Warning: Major spoilers ahead!
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a significant improvement over its prequel in its treatment of women. It passes the Bechdel test; it features a powerful subplot about sisterhood; it features new female characters in prominent roles. Oh, and it advocates for a radical takedown of the patriarchy.
At first blush, Peter Quill doesn’t strike one as a likely feminist hero. A white cis man who womanizes his way through a life of consequence-free mayhem, Quill is all about blowing things up and counting on his good looks and cocky attitude to keep himself out of trouble. He’s also counting on a surprisingly diverse group of friends.
I’m going to pause here and make the claim that in the galaxy the Guardians inhabit, diversity doesn’t mean quite the same thing it means here on earth. Our definitions, for the purposes of this particular fictional world, will require a bit of expansion. There are humans, such as Quill himself, most of the Nova Corps, and at least half the Ravagers. But in space, the people of color come in shades unknown on earth, including not only non-white humans, but alien cultures with skin tones representing every color of the rainbow, and in a variety of textures to boot. This is before you consider a genetic hybrid experiment, such a Rocket Raccoon (who is highly sensitive to his status as an experimental species), or a sentient plant, like adorable Baby Groot. In this corner of the galaxy, diversity means diversity of species, as well as race, gender, orientation, and other markers we “Terrans” find familiar. And just as diversity takes different forms, the racism and speciesism of Guardians take different forms as well. Questions of racial purity and superiority are put forth by Ronan and the Kree extremists in Vol. 1 and the Sovereign in Vol. 2, and Rocket is on the receiving end of significant abuse as he lacks a recognized and accepted species of his own.
Now that we’re clear on the terms, we can go back and note that, in his pre-Guardians life, Quill, though raised by a Ravager crew that included multiple species, including his surrogate father Yondu, still harbored stereotypically chauvinist attitudes in spite of his diverse upbringing. As on Earth, racial diversity and sexual diversity appear to operate independently, particularly in Ravenger culture. As a result, Quill, as we first meet him, is an equal-opportunity chauvinist. From kicking off Guardians of the Galaxy by forgetting his one night stand was still asleep in his ship, to enumerating the scars he’s acquired from wronged ex-girlfriends, Quill’s attitude was one of someone clearly aware enough to take advantage of his male privilege while remaining oblivious as to its impact on those around him, to the point where the sheer variety of species of women he’s slept with becomes a point of pride.
By the time we meet him again at the start of Guardians Vol. 2, Quill’s attitudes have not yet started to change. In his seeming-subconscious desire to sleep with females of any species, he reflexively hits on Ayesha, the High Priestess of the Sovereign, although he later admits to Gamora that he finds the Sovereign distasteful. Quill’s psyche is also riddled with daddy issues, filled with the kind of hyper-masculine claptrap that leads him, as a child, to feel as though he will be considered “less than” without a father figure who embodies every white, suburban ideal. He confesses to Gamora that, as a child on Earth, he felt compelled to lie that his father was David Hasselhoff, absent only because he was off filming Knight Rider.
Fortunately, it seems, Quill does have a father: the aptly (if heavy-handedly) named Ego, a celestial being something akin to a god. Although Ego is an ancient immortal lifeform, capable of becoming a living planet and able to shapeshift at will, he has chosen to take the form of a white human male because he considers it “pleasing to the eye.” Ego’s mission, like so many white men before him, is the colonization and subjugation of every planet in the galaxy. By spreading his seed, impregnating the female natives of each planet he encounters, Ego hopes to secure his supremacy by using his genetic material to convert every planet into an extension of himself. Once-diverse planets will be utterly consumed by homogeny as all conform to Ego’s standards.
At first, Quill is seduced by this vision. With literal stars in his eyes as he imagines the future with his immortal father, he is quickly won over to this plan in which he and Ego conquer all. But before the “expansion” is complete, Quill learns that Ego killed his mother by implanting a tumor in her brain. Realizing that Ego’s expansion has required the death of his mother and will cause the death of his friends – women and diverse alien species – Quill rejects the seductive prospect of absolute power and chooses instead to fight back against Ego, joining his friends’ plan to destroy Ego from within.
“Rejecting Ego and destroying it from within” sounds like a metaphor, but this is the actual plot we’re discussing. The language of the metaphor differs, but just a little. Ego, in this case, is not only the ego, but, as Quill’s father, serves as both a symbol and a physical representation of patriarchy. Only when white cis men refuse to be seduced by power and recognize that it comes by disadvantaging women and non-white humans can the patriarchy be destroyed. It must be destroyed collaboratively, and from within. The film’s radical message is encapsulated in its final epic battle scene. When the only ones fighting the patriarchy are those whom it oppresses, there is little hope of success. Quill must completely reject the value of power at the cost of those upon whom such power depends. He must reject the allure of Ego and the desire to give into a god complex – literally and figuratively. And he must recognize that the patriarchy can only be destroyed with the enthusiastic participation of those who stand to benefit from it the most.
The cast of formidable female characters in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are an impressive group, but their ability to make a subversive feminist agenda appeal to an unreceptive audience is limited. By rejecting his privilege and choosing feminism and diversity over the allure of patriarchal power, Peter Quill is the only character in the film who has the ability to cross gender barriers with this radical message. While Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 likely did not set out to promote the destruction of the patriarchy and question the power structures perpetuated by white men, it goes a lot further toward that agenda than any other film in the MCU. Peter Quill might not be the feminist hero we want, but he certainly has the potential to become the ambassador of feminism and diversity we need.