There’s a moment near the end of the Guardians of the Galaxy 2 trailer below that encapsulates what makes this film franchise (and, by extension, so much of human culture) so influential to our self-perception.
“All you do is yell at each other,” says Nebula. “You are not friends.”
“No,” says Drax. “We’re family.”
But the real distinction here isn’t between friends and family. It’s between belonging and not belonging.
The Guardians of the Galaxy are all outcasts, miscreants, trainwrecks, and fuckups. If The Avengers are the jocks, the cool kids, and the one-percenters, then the Guardians of the Galaxy are the dorks, the geeks, and the nerds. They’re not the ones who were at the top of their class, the incidental geniuses, or the flawless patriots. They’re the ones who’ve been abandoned, ignored, underestimated, and forgotten.
What makes them special is that they chose each other.
And after they spend the whole trailer arguing, bickering, insulting each other, and trying to kill each other, there’s one more iconic shot: the whole group coming together, as one. In that way, their unity is even more resonant than the Avengers, who only came together because they were asked to (or, as Nick Fury framed it, because they had to). No one asked the Guardians to come together; they united because they wanted to.
Belonging is one of the most basic human needs. It’s the third level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, which asserts that once we have food, shelter, and a reasonable likelihood of survival, the next thing we want is to love and be loved, and to belong to something bigger than ourselves.
Belonging is about the stories we tell ourselves, and how we decide what we’re worth — or if we’re worth anything at all. (As the School of Life reminds us, our answers to that question are almost always wrong.)
A few years ago, the New York Times published a study revealing the traits that make a film satisfying. What producer Lindsay Doran discovered was that “positive” films have nothing to do with what the hero accomplishes; what matters is whether or not the hero has someone to share that success with.
As one marketing veteran interviewed for the article explained:
Audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory, but the moment afterwards when the winner shares that victory with someone they love.
For example, take the highest-rated film on IMDb, The Shawshank Redemption. How does it end? Not just with Andy Dufresne winning, but with him being reunited with his best friend Red once they’re both out of prison. Contrast this with the film’s heartbreaking aside about Brooks, the elderly inmate who served as the prison’s librarian. Brooks is eventually paroled, only to find that he’s miserable living alone on the outside, so he commits suicide. Writer-Director Frank Darabont uses Brooks’s tragic story to remind us that just being free isn’t enough, which is why Red and Andy’s shared freedom feels so much more fulfilling.
But our natural craving for communion goes beyond the endings of stories.
Think of some of the most resonant moments from recent TV series. On Game of Thrones, you may cheer when dragons destroy armies, but the moments that light up Twitter have nothing to do with special effects. When Daenerys makes Tyrion her advisor and validates him in a way no one else ever has, or Jamie and Brienne acknowledge their mutual respect despite the war that divides them, or Lady Mormont rises to support John Snow when no one else will, our hearts leap because we’re witnessing a glimpse of human connection.
From The Wire (when detective McNulty buys criminal Bodie lunch) to Mad Men (when Mrs. Draper allows Don to live her husband’s life instead of sending him to prison) to Sex and the City (when Steve and Aidan show up at Miranda’s mother’s funeral) to Cheers (which is, literally, a show about extremely different people forming a “family” by choosing to spend time together in a bar), the memories from the stories that stay with us are very often the brief moments when friends, strangers, or enemies form even a temporary bond as a way to weather the world together.
As a kid, my favorite moment from Star Wars wasn’t Luke blowing up the Death Star; it was the Millennium Falcon flying in from out of nowhere to destroy the T.I.E. Fighters so Luke could finish his mission. Han and Chewbacca had already bowed out of the mission; they were asked to help and they said no. They left. They didn’t have to come back.
They came back because they wanted to.
What Does This Have to Do With Your Story?
If you’re a brand or entrepreneur, you need to realize that your customers are buying from you partly because of who you are and what you represent, and how being with you makes them feel. Your customers and clients are choosing you because they want to belong to the tribe you’re creating. Fulfilling their business needs isn’t just good customer service; it’s a chance to form a real human connection that lets you matter to each other.
If you’re an individual, think about your lovers, your friends, and your family. Who are you choosing to be with? Who wants to be with you — not because they have to, but because they want to?
Who’s choosing you, and who are you choosing?
The answer to that question tells you how you’re being seen, and how you see yourself.
If you don’t like what you see, you can always change it. You can always tell a new story, or join a new tribe. But before you do, stop and ask yourself what’s working about your current arrangement that you might be overlooking.
Maybe you don’t need to be a cool kid or a class president. Maybe you’re better off being a dork, a nerd, or an outcast.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the tribe that already chose you.
Maybe you’re already being yourself.