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Ooh-oo child
Things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child

Things'll get brighter
Ooh-oo child
Things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child
Things'll get brighter

Some day, yeah
We'll get it together and we'll get it all done
Some day
When your head is much lighter
Some day, yeah
We'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Some day
When the world is much brighter

Listen: Marvel movies are lighthearted and fun. But I think the reason that the better ones -- Iron Man 1 & 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers, and this, really work, is that underneath it they understand the healing power of myth. I'm so pretentious. Still, Guardians of the Galaxy, for its intense lightshows and action scenes, is about a man, Peter Quill learning to love again after his heart closed off because of his mother's death. He's spent the intervening time hiding in adolescent fantasies and the music his mother left for him before she died, and has not been willing to look at the last gifts she offered him in the time since -- either the present itself, or reaching out to hold his hand as she drifted away. The supporting characters, both (anti-)hero and villain, almost all mirror and comment on this central story. That it turns out at the end that Quill is a half-human, half-immortal, a Jesus/Hercules/etc. who didn't even know it, reinforces the idea that, as imperfectly as they are, these stories are a kind of modern mythology.

We have Rocket, his feelings of inadequacy in a world in which he's a tiny guy (like Quill as a child). We have Drax, frozen in the moment of time of the death of his wife and daughter and obsessed with revenge as the only mechanism for meaning. We have Gamora, reeling from the death of her family after which she, like Quill, was abducted by a cruel "father figure" who trained her to be an amoral/immoral weapon, and is just now attempting to recover meaning. The villains (or near-villains) also share similar traits: We have a Collector, who takes rare items from across the galaxy, perhaps to fill his spiritual holes. This also mirrors Thanos, whose attempt to create the Infinity Gauntlet is a similar attempt to create and hold onto the perfect mixtape that will make all his dreams come true. Nebula's devotion to being the good daughter, even if it leads her into evil, in some respects reflects the way Quill's amorality and callous treatment of women in his life stems from his unwillingness to confront his (irrational, mostly) guilt over his mother's death -- his desire not to "betray" her memory further by actually moving on, letting her be a part of him, and living his life fully. And there's Ronan, the film's proximate villain, whose quest for power in order to get revenge most obviously mirrors Drax, but in general also reflects the self-destructiveness of obsessing over old wounds rather than finding ways to re-find the love that cause those wounds.

Quill sarcastically refers to Groot as "Giving Tree," earlier in the movie, a reference to the children's short story about a tree that gives and gives as a child grows up, a metaphor for the ultimate in self-sacrificing parenthood. Toward the film's end, Groot surrounds the rest of the characters in a massive nest of branches, an insulation so that they will be able to survive the harsh, overwhelming damage of the fall set to come to them. It turns out that this is what Quill's mother has done for him. My favourite line in Iron Man 3 came toward the end, when Tony was talking about his obsession with working on his suits, and how this somehow made him better:
My armor was never a distraction or a hobby, it was a cocoon, and now I'm a changed man.
Quill's entire life is something that is, in some senses, frozen in at the moment of his mother's death; he replaces intimacy with sex and productive work with amoral adventure, so that he's stuck in a perpetual young adolescence. But buried in that is the recognition that within this frozenness is the way to get better. It turns out this is something his mother gave him. His mother gave him the Starlord nickname. And his mother gave him the mixtape which he plays an replays, and uses to escape from reality. One can't escape from reality forever, and at some point one wants to actually be living it. But the mixtape provides the same kind of cocoon that Tony's suits give him, or that Groot gives the other Guardians. It provides the protection from pain that allowed him to survive long enough to reenter the world. It took nearly two decades, but he's finally able to move on. And now that he's fully willing to reenter the world, his mother's mixtape(s) can provide the guidance and love he needs to be a part of it. Quill learns self-sacrifice from his mother and Groot, but the self-sacrifice is not, and is never, a pure lack of ego: the self-sacrifice comes out of the recognition that one is one's loved ones, and, perhaps, is the entire Galaxy: we are Groot. His mother wasn't just reaching out to Peter to give him love before she died, but to connect to the part of herself that lived on. Peter can understand that only at the movie's end, and okay maybe it's corny that sharing the incredible burden of taking the infinity stone into himself is reduced by sharing the pain with those around him, but it's the kind of corn that can go well with a balanced diet. He finally is able to love again; the songs kept him alive long enough to be willing to risk it. And he opens his present, and it's mixtape 2, where he discovers that death need not be the end:

Listen, baby, ain't no mountain high
Ain't no valley low, ain't no river wide enough, baby
If you need me, call me, no matter where you are
No matter how far, don't worry, baby
Just call my name, I'll be there in a hurry
You don't have to worry

'Cause baby, there ain't no mountain high enough
Ain't no valley low enough, ain't no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you, baby

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