As a filmmaker and adjunct professor of film studies at the New School, going to the movies is my work. Still, when my 12-year-old son told me we were not spending enough time together. (“We have to do something!”), it felt right to head back to the cineplex. That’s how we found ourselves in one of those fancy theaters that serve full meals to audience members in plush leather seats listening to the opening chords of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.
That American blockbusters are in their daddy issue moment became clear even before the feature started. In a trailer for Ninjago, a movie based on tiny plastic ninjas, the hero, Lloyd, is the son of an evil madman named Garmadon. Lloyd never knew his father growing up, and as a consequence, suffered. As Lloyd says, “You ruined my life,” to which Garmadon zings back, “I haven’t even been a part of your life. How could I ruin it?”
The missing father issue crops up several more times in the trailer by which point I was sinking deeper into my seat. The anxiety that perhaps I wasn’t a present enough father sat on the armrest between me and my son. Soon, Guardians began and I was put through the wringer again. Here, the story concerns a character named Peter Quill, whose father is a god-like creature who controls all matter in the universe with the ease of finger painting. The dad is trying to impress Peter with the scale and intricacies of the planet that he’s built for them, but all that Peter ever wanted was to play catch in the backyard. Peter’s yearning for his father’s attention becomes the central emotional crux of the second half of the movie. Cat Stevens’ Father and Son even makes an appearance. Peter creates a fantasy father-figure and also discovers a surrogate father. The story becomes a bit convoluted by the end, but one thing is clear: Hollywood has absent dads on the brain.
Absentee fathers are hardly a new feature in studio movies. When I was my son’s age, films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Stand By Me, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off depicted kids and teenagers who were detached from their fathers. But the kids in those movies generally didn’t have much need for them. Ferris isn’t exactly hung-up by his dad’s emotional distance; Cameron’s dad probably deserves to have his Ferrari trashed; and Elliott’s arc and redemption are safely complete even without the resolution of his missing father.
However, there’s something different going on with this summer’s, and recent summers’, studio movies. The dads aren’t getting away with being gone, and the kids aren’t able to move past it. Summertime tent-pole movies like Guardians, and Ninjago, and the recent Lego Movie, which also balances its hero’s redemption upon connecting with a missing dad, are known more for their action figure tie-ins than social commentary. While it’s easy to be cynical about movie “messages” when the message is mostly “Buy more merch!” this recent missing-dad trend resonates.
If men are notorious for not being able to talk directly about their feelings, these movies are doing some of the talking for them. In the darkened silence of the movie theater, the hurt experienced by children when their dads aren’t present is being explored for both parents and children to see. That’s part of the relevance and commercial appeal of these movies. Like Roger Ebert wrote, movies are a machine that generates empathy.
So why are blockbuster movies treating this topic differently now? One reason is that as fathers take on an increasingly substantial role in the family unit, these movies address this new complexity by reinforcing the most basic aspect of our jobs as fathers: to just be present. Another reason might be that these filmmakers — James Gunn in the case of Guardians — grew up in that generation whose fathers might have been remote but for whom parenting mores have vastly changed.
Simple goals for characters, and complicated problems that arise when those goals are not met, is a standard recipe of Hollywood storytelling. But here, Hollywood is getting life right. A dad’s mere presence is powerful; the pain of absence is multi-layered. As one famous movie dad declared to his son, “Luke, I am your father.” To say that Darth Vader was an absent father is putting it mildly, but in that moment, I have to believe that Darth was at least trying.
As my son and I hit the subway for the trip home, neither of us really discussed the themes of fatherhood we had just watched. It was enough that we had seen them, and seen them together.