Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn, 2014)

by Christopher B. Barnett

Richard Dawkins — Oxford don, evolutionary biologist, and world-famous advocate for atheism — has written that “[n]atural selection is a deeply nasty process.” That is to say, from the perspective of evolutionary biology, there is no reason to expect that any organisms (including human beings) would ever exhibit “super niceness,” which Dawkins defines as a benevolence that goes beyond “reciprocal altruism” and therefore puts the good of the stranger above one’s own. Indeed, as he explains, “from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb.”

Where, then, does this “super niceness” come from? Dawkins isn’t quite sure — after all, “in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection” — but he admits that it has much in common with religion. Both “super niceness” and religion are, he says, “stupid ideas” that spread through human culture like viral epidemics. Yet, whereas the latter is something that ought to be eradicated in society, the former is something that should be promoted. What we need to do is take the methods responsible for the transmission of religious belief — namely, tradition and rhetoric — and apply them to “super niceness.” In this way, we could exchange one form of “irrational belief” for another.

With this in mind, a film like Guardians of the Galaxy emerges as an interesting test case. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that its makers were concerned with either evolutionary biology or religion. Released in July 2014, smack in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, it features all of the hallmarks of a profitable popcorn flick — big special effects, a catchy soundtrack, extended action sequences, and a cast of zany characters that appeal to a variety of viewers. And yet, its underlying theme is nothing other than “super niceness.” The protagonist, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is a young, cocky space pirate in the mode of Star Wars‘ Han Solo. Through a series of misadventures, he finds himself the leader of a motley crew of outcasts, ranging from an acerbic talking raccoon, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), to a lissome alien assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldona). Each of these characters wants something different, but, as time passes, they come to recognize that they have much in common, starting with a mutual hatred of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) — a vicious military leader who, as an agent for the nihilistic super-villain, Thanos, is bent on dominating the universe. In order to stop Ronan, Quill and his band have to put aside all self-concern and, instead, risk their lives not only for one another but also for the entire solar system. In other words, they learn to live according to a code of “super niceness” rather than one of “reciprocal altruism.” And it is only with this decision, which indeed proves costly, that they are able to become “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Of course, this is a fairly typical plot in superhero films. And, even if it does not redefine the genre like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy pulls it off well enough. But what interests me in this case is not so much the film itself as the fact that it was made at all. After all, if Dawkins is right, such parables of “super niceness” really shouldn’t speak to us. We should receive them as pia desideria — spiritual aspirations that have little-to-no purchase in our daily lives. Or perhaps we should reject them as thinly-veiled repetitions of the Christian mythos, where the courageous self-denial of a Star-Lord (Quill’s adopted moniker) overcomes evil and gathers together a fractured community. At best, Dawkins would argue that films like Guardians of the Galaxy serve to encourage “super niceness” in a post-religious era, effectively fostering a virtue that would otherwise be absent from our species. On this reading, we don’t watch such films because they’re true in some ontological sense; rather, we are hoping to make them true, to render them meaningful for our culture. “Super niceness” is a meme and nothing more.

And yet, none of these rationalizations seem to stick, because, in the end, they don’t explain why people turn out in droves to watch a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy — or why we should even prefer “super niceness” to brutality if, in fact, it is brutality that allows our species to thrive. Dawkins’ account, then, is reductive. It can explain our world to us but not why it matters to us like it does. It can explain what Guardians of the Galaxy, qua film, may hope to achieve but not why we continue to thirst for its message of “super niceness.” In short, might not the popularity of such films be an indicator of human singularity, of an ineradicable longing for redemption, reconciliation, and charity, of what thinkers from another age called the imago dei?