Wherein I take my girls to see the latest Marvel flick and get totally verklempt.
Last weekend I took my two older girls to see Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2. They’re five and seven. And, well. It was quite moving. I try not to be that complete-dick parent who insists on telling every non-parent how they just can’t know what the experience of raising a family is like until they do it for themselves. Mostly because I’m not a complete a-hole, but also because it’s probably not correct. Regardless, kids make for a deeply rewarding experience, best summed up by the expression: if it isn’t fun, it’s funny. At least, that’s my approach. Let me walk you through what made this such a special experience.
Three years back, I was super excited for James Gunn’s first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m a fan of his work and, to be honest, a cheerleader for indie filmmakers. This cat started his career by co-writing Tromeo and Juliet with Lloyd Kaufman for Troma Entertainment. That’s roughly the platonic ideal of indie starts. Well, maybe that’s a bit much, but you take my point. He’s written several movies, to include his own two outstanding genre films, Slither and Super. The best genre movies use their impossible worlds to create a space to explore humanity and those two films are no exception. It was wild to me that somehow, someway, the execs at Marvel made this perfect choice to tap him to direct a gonzo space pirate adventure story.
Guardians of the Galaxy came out in July of 2014. At the start of that year, my wife was pregnant with our third child. In the last week of her pregnancy — and beyond Baby Day — we decided to help pass the time by watching all the Marvel movies. Note, I did not say Cinematic Universe. We’re talking all of them, from Red Sonja and Howard The Duck and Albert Pyun’s Captain America through Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy, Blade and on through the MCU up to that point. The goal was to do this as a run up to the July release of Guardians. The project technically finished with X-Men: Days of Future Past in the theater. It was a big undertaking, but you know. It was a time of renewed vim and vigor for great undertakings.
Like any normal expectant parent, I tended to reminisce about just how quickly change comes at you. And that played into the project, which was about recapturing a sense of all the Marvel movies of yesteryear. If you’ll remember, at the time no one could believe a movie featuring a tree (who don’t know talkin’ good like me and you) and a wise-acre raccoon could possibly succeed. Oh, and it’s hunky, beefcake star was that silly fellow from Parks and Recreation. I was excited to see whether they could pull off something that twenty years before would have been impossible for a Marvel movie. As a result of all that co-mingling of thinking and planning, that project is tied up very much with bringing my third daughter into the world.
Movies are a big part of my life. I take them in and break them down as lovingly as literature majors dissect their novels. I don’t push it on my kids, though. If they ask after a movie and it’s a film that I feel like they have enough of a frame of reference to get something out of it (i.e. not be totally bored to tears or scarred for life) I’ll let them give it a go. My oldest was not quite five when Guardians hit theaters, so she didn’t catch it there. But, she was aware of the project and sat and watched parts of some of the movies with us. At the end of the year, I put the movie on at home for the family and we watched it in two chunks. If I’m remembering the timeline correctly, that was the first live action movie they sat through without raising a ruckus.
Honest to goodness, I’m pretty sure the Guardians trilogy is going to be their Star Wars. Most nights before bed we usually have a quick dance party to get all the remaining energy of the day out. From December of 2014 to literally last night, their most frequently requested song is “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways. The soundtrack of their childhood has been Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix, Volume 1. Their dancing and singing are adorable, of course, but I think a lot about their future and what they’ll remember about this. It’s awesome. I mean that in the traditional sense of the word. They are passionate about this movie and they are connecting to the music. It’s a neat thing to watch happen.
When the trailer dropped for Guardians 2, they both immediately asked if they could go see it. You have to understand, it’s rare for them to demand to see a live action movie in the theater. It’s happened twice before, with Ghostbusters and Star Trek Beyond. In both of those instances, they strongly connected with the idea of women in the hero roles. With due respect to the young Captain Kirk, they saw Jaylah as the true hero of Star Trek. My oldest straight up cheered when Jaylah fought Manas on her own and then transported away. And, y’all, her smile when Kirk got fussy about Jaylah sitting in the Captain’s Chair of her own ship was ginormous.
My wife and I went to see it on our own, first. Partly because I want to know what they’re going to see if I show them a movie. It isn’t quite about censorship as much as it’s about preparing for the conversation afterward. But, also, date night, y’all. We bonded over movies. Our first theater movie together was Scream — yeah, yeah, we old — and movies are still a common topic of discussion. Having satisfied ourselves that there would be no grotesquely swollen bodies, full of slugs ready to traumatize their nights for years to come — seriously, you really need to check out Slither — we got tickets to go as a family. Minus the littlest bit, who is not at all ready to sit through a full-length movie.
Now, I’ve seen the movie at this point. I know who lives and who dies and how much I cried the first time. So, on the way to the theater, I hyped the movie to them.
“Who’s excited about the movie?” [unintelligible cheering] “It’s got some sad moments, though. Be prepared. You might cry. I did!” “Oh, we can take it. That’s no problem. Let’s go,” they say. “Well, we’ll see. You know how sad the first one is at the very beginning.” “Ohh, does Star Lord’s dad die,” the oldest asks. “What makes you say that?” “The trailer shows that guy saying he’s his dad and then his mom died at the beginning of the first one.” “Huh, well, I don’t know about all that. You’ll have to pay attention during the movie.” She’s a thinker, that one.
We get to the theater and settle in. From the opening set of trailers for the upcoming Disney movies, they were into it. They love the part where Thor cheers at the Hulk in the Thor: Ragnorak trailer. And it’s because they know how much Thor and Hulk love to fight. We’ve watched most of the MCU together at least once. And, we’ve watched The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes all the way through as well as Avengers Assemble. Both of which have been great fun to watch with the girls. The point I’m making is they are familiar with the characters.
The flick starts, and I spend half of it watching them watch the movie. You know how when you are watching something you recommended with a friend and you just want to know how they’re taking it all in? It’s kind of like that but the joy you get out of watching your kids get into something that you dig is dialed up to eleven. It is profoundly satisfying. And, to be clear, if they didn’t dig it, there isn’t really all that much disappointment. People like what they like! For me, whether they love the thing I’m sharing with them or not, it makes for a complicated mix of pride and love and fascination and awe at seeing them turn into people of their own with their own tastes.
What a great movie to watch with your kids! I love, L-O-V-E love, that the central plot of the sequel is Starlord chasing the dream of his father. It’s the kind of plot line that gets relegated to subtext or B-plot status. They could have tried to tie the thing into the upcoming mega-event. Gunn is so good at showing you the heart in his characters that it feels totally authentic for the middle film in this trilogy to be expressly a family dramedy wrapped in comic book themed ribbons. The interplay between all the characters is layered. He’s such a good storyteller, he feeds it to you with a sugary spoonful of pop music and spaceships, but man, there’s stuff that’s good for you in there. My great heaving tears don’t come cheap. The heart in this film earns every dang one. How cool to see your kids become emotionally engaged in the joy and challenges of participating in a family!
So, did they cry? “My eyes wanted to cry, but nothing came out,” said the oldest. “I didn’t cry many tears. Just one,” from the middle child. What was their favorite part? We all agreed it was Toddler Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” at the beginning. In fact, we’ve jammed out to that song a dozen times at least since they saw the film. More interesting than that? My middle kid totally understood who Star Lord’s real dad was. Kids are smart. They understand more than we think.
I’m thrilled that it was such a great experience for them. Gunn knocked it out of the park with the sequel, and I’m glad to hear he’ll be along for the third. Movies aren’t everything. I know that. But, it means so much to me that they are connecting with something like I connected with Star Wars or Indiana Jones as a child. There are wide eyes and deep wonder and pure joy in that for them, and I’m loving watching them experience that. As for my girls, well. I asked what’s next and they’re super excited for Wonder Woman. Every night, “can we watch the Wonder Woman trailer? Can we?” Yes, yes we can.