Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 And the MCU’s mean progressives

From left to right: Sean Gunn as Kraglin, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Dave Bautista as Drax, and Pom Klementieff as Mantis in ‘Guardians or the Galaxy Vol. 3.’ Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe centers on a gang of misfits and outcasts battling a megalomaniacal eugenics-squirting despot. It celebrates found family and finding your true self, no matter how unlikely that self is, or how different it is from what your parents and the world expect. It’s Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ worst nightmare, right?

Well, not exactly. DeSantis is engaged in a high-profile war with Disney – the biggest employer in central Florida (and parent company of Marvel) – as the company is a slight objection against DeSantis’ sweeping “Don’t Say Gay” ban. Post that ban tight restrictions about discussing LGBT issues, or rather LGBT people, in schools. Disney this month sued DeSantis under the first amendment.

It is tempting to read in that context Guardians of the Universe as a show of support for queer people: director James Gunn gives the governor a patented superhero biff in the snoot.

The truth, however, is less challenging. Guardians of the Universe carefully avoids explicit foreign themes, even if it nods in their general direction. It also continues the MCU tradition of villainous progressives – utopian dreamers who want to change the world for the better and end up just slaughtering people.

The film does not show Disney’s commitment to progressive goals. It mainly shows that Disney prefers to avoid controversy and wants to sell tickets to everyone – even Ron.

Part 3 focuses on the backstory of Rocket Raccoon, an anthropomorphic genius inventor with a blaster voiced by Bradley Cooper. Rocket, we learn, was created through genetic engineering by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who is in search of a perfect society.

Miriam Shor as Recorder Vim, Chukwudi Iwuji as The High Evolutionary and Nico Santos as Recorder Theel (from left) in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.’ Jessica Miglio

Rocket escaped from the High Evolutionary sometime before the first Guardians of the Universe movie, and now the High Evolutionary wants him back to study his brain. But of course the Guardians of the Galaxy won’t let an evil dude take their buddy Rocket! Cue lots of inspirational nostalgic rock music, explosions, fight choreography and gags.

Rocket is a very attractive neotenous protagonist, and the flashback sequences showing him gaining sentience and bonding with a genetically enhanced otter, rabbit, and walrus are the emotional core of the film.

In one sequence, the surgically altered foursome realize they don’t have their own names – the High Evolutionary gives them numbers – and they decide to rechristen themselves. The parallel with trans experience is hard to miss and seems to have to be intentional. Rocket’s father and creator insults, bullies, detests and tries to kill him. And in response, Rocket finds a new community (or communities) and a new self, with a name he chose, which reflects who he is, rather than who his ogre father wants him to be.

The metaphor moves. But it is mainly a metaphor. The movie features cyborgs, living trees, telekinetic dogs, and green-skinned women who have returned from the dead. But there are no weird people. The only representation of an LGBT relationship is a throwaway joke; the Guardian’s mind manipulator, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), causes a guard to fall in love with her powerhouse Dax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). He is annoyed, she is amused. Men who love other men; it’s something to laugh about.

The MCU did include a gay relationship The Eternals. But Disney, of course, still approaches that material with some trepidation. The movie could have turned Rocket gay, if they wanted to take their LGBT themes to their logical conclusion. But instead he stands up for the LGBT community, rather than being a part of it himself.

The MCU has also often moved away from progressive causes by making its villains thinly disguised progressives gone wrong. Thanos in Infinite War And End game wants to eliminate half of the universe’s humans as part of a misguided environmental movement; he thinks the catastrophic population decline will leave more resources for everyone. Both Black Panther movies frame white colonialist nations, such as the United States, as the villains to some degree. But then our Wakandan heroes spend most of the movies fighting other people of color who are too hard on their revenge against white supremacy.

The High Evolutionary is in that vicious tradition of twisted radicalism. Black and deformed, he claims to want to perfect society, a la communist and utopian medlars. But his desire for perfection leads him to genocidal lengths, as he burns and wipes out all his sentient projects that don’t quite work out. His surgical experiments are treated with particular disgust and there is an uneasy resonance with the current moral panic focused on transmedical care.

His surgical experiments are treated with particular disgust, and there is an uneasy resonance with the current moral panic surrounding transmedicine care.

Evidently, Part 3 doesn’t try to make some sweeping statement about black people in power or denouncing medical care for transgender people. On the contrary, it tries to say nothing. On television, Amazon Prime’s The boys and that of James Gunn Peacekeeper directly denouncing white supremacy and fascism on HBO; their villains are racist, power-hungry white men who pride themselves on targeting and humiliating marginalized people. Those schedules are clearly modeled on Trumpism, and the criticism of these shows therefore includes DeSantis, or any number of Republicans.

Gunn knows how to take a stand if he wants to. But Guards does not. It’s carefully balanced and carefully spaced so that it can appeal to marginalized people looking for heroes without actually assisting them or calling them oppressors. When the Guards get into a big group hug at the end of the movie, it should evoke love and solidarity. But it is better characterized as the unity of capital, determined not to offend anyone and give away nobody’s dollars. Disney might sue DeSantis and they just might win. But they want his fanbase to come to the movie too, so they give them a villain they can easily mock, and heroes who are careful not to be strange.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.  3' And the MCU tradition of villainous progressives

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