While rewatching Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 last night, I was struck by the amount of unsubtle Christianity baked into the film. I have no history with the comics so I can’t trace this symbolism to its source as handily as I’d like (though I’m peripherally aware of Mantis being heralded as the mother-to-be of a “Celestial Messiah” in the original comic). But I can point out a few things that my liberal arts degree may attune me to sooner than the average movie-goer.
By the way, there’s only one thing you need to know to understand a significant part of the symbolism in art and literature, and I learned it from my high school English teacher. “All literature is about sex or Jesus,” she said, “usually both.” It’s a generalization for which there are a few counterexamples (especially outside of Western literature), but by and large she was right.
Let’s start with Peter Quill, who has an Earthly mother and a father who’s described as being “composed of pure light.” That’s a crystal-clear Jesus reference. His preferred nickname “Star-Lord” is just one more indication that he’s meant to represent the capital-L “Lord” of Christianity. Jesus-figures in literature are characterized by intense sacrifice on behalf of others, so it’s utterly unsurprising when Quill takes hold of the infinity stone at the climax of Guardians of the Galaxy, seemingly facing death in order to save mankind. And, of course, he conquers death and brands himself as a “Guardian of the Galaxy”—only slightly more subtle than “Savior of the Universe”.
Almost all superheroes follow this same pattern. They’re self-sacrificers, powerful people who save the weak, principled ideologues whose fathers always seem to be absent and yet are constantly on their minds. So in theory I could write this about Peter Parker or Carol Danvers or Steve Rogers or even, unlikely as it seems, Tony Stark. But the symbolism in the Guardians films is so juicy you almost can’t ignore it.
As another example take Ego, Quill’s father. He’s a Celestial being millions of years old, the source of all life on his planet, who takes on the form of flesh and blood in order to understand what it’s like to be human (I’m almost quoting him here). That’s Jesus-figure number two. Although he’s a villain here and not a hero, his intention is to make the universe immortal, which isn’t so different from the way we describe the gospel of Christ’s resurrection.
Yes, a supervillain can be a Jesus-figure, and some of Marvel’s most compelling ones are. Consider Thanos, whose stated goal is to save the universe from itself (admittedly operating under twisted logic, but still). You could argue that it isn’t himself he’s sacrificing, but in Infinity War he demonstrates that he’s unselfish in his pursuit and even willing to die for it. The oozing religious rhetoric of Ebony Maw, announcing Thanos in the language of a Messiah, frames the comparison nicely:
Hear me and rejoice! You have had the privilege of being saved by the Great Titan. You may think this is suffering. No. It is salvation. The universal scales tip toward balance because of your sacrifice. Smile, for even in death, you have become children of Thanos.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
If you come from a Christian background, the comparison of Thanos to Jesus may make your skin crawl. That discomfort is symptomatic of the complexity and nuance that make good literature enjoyable. I don’t intend to say that Thanos is worthy or good. But he offers an fresh perspective on the narrative of Christianity, and even the most unsettling perspectives can be enlightening.
I could do this with a few other MCU villains. Ultron’s ultimate goal is to bring peace to the world. Loki describes himself as a “savior” in Thor: Ragnarok and as “burdened with glorious purpose” in The Avengers. There are at least as many villains who don’t fit the analogy well (beyond the stereotypical God complex), but the ones who do are the most compelling.
Peter Quill’s story is capped by one final Jesus-figure: Yondu, who shows up to save Quill’s life in an act of premeditated atoning sacrifice. Yondu is atoning for his own sins here, but Christian symbolism is about variations on a theme (after almost two millenia of the same story, it has to be). Yondu and Quill ascend together, an almost rapturesque picture, making a fitting end to a film replete with religious ideas.
It would be convenient here if I could say that Roy Thomas, Arnold Drake and Stan Lee—the creators of the Guardians of the Galaxy comics—were Christians. As it happens, none of them were. In fact, Thomas and Lee didn’t identify as religious at all, and Drake had a Jewish background. James Gunn, writer and director of the Guardians films, also does not identify as religious. Still, the Christian allegories in their work are too transparent to be accidental. The most likely explanation is that they were simply doing what great writers do: drawing on symbols that are meaningful to their audience, an audience living in a literary world bound tightly to Christian themes and concepts. Their work would probably have echoed Christian ideals whether by intention or by happenstance; in this case, clearly, it’s the former.