Post #35: Revisiting Nostalgia in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
“Blame Quill. He's the one who loves music so much.” --Rocket
In Post #14, I wrote about how the soundtrack of the 2014 Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 evokes nostalgia. The film features popular songs from the 1960s and 1970s, which Peter Quill (AKA “Starlord”) listens to as a mixtape that his mother gave him. She passed away, and Quill was abducted from Earth and taken to live in another part of the galaxy--so the mixtape is an important part of his identity. The important place of this music in the meaning of the film is cemented in one of the final shots: Quill opens the gift that his mom gave him on her deathbed, which is another mixtape of popular songs. That mixtape, Awesome Mix Vol. 2, forms the soundtrack of the 2017 sequel, titled unsurprisingly Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and it is as central to the plot and themes as the first mixtape was to the first film. As in Vol. 1 Quill confronts his past, here in the form of his nefarious father Ego, and moves beyond it. This brand of nostalgia is both backward-looking (the use of popular songs from the 1960s and 1970s throughout the film) and forward-looking (Quill’s rejection of his father).
Vol. 2 opens with a scene on Earth in 1980 that depicts Quill’s mother Meredith and father Ego (“It’s a day for dumbass names”, as Rocket says later) before Quill’s birth. A breaming. Ego drives them through the sunny countryside while Meredith sings along to the 1972 song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” (lyrics) that’s blasting over the radio. This opening scene establishes how in love Meredith is with Ego and how they both seem carefree (see figure 1). We know from the previous film, though, that Meredith will die from cancer a short eight years later and that Ego will go MIA around the same time. So this relationship will not end happily, just as the blissful relationship Brandy has with the sailor in the song does not end well.
We next see Ego in the present when he saves the Guardians from an attack by a disgruntled former client. Ego reveals that he’s Quill’s father and persuades his son, Gamora, and Drax to travel with him back to his planet. There Ego tells Quill about his heritage: he is the offspring of a mortal woman and a Celestial, a god-like being with the power to create matter. Ego begins teaching Quill how to use these powers, reminding him that with that power comes the importance of adhering to his higher purpose. At this point, Quill is happy to be reunited with his father at last and is receptive to Ego’s lessons about his power.
Ego finds his son listening to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” on his Walkman, and he uses the song’s lyrics to explain how he and Quill should use their Celestial powers:
EGO: It’s fortuitous, you listening to this song. “Brandy”, by Looking Glass--a favorite of your mom’s.
PETER: Yeah, it was.
EGO: One of Earth’s greatest musical compositions. Perhaps its very greatest.
EGO: Peter, you and I, we’re the sailor in that song. “He came on a summer’s day/Bringing gifts from far away.” Like the child I put in your mother, or the freedom you brought Gamora. “‘Brandy, you’re a fine girl./What a good wife you would be. My life, my love, my lady, is the sea.’” The sea calls the sailor back. He loves the girl, but that’s not his place. The sea calls upon him as history calls upon great men. And sometimes we are deprived the pleasures of mortals.
PETER: Well, you may not be mortal, but me…
EGO: No, Peter. Death will remain a stranger to both of us as long as the light burns within the planet.
Ego suspects that his philosophy about power will be objectionable to his son, and so he begins by using Quill’s nostalgia for his mother on Earth, represented by his love for “Brandy”, which “simulates the brain’s pleasure circuit” according to a recent study in Slate. The film depicts this in the similar pose adopted by Quill when we see him listening to “Brandy” in this scene and when we see him in a flashback scene, listening to a Walkman with his mother (see figure 2).
Ego next attempts to connect the good vibrations of Quill’s nostalgia with notions about his own purpose. He uses “Brandy” to expound his belief in that higher purpose: “It is a tremendous responsibility. Only we can remake the universe. Only we can take the bridle of the cosmos and lead it to where it needs to go.” He means to carry out this responsibility by colonizing the entire universe with his being. To do this, Ego has been planting seeds on multiple planets, including on Earth, that will grow into extensions of himself. We see later in the film that when these seeds grow, they destroy everything around them.
It was Ego’s fanatical drive to this purpose that killed Meredith and prompted the Celestial to leave Earth. In the opening scene, Ego takes his lady love to a forested area behind a Dairy Queen (! but their Guardians Awesome Mix Blizzard wasreally good) to show her a seed, which sort of looks like a glowing blue flower, that he’s been growing. He enthusiastically tells her about his plan: “Soon, it will be everywhere. All across the universe.” She smiles at him as she naively responds, “Well, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I like the way you say it.” Soon after this, Ego decided that staying on Earth would jeopardize the fulfillment of his purpose, and so he left and gave Meredith cancer.
The next part of Ego’s plan is enlisting his offspring to help him with his purpose, but they’ve disappointed him every time. Since Ego views the rest of existence as tools to assist him complete his calling, he disposes of his children when they do not serve their purpose. Their skeletons are piled high below the surface of the planet, as Gamora and Nebula discover (see figure 3). The audience now recognizes that Ego’s philosophy is a perverted version of Spider-man’s famous maxim in Amazing Fantasy #15: “With great power comes great responsibility” (while Quill’s interpretation might be more along the lines of Deadpool’s: “With great power comes great irresponsibility”).
Quill rejects his father’s use of nostalgia to make him a part of his plan. He doesn’t abandon nostalgia altogether, however: in the final battle between father and son, Quill turns into the 1980 arcade game character Pac-Man to defeat Ego (see figure 4), and the 1972 Fleetwood Mac song “The Chain” plays when the other Guardians arrive to help Quill.
The antihero Yondu, whom Ego hired to kidnap him from Earth in 1988, is killed during the final battle with Ego. Although Quill and Yondu were frequently at each others’ throats in both films, Quill realizes that Yondu, for all his faults, was his “dad,” whereas Ego was his father in terms of biology only. Whereas Ego twisted the nostalgia of Looking Glass’ “Brandy,” Yondu’s funeral is accompanied by the 1970 hit by Cat Stevens, “Father and Son,” a simple, moving evocation of the evolution of a father-son bond. Afterwards, one of Yondu’s subordinates, Kraglin, hands Quill a Zune--a digital music player that was first released in 2006 and discontinued in 2011 (see figure 5).
KRAGLIN: Captain found this for you in a junker shop. Said you’d come back to the fold someday
PETER: What is it?
KRAGLIN: It’s called a Zune. It’s what everybody’s listening to on Earth nowadays. It’s got 300 songs on it.
PETER: 300 songs?!
There is, of course, a joke here in the lack of nostalgia that the Zune Player has. The Awesome Mixes were cassette tapes with songs from the 1960s and 1970s given to Quill by Meredith, but the Zune Player wasn’t part of Quill’s experience of the world (nor, in all likelihood, does it have any nostalgic charm for anyone in the audience). But the fact that the Zune is not outwardly nostalgic, combined with the songs on it (such as 1976’s “The Rubberband Man,” which is playing over the Milano’s speakers in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War) and its status as a gift from his surrogate father, make it an ideal symbol of the complex brand of nostalgia in the Guardians films. It is a gesture towards Quill’s future--the new and the unknown--at the same time as it looks in the direction of his past--his relationships with Yondu and Meredith. Nostalgia does not immobilize us, but rather propels us forward with an awareness of our past as we move into the future.