insurance for your spouse and kids so you can all be happy together in infinite Family Home Evenings. Had a kid that died young or a miscarriage? Mormonism’s got you covered. That important core tenant is why so many Mormons dug their heels in and fought gay marriage (and are still trying to make LGBT people second class citizens but that’s a topic for another day) because yes it’s a church run by bigoted old men with mild to severe dementia but the rank and file members are in this artificially created dilemma where they have to choose between letting same sex couples have “real” marriages or invalidating the one main benefit that the LDS church offers; a valid marriage certificate and insured connection to your children for all of time. Does it really make sense? No. Is it fucked up and ruins lives? Yes. But it’s the truth that lies in the collective unconscious of Mormons. If the church caves the moral authority to determine who has “real” marriages to secular authority it waters down the power that most fills the insecurity that all of us have and what converts people to Mormonism most of the time.
But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a different thesis about family, a thesis that is radically decentralized that relies on no secular or religious authority; your family is who loves you, and you will know who loves you by how they treat you. Full stop. No silly ceremonies, no legal documents, no history of having a certain household structure or who your parents say you can marry or anything. I’ll say it again just in case you are skimming: Your family is who loves you and you know who loves you by how they treat you. Even if your family yells at you and subjects you to your personal madness when they see that you are stranded on a living planet set to blow up they’ll turn the spaceship around and die making sure you have a chance to come back. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t really about Peter Quill, its about Yondu who has the most to gain or lose from the ideological argument made by this movie. At the start of the film the Guardians have a set of ideas about who they are and what they stand for and throughout the course of the film they are confronted with the alternative ideas about who they are and what they should stand for when they meet and eventually come into conflict with Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell’s character) and the gold faced aliens, each character develops because they’re values and identity, both individually and collectively, are challenged by Ego and arrive at the conclusion of the story having transcended both their previous value and the values of Ego and arrive at a new place psychologically as characters and we as viewers are along for the ideological ride. James Gunn may not realize it but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a brilliant rebuke of the ideological claims that the LDS church makes about what makes family valuable and how human beings should live. Guardians 2 is a movie about the redemption and triumph of the rough, weird, crude, morally flawed, misfits of the universe against the shockingly simple and one dimensional values of the gods and “perfected” societies.
Get to the point Ego damn man.
It must be weird watching Guardians 2 without seeing the first one, but if you are one of those people here is the skinny: Peter Quill was a kid on Earth when his Mom died in 1988 from cancer, he runs out of the hospital after watching his mom die and is abducted by the space pirate Yondu (Michael Rooker) who was supposed to deliver Peter to his space dad, but Yondu kept him around and Peter grew up on an interstellar pirate ship until getting mad and leaving to become an outlaw with the self-given name “Star Lord”, the plot of the first movie happens and he teams up with a ragtag group of space outlaws to stop a blue dude from using the McGuffin to blow something up and America rediscovered “Hooked on a Feeling” for a few months there. Now they’re the Guardians of the Galaxy and do work for hire protecting batteries from monsters. Like any real family the Guardians start the new movie bickering over nothing than the fact that they all have far too much ego for one spaceship and are saved by Ego the Living Planet who tells Peter he was his long lost father and has been looking for him all this time. Peter has to work through is initial skepticism and then anger at his father for being absent his entire life but after some time on Ego’s planet they’re using space god powers to play catch. Yondu the space pirate has tried moving on with his own life but has a cryptic conversation with Sylvester Stallone at a space robot brothel. Turns out Yondu paid a heavy price for keeping Peter as a kid, his old space outlaw gang the Ravagers disowned him for seemingly trafficking in kids and has had to make due with a dumb pirate crew who are dumb as rocks. By the end of the first act the worldly Yondu loses his space ship to mutiny, can’t gain the acceptance of his old peers, and the closest thing he has to a son Peter has moved on without him. His crew are hired by the gold faced aliens to track down the Guardians and bring them back to planet The Sovereign to await the perfect judgement by the perfect judges in the perfect society in all the universe. Turns out that being “perfect” doesn’t include being likable, at every turn the movie gives the audience a small view into how these perfect aliens treat each other and handle the failure of their no-stakes pursuit of the Guardians. They’re petty, dismissive of each other, and obsessed with being right to the point where they can’t appreciate the fact that if they were so perfect why do they need the riff-raff Guardians to stop a monster for them. They also can’t seem to get the hint that covering everything in gold is tacky and telegraphs just how vain you are which last I checked isn’t part of perfection.
At the end of the second act we find out that Ego is really a spontaneous intelligence who popped into existence millions of years ago and has willed his own body into existence as a planet with a whole ecosystem and sent out copies of himself all over the universe to find life and then have sex with them. Like the Sovereign we find out that Ego is a shallow jerk who thinks with his dick and has been searching for a species that can give birth to a human/god hybrid that can join him as a fellow god. Despite claiming to love Peter’s mother he didn’t really see her as a person and gave her cancer to keep her from distracting him on his quest to make space god babies. He’s had millions of babies and after they grow up have them sent back to his planet, if they have the god power gene he keeps them and if they don’t he kills them for not meeting his arbitrary standards that make them worthy of living in his presence. A big space battle happens and Yondu helps save Peter, even though his whole life he was unable to really say it Yondu loved Peter like a son and refused to hand him over to Ego knowing he would probably be killed or best case scenario turn into a celestial horndog who is obsessed with finding the perfect kid.
The Plan of HappinessTM
If this sounds familiar to you then you probably had to learn about something Mormons call the Plan of Salvation. Its usually a poorly drawn map of eternity on a chalkboard in a carpeted gymnasium cultural hall. Basically god is dude with a dick and a ton of wives who you are never allowed to even think of talking about and had trillions of spirit kids. Like Ego he’s not a capital G God because he can’t control everything, really he’s a guy who makes babies and planets for those babies to live on. What is the meaning of life for an immortal space god whose main power is making fucking and making stuff? Put your kids through an arbitrary trial by mortality where they have their minds wiped and if they don’t accept Jesus and learn the secret handshake (spoilers it’s the Mason’s handshake) they can’t come back to live with their father who will grant them super god bodies so they can have billions of wives and make deathtrap plants to send their own kids through. Instead of being happy with his wives and spirit kids he knowingly sends his children who he says he loves into a trap that most of them will not survive and they’ll get assigned a place in heaven based on how well they can internalize the cognitive dissonance of not drinking coffee being a serious enough sin to keep you out of your child’s wedding but treating women like children who can’t have the keys to the church building for events or have any power to contradict a man over 18 is totally okay behavior.
Mormon heavenly father and Ego, when faced with trillions of children decided he’d rather have the ones who are just like him and weed out the imperfect ones and if they end up dead or suffering alone for eternity its totally worth having those perfect kids. A society full of people like this is actually pretty insufferable, as the gold faced Sovereign aliens are depicted to be and the rough unlovable father Yondu, after losing everything that was valuable to him still put Peter’s safety and wellbeing above his own. Ego and Mormon god’s answer antithesis to the cobbled together imperfect family is; you can be perfect if you are just like me, and anyone who isn’t good enough to be on the right side of the coffee line will be better off out of the picture, or your family is who you have the most in common with and meets an arbitrary standard like temple marriage or sharing genetics. Once Peter Quill learns that the entire state of affairs that lead to his mother’s suffering and early death was willful collateral damage to make the perfect universe he responds the way any decent human being would; he tells his horny space god Dad to fuck off and blows up a living planet to stop that from happening to anyone else in the future.
Wrapping it all up
The personality, motivation, betrayal, and values of Ego and the Sovereign in Guardians 2 was shockingly familiar to me as I sat in the theater watching this movie. For all the harping on “the world” and desperate chasing after perfection and avoiding even “the appearance of evil” that goes on in LDS culture and teachings seeing it get literally blown off and told to fuck off was a million times more spiritual an experience than anything I’d ever experienced at church. I’ve been out of the church for a few years now, I’m one of the lucky ones who left before I got married and made it a huge part of my social and professional circle. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about family, how your real family are those who are literally there for you, how a real father would lose his job, reputation, and life for his kids, and how perfection has nothing to do with arbitrary “high” standards and everything to do with finding love from the people around you who support you. A lot of Mormons believe what I just said, but its hard to see the contradiction that the entire behavior of heavenly father, Joseph Smith, and modern leaders bear no resemblance to the good principles that reside in their hearts. Please don’t read this and go be passive aggressive to any Mormon in your life, live your sinful rough around the edges R-rated life with a real smile and ask them if the new Marvel movie reminded them of anything and leave it at that. If they’re good and honest they’ll allow themselves to see it when they’re ready. That’s what my Yondu did, and if its good enough for Michael Rooker its good enough for me. So if he’s still around give your dad a call, even if he didn’t conceive you with your mom behind a Dairy Queen, he’s not going to last forever.
Post Script: This might be the most niche, alienating thing I’ve ever written and I nearly cried at the end of it. I was serious about being nice to Mormons though, only I get to make fun of my insufferable people cause I lived through it. If I hear this shit in a bar and you’ve never had a CTR ring I’ll kick your ass. New podcast episode is coming soon, Clay and I will talk about Persona 5 because Donkey Kong 64 is a real mans game and I’m not worthy so we’ll talk about the best game of 2017 since we both just beat it this week.