“Something Good, Something Bad, a Bit of Both”: Natural Law, Nihilism, and Guardians of the Galaxy
Note: This article contains possible spoilers for the Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
Today will see the DVD release of Guardians of the Galaxy, the dark horse that stormed the box office in August. How was this particular assemblage of superheroes, comparatively obscure (by Marvel standards) only two years ago, able to become the top-grossing American film of 2014? Certainly it is a jaunty, wise-cracking, effects-laden, action bonanza, but those elements are by now standard formulae for Hollywood producers and cannot be said alone to guarantee success. Yet the movie is also hovering around a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, signaling widespread critical success and suggesting that despite its flippant tone, the movie must have some underlying depth as well.
The premise — so effectively communicated in the film’s marketing campaign — is fairly simple, even if the plot is rather convoluted. Peter Jason Quill (Chris Pratt) is a low-level human thief wandering alone in a vast interstellar network of societies, pilfering artifacts under the overblown moniker “Star-Lord.” In prison, he makes the acquaintance of four fellow rogues, the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the violent Drax (David Bautista), the vulgar raccoon con-man Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Rocket’s humanoid-tree bodyguard Groot (Vin Diesel). Together, they seek out a mysterious object known as the Orb, which contains an ancient, powerful, and destructive Infinity Stone. Initially attracted by profit, the Guardians eventually agree to overcome their selfish motives to keep the fanatical Ronan (Lee Pace) and his boss Thanos (Josh Brolin) from acquiring the stone and using it to destroy worlds — or galaxies.
This complicated plot, however, is overshadowed by the delightful badinage of the five Guardians, and the actors playing their roles (including the motion-captured Cooper and Diesel as Rocket and Groot) crackle with a vibrant chemistry that has been almost universally noted by critics and fans alike. It is precisely the contrast between the damaged yet ultimately sympathetic heroes and their maniacal foes that make Guardians of the Galaxy tick.
In his classic work of Christian theology and apologetics Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton compares the sins of ordinary people through time with the nihilism of his own day. Nihilistic thinkers like the playwright Henrik Ibsen, he contends, commend suicide — not as a tragedy of despair but as a heroic resistance to a futile cosmos. Chesterton had wrestled with intellectual pessimism in his own younger days and finds in this intellectual imprimatur to willful self-destructiveness the profoundest of all possible sins. Other sins are implicitly attached to some form of virtue, since all other sins implicitly affirm the creation and culture into which the sinner has been placed; pure annihilation is the most intensely de-creative act one can commit. Thus, for Chesterton,
The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer.
What I find fascinating is how well Chesterton’s thoughts dovetail with the conflicts in Guardians of the Galaxy. Quill, Rocket, and Groot are all thieves, yet like Chesterton’s thieves, their crimes are (at least in part) motivated by a love for the created world into which they have been placed rather than a hatred of it. Even Drax and Gamora, who are both killers, are not nihilistic. Drax’s violent impulses stem from his rage at the injustices suffered at the hands of Ronan, who has killed his family, leaving him isolated from community. Gamora seeks redemption from her own violent past as Thanos’s hired assassin and adoptive daughter.
Indeed, by Quill’s own reckoning, the Guardians are all “losers” — people who have suffered loss, suffered absence. They have been made less. But they seek to become more, to create community rather than destroy the cosmos. They demonstrate what has classically been called natural law, an innate understanding of universal morality that cuts across their sinful backgrounds. Of course, in Christian theology, natural law is generally seen to be an aspect of God’s image in humanity, so it may seem odd to attribute it to a team with only one human member. But of course in the fictive Marvel Universe, the members of the team are “human” insofar as they embody the same fundamental virtues and flaws that we associate with our own species. They are characters that we as humans relate to; whether it is theologically precise to seek out the imago Dei in a snarky raccoon is really beside the point.
This Chestertonian valorization of the “little guy” over a powerful but intellectually warped minority is evident throughout the movie. The heroes’ initially self-centered pursuit of the Orb is transformed into self-sacrifice by the climax, and we see that their attempts to violate the eighth commandment stem from a vested interest in the universe they inhabit. Simply put, they want stuff because they appreciate the “stuff” of creation. When asked what the nascent team should do at the end of the film, Quill replies, “Something good, something bad, a bit of both” — exactly what one would expect from sinful people imperfectly and unknowingly seeking the immutable Good in the good objects around them. Or, as John C. Reilly’s Rhomann Dey is forced to vulgarly observe, “I don’t know if I believe anyone is 100% a dick.”
This intrinsic creatureliness, this connection to being, is what makes the five heroes, however broken they may be, potentially redeemable. Their newfound community begins to fill their personal voids; they become more rather than less. While the team’s ability to tame and wield the otherwise de-creative Infinity Stone might in part derive from Quill’s enigmatic background, in the film’s climax it is also very clearly the communal force of the group that allows them to defeat Ronan with the very object he has sought. Pretentious as it sounds, the moniker “Guardians of the Galaxy” is in fact the perfect description for the quintet, since they purpose to protect the created cosmos from those who would seek to destroy it — Thanos and Ronan, the film’s equivalent of Chesterton’s Ibsen.
Buttressing Orthodoxy (and Guardians of the Galaxy) is a fundamentally Augustinian understanding of good and evil. In City of God, Augustine contends that since the world was created good, evil cannot logically be a part of creation. It is, rather, a privation or an absence, as darkness is the absence of light or silence is the absence of sound. “There is no such entity in nature as ‘evil,’” Augustine asserts; “‘evil’ is merely a name for the privation of good” (11.22). This privation, of course, affects all sentient beings, however, because it skews their wills in the direction of evil and “diminishes and corrupts the goodness of nature” (12.9). This perversion leads to detrimental effects in the lives of these beings, so that “to the nature that it perverts it is not merely evil but harmful” (12.3).
The belittling dialogue, chronic burglary, and frequent fisticuffs exemplified by the Guardians at the film’s beginning may in one sense be entertaining and amusing; yet these same traits are sinful, harmful, and destructive, serving to alienate the protagonists from the union that only becomes theirs when they abandon such privations of the good. But our sympathies are drawn to them because we can recognize in their failings many of our own.
Far more inhuman are Thanos and Ronan, and of course, that is exactly what we should expect. They are closer to being “evil incarnate,” a paradox in Augustinian terms, since evil cannot by its deficient nature be incarnate. Whatever their ostensible motives, whether Thanos’s desire for the Stone’s power or Ronan’s Manichaean religious mania, their endgames both resemble those of pure philosophical nihilists. Ronan desires to see the galaxy’s destruction, while Thanos (whose very name means “death”) courts the figure of Mistress Death (or “Lady Chaos,” in some iterations) and likewise pursues massive-scale annihilation. Their desire for the power of the Infinity Stone is not wholly comparable to the power-hungry ambitions of Loki in Marvel’s The Avengers, a villain whose craving for power springs at least in part from a more understandable longing for acceptance and relationship. In Ronan and Thanos, this desire is more closely linked to a passion for cosmic suicide.
Such purely evil desires distance the audience from any sympathy for Ronan or Thanos, which has the welcome effect of keeping the focus on the flawed but finally heroic Guardians instead. In the end, like these tatterdemalion heroes, we are all sinners who exchange the highest Good for created goods. But even that natural law recognition of goodness presupposes a matrix in which ultimate Goodness can work redemption and regeneration. Why do Peter Quill, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, and Gamora appeal to us? Because we are all called to love and protect that which God has declared “good”; we are all called to guard the galaxy.
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