“OF COURSE I HAVE ISSUES – THAT’S MY FREAKIN’ FATHER!”
There’s a lot to unpack in that, as there is in Covenant. But where Covenant is content to let it’s “big idea” (David as curious but empathy-deprived creator-god) sit as pretentious thematic window-dressing on what turns out to be an otherwise straightforward mad scientist story – basically “The Planet of Dr. Moreau” – Guardians builds it’s entire narrative around exposing Ego’s version of fatherhood as toxic and destructive; particularly when weighed against other examples in the film.
Most prominently of course is Yondu, the space pirate who raised Peter as one of his Ravagers after (it turns out) kidnapping him on Ego’s behalf but learning that The Living Planet has been killing the offspring who don’t reveal themselves to be extensions of his own interests. Recognizing Yondu as a “good” (if imperfect) father is Quill’s true arc in the film, slyly foreshadowed by learning earlier that Drax – whose species is incapable of interpreting the world non-literally – had assumed Yondu was his father all along (also from Drax, on hearing Peter derisively compare him to ‘an old woman’: “Because I am wise?”)
But it’s ultimately Star-Lord himself whose paternal behavior as “father” of his mixed-up team of Guardians gets held up as the anti-Ego ideal. Surrogate families are the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s favorite theme (Captain America and the Howling Commandos, Phil Coulson’s misfit Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Ant-Man’s happy Mom/Dad/Stepdad/Kid/Giant Ant coda and of course The Avengers themselves); but Guardians Vol. 2 is the first time one of these alternative families (the Guardians having been rendered more explicitly so in the way they all take turns “mothering” Baby Groot – in case you thought that character was only there to be cute) have been pitched in battle against a symbolic stand-up for something more “traditional.”
Make no mistake: That’s ultimately what Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2’s big final battle against (and within) Ego boils down to: A post-nuclear “adopted” family smacking-down the cosmic embodiment of what’s commonly referred as “patriarchy” (small-p).
BOOK OF DAVID
To be sure, Covenant has similar (and similarly weighty) themes on it’s mind – it just goes about them in a much less fully realized way that, paradoxically, calls vastly greater attention to their presence: You don’t have to consciously recognize Star Lord becoming the better father to his team by rejecting the toxic-masculinity model of his own father to understand it, be moved by it or even just enjoy it as spectacle.
By contrast, Covenant won’t let you forget that it’s trading in Biblical allusions and English Lit 101 allegory, or how portentous and meaningful all the sturm und drang is meant to be. But despite how often Michael Fassbender dryly intones to any character who’ll listen (or to the audience) that he’s a Bad Dad whose self-regarding abusive “parenting” (both of his parasite “children” and his own at the hands of the indifferent Mr. Weyland) has loosed monsters on the galaxy there’s nothing really there beyond the text.
There’s certainly opportunity: If the Xenomorphs are a plague on the universe unleashed by a careless creator-god, what makes them noticeably different from humankind? – but Alien: Covenant is almost proudly disinterested in acknowledging or exploring it in any meaningful way. We learn where The Alien came from, but instead of imbuing it’s actions with greater depth it just serves to deflate the impact of what remain more than ever a collection of jump-scares. Information without meaning is just data, and if data were compelling on it’s own it wouldn’t be data (that’s why Star Trek: The Next Generation named the “interesting” android Lore…)
Though most prominent, toxic paternalism is hardly the only theme the two films share in common. They’re also concerned with broad metaphors for the legacy of Colonialism: The respective Bad Dads are also ugly specters of frontier-conqueror archetypes, David the posh-accented British Imperial-Adventurer who sees every being and culture he encounters as a resource to be toyed with and “bettered” through his interference, Ego the swaggering Cowboy seeding “order” across the galactic wilderness. But even there, the dynamic is the same – both films raise the topic, but only Guardians actually bothers to explore it beyond a vague, implicit “think about it, won’t you?” hovering in the silences between Covenant’s terse dialogue exchanges.
You might think someone among The Covenant’s crew of literal, self-described colonists might have some thoughts on encountering the logical extreme of their own mission (having decided that his Xenomorph “children” are the superiors of humans, David now wants them spread far and wide); but if they do no one bothers to bring it up – that might pull time away from more important scenes like Michael Fassbender teaching himself to play the recorder. Guardians, on the other hand, doesn’t even treat its central joke (matching seemingly-incongruous late-70s AM radio rock with sci-fi sequences) as being exempt from reinforcing its bigger themes: Ego’s grand “I am actually the bad guy!” speech arrives in the form of cheerfully deconstructing one of Star-Lord’s beloved “sensitive guy” soft-rock tunes, “Brandy,” as (correctly) a self-aggrandizing ode to guys who, like him, are just too cool and important to be “tied down” by love or family.
And in the end, that’s what it comes down to: of the two films in question, Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 not only builds off a – tangibly and conceptually – much bigger science fiction “idea” (a planet that’s also a gigantic living organism that’s also the embodiment of an abstract psychological/emotional concept); it’s willing to explore it more fully and never loses sight of the human dimension that makes it all worth exploring in the first place. That’s the real difference between science-fiction that “matters” beyond the whiz-bang trappings of the genre, not how serious your aesthetic insists upon itself but how much your meaning resonates in the space between idea and meaning.
Both films climax with the respective heroes wrestling with figurative gods and monsters… only one tells us why we should care why, or what the outcome is.
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