We Are Groot: ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’ Celebrates Heroes With Authentic Psychological Deficits
Leagues and legions of superheroes are usually effective as a direct result of the union of each member’s unique abilities, whether they include super-human strength, lightning-speed, telepathy, or other powers that individually define each of them as a deserved hero and collectively create an unstoppable force.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, we’re introduced to a band of outlaws, outsiders and outcasts. With the exception of some sweet dance moves and decent marksmanship, we don’t immediately get the traditional introduction to the colorful rainbow of superpowers we’re accustomed to with superhero teams. There’s no amazing, no fantastic, no spectacular. The Guardians themselves refer to themselves as “losers” and the “biggest idiots” in the galaxy. They underperform or fall below normative expectations. In fact, these space misfits offer something rarely seen in superhero films: the Guardians show emotional, neurological, developmental and communication deficits that 1) are not expected to be resolved or cured at the end of the film and 2) do not make them ineffective as heroes.
The following is a conceptualization of each character’s below-average functioning across some psychological dimensions and why these deficits do not create significant limits for them.
Drax the Destroyer
Originally known as Arthur Douglas, Drax was a human who, along with his family, was murdered by the supervillain Thanos. Arthur’s spirit was placed into a powerful new body in order to create a superior warrior (the film implies that Drax does not remember this reincarnation). Physically, Drax has super-strength and resilience. HIs memories of losing his wife and daughter are intact. According to comic book canon, after the physical transformation, Drax lost functioning in the area of imagination; he is only able to leverage his physical power.
Guardians of the Galaxy, the film, gives further explanation to his lack of abstract thinking: Drax was acculturated to a race of beings who communicate only on a literal level. That is, Drax can only think logically about concrete events, and has difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts. He’s unable to grasp metaphors, sarcasm and abstraction.
However, Drax demonstrates well-developed emotional and logical thinking; his quest to destroy Ronan the Accuser (who has allied with Thanos) is one filled with deep-seeded vengeance, and his plan to find Ronan through Thanos’ daughter Gamora seems cogent.
Similar to persons with complex neurodevelopmental conditions or learning disabilities (which often include social and communication deficits), Drax responds to sensory aspects of his environment with unusual indifference. He has attention to detail but misses the “big picture” (often the social “big picture” includes the collective motivations of those around us). Drax has an extensive vocabulary (knows several words for the same thing), but has trouble with words that represent ideas rather than things. For instance, when he hears that “everything goes over his head” he disagrees: “Nothing goes over my head…my reflexes are too fast.” Similarly, he attempts to share with his new friends that he’s grateful for them, but inadvertently offends Rocket by calling him “vermin” and Gamora by calling her a “green whore.” His intention is to state the observable facts, not knowing the terms used can have negative connotations.
Some of us experience this feeling once in a while. We all have moments in social situations or office meetings where we simply don’t “get the joke” or fail to recognize we have hurt someone’s feelings. Others, however, like persons on the Autism spectrum or those with learning disabilities, experience this feeling all the time. They may not realize they speak in monotone, or that they do not laugh after the “right” social cues. They do not recognize the need to change volume of their voice in various settings when the social environment requires such adaptations. They may think they are being kind and gentle, but others experience them as cold and cruel.
Drax does comprehend his own deficits and makes realistic attempts to understand the intentions of others. Although it feels unnatural and is not part of his wiring, he even practices the use of “metaphor” as a way to improve communication with his friends.
A large, sentient tree-like creature, Groot is the noble partner to Rocket, who can understand his motivations and messages despite Groot’s limited language abilities — he can say but three words, “I am Groot”. Groot’s body is thick, awkward and even silly in appearance. But his physical appearance has a universal element — he has learned to use his body to communicate. In this way we learn Groot has an emotional intelligence well above that of his peers. When Ronan’s ship explodes and begins to crash, Groot does not hesitate to wrap his branches around his friends to create a protective enclosure, even though doing so will certainly result in his own death.
“Why are you doing this?!” Rocket cries, confused. “You’ll die, Groot!” Nonetheless, Groot is resolute in protecting his friends, saying calmly, with assuredness, “We are Groot.”
Groot surprises us with his capacity for self-awareness and his sophisticated understanding of emotional knowledge. He’s essentially saying, “You’re all a part of me, an extension of me. Without you, I don’t exist.”
Groot also understands that the destruction of his physical self does not mean he ceases to be; his sense of self transcends his recyclable body. This is an undeniable truth about emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is our ability to process emotional information we experience and to use that information to navigate the social world. Someone with high emotional intelligence comprehends themselves in relation to their immediate social environment. That is, we are in large part defined by the close relationships we keep. Try to imagine your sense of self (what makes you you) without referencing the connections in your life, the people and animals you love and the ones who love you back.
As such, Groot’s underdeveloped communication skills begin to make more sense– in fact, his three self-referencing words are more than sufficient when we learn about his ability to regulate his and others’ emotions. (With time, people learn the subtle inflections and nuances of Groot’s verbal expressions and can decipher the full range of his communication skills). Groot isn’t stupid. He makes us feel stupid to learn we need so many words to express our experiences, our needs, our gratitude.
Rocket is an intelligent, language-capable raccoon who is a trained pilot, gifted tactition, and weapons engineer. Rocket knows he’s not normal: he’s the result of a laboratory experiment and has been genetically altered to possess the insight and intelligence of a human but maintains the speed and cunning of a raccoon. He walks upright, wears clothing, and carries guns; but his physical body is like a raccoon’s, but with some cybernetic implants on his back that further highlight he is not fully human, nor raccoon.
“What’s a raccoon?” he asks his friends, with almost no awareness that he is an animal as much as he’s a communicative person. In fact, being called “rodent” and “vermin” offends Rocket because it doesn’t align with his identity. Issues with his own identity are further revealed by the distance he creates between himself and painful emotional experiences. While we often witness him express anger, ferocity, exasperation, grouchiness and other “secondary” emotions, he’s not tuned into his “primary” emotions — feelings like sadness, grief, and fear.
Primary emotions are those that occur as a direct result of encountering some kind of cue. For instance, if you have a memory come up about losing someone you care about, the primary emotion that would come up is sadness. A secondary emotion might be anger or resentment if that person was taken from you. When he’s vulnerable to feeling those things, Rocket may reject them because they’re too difficult to tolerate or he simply isn’t equipped to readily process them; instead, he turns to secondary emotions like anger and irritation.
These secondary emotions are often maladaptive because they obscure the truth of the situation as well as keep Rocket distanced from proper emotional connections. We see him lack understanding when Drax explains he has lost his wife and daughter to Ronan’s destructive attacks across the Galaxy. “Everyone loses someone,” Rocket tells Drax, condescendingly and unsympathetically. It’s hurtful.
But we know that Rocket isn’t a jerk. There’s a lot of pain just under the surface, and he fights hard to keep from remembering that pain, as symbolized by the big guns he keeps between himself and his social world. We learn this about him when he senselessly attacks Drax in the bar after simply being compared to a furry rodent. “You don’t know what it’s like!” Rocket yells, overwhelmed with anger, revealing that his transformation in the laboratory was a traumatic experience.
Emotional self-awareness isn’t something we’re born with — we have to learn how to regulate bad feelings and some of us aren’t so good at that. By design, Rocket has impressive executive functioning (memory, reasoning, planning, problem solving and future orientation). However, perhaps as a result of uncomplimentary human and raccoon neurobiology, he’s often emotionally dysregulated. At the end of the film, when Groot sacrifices himself for the team, Rocket finally sheds his exterior and breaks down, giving way to real sadness and grief. His psychological symbiosis with Groot is telling: Rocket’s cognitive intelligence and problem-solving help them survive, and Groot’s emotional wisdom and sense of relationships keep them bonded.
The adopted daughter of supervillain Thanos, Gamora is a trained combatant, martial arts fighter and skilled assassin. Many of her abilities were a result of Thanos’ treatments, which we discover in the film were more akin to torture than teaching. Like Drax, her family was murdered by Thanos and she is the only one left like her kind, and her interpersonal and social relationships are directly affected by her history with Thanos.
When someone experiences interpersonal trauma (psychological stress and injury as a result of intended harm by another person), the result can be very different compared to the aftermath of trauma from natural disasters, space accidents, or medical illness (being at the wrong place at the wrong time vs. being targeted). Longterm chronic and complex trauma can result in a person’s difficulty to trust others, especially those who resemble their perpetrator.
Although Star-Lord shows signs of being trustworthy and compassionate, Gamora is initially suspicious of him. She carries some deep-rooted cognitive schemata (beliefs about the world) such as “Others will use me for their advantage”; “Intimacy can result in emotional pain”; and “I must never let my guard down”.
Even though being strong all of the time can be exhausting, Gamora pulls it off. It’s as if she’s allowed her past to become integrated into her sense of self just enough to push herself further, make herself run faster, hit harder. She’s turned from victim to survivor, and from survivor to heroine.
Born Peter Quill, Star-Lord is a Terran interplanetary treasure hunter. Much like Indiana Jones, he has extensive cross-cultural/cross-cosmic knowledge and uses his abilities to locate various artifacts in space and (much like Han Solo) seeks profit for his findings.
When Peter was a young child, his mother died from cancer, a tragedy Peter was unable to cope with. He literally ran away from the problem and out into an open pasture, at which point he was abducted by extraterrestrials. Although he was raised and accepted by the Ravagers space gang, Peter remains a bit of a loner.
Crucially, Peter has an attachment to the Walkman and mixtape given to him by his mother before she died. Filled with what we can presume were Ms. Quill’s favorite songs from when she was young (the mid-to-late ’60s through the 1970s), Peter’s one and only cassette tape is something he’s been attached to for 26 years. Now a man in his 30s, Peter listens to the nostalgic music as a way to connect with his true family, his origin, and his culture.
His obsession with a specific set of songs recorded before he was even born is akin to having what psychologists call a special interest, which is something an individual is drawn to or focused on. Typically, the circumscribed focus helps the person feel that their world is predictable and familiar. Imagine the kid in high school who listened to the same Weird Al CD every day and ate lunch alone. He sort of zoned out. He wasn’t destructive, he wasn’t a troublemaker. He was, for lack of a better term, odd. Peter does set off a few odd buttons when we meet him in the film, but when we invest in understanding him, we learn there is a meaningful reason behind his musical obsession.
The Lesson of Guardians of the Galaxy
A near-perfect superhero who discovers an Achilles Heel or becomes powerless next to Kryptonite is nothing new. Superficial flaws can become meaningless when they aren’t purposeful in the story. We can learn much more from a hero with a deficit as a defining feature, something they live with every day of their lives, something that is acceptable by their peers. The lesson Guardians of the Galaxy offers is the idea that these deficits are not resolved or “fixed” by the end of the film. In fact, we don’t feel sorry for the Guardians because of their impairments. We learn how they supplement and strengthen other abilities in order to relate to the world, to be successful in their mission, to protect each other, and to form meaningful relationships with one another. The Guardians have what’s called adaptation, at a level that is well above average.