I am not a big movie watcher. In fact, I do just about anything I possibly can to avoid watching movies. However, my three-year-old enjoys watching movies on the occasion, so I usually suffer through them with her. Her current obsession in Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie I watched in theaters with absolutely no expectations as to the quality, and left the theater in love.
My daughter loves watching this show. She loves Rocket Raccoon and Groot, and dances to the music. This is one of those shows that I don’t really mind her enjoying, because it’s fun, and a lot of it probably goes over her head. However, in this day and age, I enjoy it when my daughter gets behind a worthy hero, and can enjoy a movie that the entire family can enjoy as well (you parents will understand the value of movies like that).
This morning my daughter woke me up nice and early. She was coloring and I was cleaning the kitchen with Guardians of the Galaxy playing in the background when it hit me. This movie is a lot of things – lighthearted, funny, enlightening, and exciting – but it’s also a fantastic exploration of disability.
Part of the draw of this movie is that it features a band of mercenaries who are banding together for reasons of their own. They are all antiheroes in some way, shape or form, and I’m a huge sucker for the antihero. I find it incredibly refreshing that these people are doing what they are doing for their own reasons rather than, “for the greater good.”
However, a good chunk of why I enjoy this movie so much is how language and communication is dealt with. From Drax, who is completely literal in a world where being literal all the time is a huge disadvantage, to the infamous Groot, who is only capable of saying, “I am Groot.” Those words, in that order. To keep this post from reaching novel length, I will focus on Groot and Drax, though I will at a later date probably write another article about Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, and Nebula.
Groot is fascinating for many reasons, but his limited vocabulary is probably one of the most interesting juxtapositions I’ve seen in a movie in a while. Groot is often misunderstood. People around him get frustrated; don’t understand what he’s actually saying with his limited vocabulary, which is probably just a fraction of how frustrated Groot feels by being constantly misunderstood or shrugged off. There’s a fantastic tug-and-pull that happens throughout the movie with Groot and his relationships as people learn how he communicates, and start to see the actual value in him as an individual, and stop putting so much stress on the words he uses.
While many people will probably see Groot as some form of comic relief, the truth is he’s a very powerful character that shows just how profound language can be when language isn’t used the way people expect it to be used. Groot is incredibly limited with communication. His friend Rocket Raccoon has the greatest understanding of Groot’s subtle nonverbal and verbal cues, often “translating” what Groot is actually saying for everyone else. While it takes time, slowly the group realizes that the size of a person’s vocabulary doesn’t impact their actual ability in any way, and Groot becomes the cornerstone of the team.
There are a lot of people in our own world who are similarly limited with vocabulary and communication. Until Groot hit the silver screen, it was rare to see a powerful, loveable, unforgettable character with similar language restrictions as a valuable cornerstone in a band of heroes. In fact, Groot is a powerful character for all of us, as he bridges the gap between science fiction, imagination, and our own world. He shows us just how extraordinary nonverbal communication can be while highlighting the fact that limited language skills doesn’t negatively impact a person’s value in society, with friends, and with family.
Groot’s understanding of the world around him, his place in it, and complex relationships is awe-inspiring. He’s often the level-headed individual in the group, the glue that keeps them all together and focused on the moral goodness of their goal, something a group of mercenaries desperately needs. His loyalty is staggering, and the depth of his emotion is impressive. His heart is as big as the galaxy that he lives in, and while he’s capable of shocking feats of violence, the tender moments, like when he gives a young girl a flower, show that Groot might not be able to say much, but he’s incredibly deep, and delightfully layered. His actions say more than words ever could, and in that regard he is extremely eloquent. Really, that’s all that matters.
Groot is an incredibly powerful character who can kindly educate those of us who might not understand. Others who might struggle with similar issues can feel empowered and relate to him in a way that’s rare for popular culture. Groot gives us a tiny, but powerful, insight into the power of communication, often overlooked nonverbal cues, and the struggle an individual faces as he or she tries to be understood in a world where words are valued more than those nonverbal and tonal cues that so many rely on. Most importantly, Groot is so much more than those three words “I am Groot,” so much so, that those words start becoming a symbol for everything that makes him who he is.
Drax is another character that really fascinates me, probably because he reminds me of my brother in a lot of ways. Drax is completely literal in a world where being completely literal is a huge disadvantage. We don’t really realize how many metaphors we use until someone like Drax enters the show. Drax has an extensive vocabulary, and a broad understanding of the bigger picture while he often misses small details. He also has a tendency to not see the import of many of those small details that he does catch, or assign either no emotion, or an “awkward” emotion to them – like when he laughs uproariously at the spaceships blowing up all around him while everyone else is obviously worried. He uses numerous impressive words to say the same thing, but lacks any form of subtlety, as evidenced when he’s trying to give his friends a compliment but ends up offending them instead, calling Gamora a whore, and Groot a “big dumb tree” while the overarching sentiment is actually heartfelt.
Despite the details and social cues that he misses, Drax has a well-developed emotional and logical understanding of the world he lives in. These two different sides of him often balance out to allow him to function pretty normally in the world he has to navigate through, but there are moments where it’s obvious that he’s understanding and processing things a little differently. The end result is the same, and the logical thought process is deep and astounding, but the steps to get from point A to point Z are often processed and executed differently than his companions would expect.
I have seen quite a few comparisons between Drax and autism online, and while that comparison holds, it’s important to note that a lot of people have a similar perception and understanding of the world as Drax without being autistic. My brother, for example, is not autistic, but he has neurodevelopment issues which causes him to function and understand in incredibly similar ways to Drax. Drax is a very empowering character for someone like my brother, who can watch him in a movie, relate to him completely, and feel empowered and valued by seeing a celebrated character with such a similar way of navigating the world as him.
Drax and Groot do wonderful things towards breaking down the stigma and misunderstandings surrounding people who might perceive, and communicate differently. Guardians of the Galaxy shows how powerful and unforgettable these diverse characters can be, while also showing how frustrating it can be to live in a world where your understanding, perception, and ability to communicate can be different than what is considered “normal.”
Perhaps what impresses me most is that, other than a few places online, the fact that Groot and Drax are fantastic commentary regarding the differently abled in our own society is largely overlooked by viewers. In fact, unless you set out looking for that sort of thing, it’s probably missed. That might sound like a negative, but it really is a positive. Think of it this way: The creators of the movie did such a great job at making characters who are not defined, and in fact transcend, all of those things that could so easily have held them back. We are more than the sum of our parts. Groot is not three words. Drax is not an inability to understand metaphors, and Guardians of the Galaxy shows that perfectly. I am more than my degenerative disorder. My brother is more than his wheelchair, spina bifida, and a neurodevelopment issue. Neither Groot nor Drax are any less capable of being heroes and saving a galaxy because they might understand or communicate differently.
We need more of that in our movies and books. We need more characters who aren’t defined by their different abilities, but transcend all of that. It’s so empowering and important for people to read books and watch movies full of characters that are so real that the fact that they might not completely fit into those arbitrary standards that society has decided is “normal” doesn’t matter.
And that’s what Groot and Drax do so well – they show us that anyone and everyone can be a hero.