Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy has been one of the biggest surprises of 2021, partially because of how much love and care it puts into its characters and their relationships.
Warning: This piece has spoilers for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy.
About halfway through the game, I started feeling uneasy about Guardians of the Galaxy echoing one of the most tired tropes of recent years; what I like to call the "sad dad." Joel and Ellie, Kratos and Atreus, Geralt and Ciri, the list goes on and on. Video games have an obsession with making fathers out of characters wholly unready for parenthood, characters wracked by grief, sadness, and trauma.
For a large portion of the experience, Guardians of the Galaxy is prepping players with the knowledge that Star-Lord is the father of Nikki, a young girl he meets on board the Nova ship when he reunites with his old flame Ko-Rel. Of course, Star-Lord is a massive man-baby and he knows it, and the fact of being a father is something he tries to hide from the rest of the Guardians. While I felt uneasy about the game using the tired trope, color me surprised when Guardians of the Galaxy actually manages to do something interesting with it, right near the end.
Star-Lord goes the entire time thinking Nikki is his daughter, and because the trope is so overused players will inevitably assume the same thing, even though Ko-Rel denies it. Logically, she would deny it because she doesn't want Star-Lord involved with Nikki, but in actuality, Peter Quill really isn't her father.
Despite his relationship with Ko-Rel, Nikki really is just a war orphan that she adopted. Star-Lord has grappled with the fact that he's not ready to be a father, only to have that fact shoved right in his face even more. What makes it even more poignant, however, is that Star-Lord realizes he's the only one that can help Nikki, and he needs to be a friend that can be there, considering he went through a similar experience in losing his mother.
Guardians of the Galaxy paint an interesting duality between the stories of Star-Lord and Nikki, as both characters have to break out of their dreams and essentially "kill" the fantasy versions of their mothers. Peter isn't there as a father figure to save the day or teach Nikki a lesson, but he's simply there to support her through the lesson she needs to learn herself. Even better is that after Nikki faces her fears she gains her own power, and becomes an integral piece of saving the day against the final villain.
Part of what's so important about this is that Peter realizes he can't save Nikki; that's something she has to do herself. Typically these kinds of stories play into the masculinity of the main character and their need to "save" the day. This time around, though, Peter realizes he simply can't provide what Nikki needs; he can't fill the void left by the death of her mother, but he can at least provide something different.
While I love this twist, the real cherry on top that ties the whole theme together comes after the credits. Guardians of the Galaxy has always been a series about people finding a surrogate family; broken people finding comfort in the support of other broken people. In this final scene Peter realizes that while he might not be able to provide a parental structure for Nikki himself, with the help of the other Guardians they can create a home. There's a bit of variation in how the dialogue plays out as it presents dialogue choices, but the crux of the message is the same. The Guardians have finally found out just how much they mean to each other, and with that development in mind, they're ready to expand their family a little more.
Through welcoming in characters outside the main cast, I think the video game version does an even better job of reinforcing the long-running main themes of Guardians than the James Gunn films. By using the dad trope as a red herring, Guardians of the Galaxy is able to reinforce the biggest theme these characters have had since their inception. You honestly couldn't ask for more from an adaption of Marvel's most dysfunctional family.