Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, features a ragtag band of misfits and outcasts fighting a megalomaniac eugenics-spouting despot. It celebrates found family and finding your true self, no matter how improbable 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 has been engaged in a high profile war with Disney (DIS)—the biggest employer in central Florida (and parent company to Marvel) — since the company issued a mild objection to DeSantis’ sweeping “Don’t Say Gay” ban. That ban places tight restrictions on discussing LGBT issues, or effectively LGBT people, in schools. Disney this month sued DeSantis on first amendment grounds.
In that context, it’s tempting to read Guardians of the Galaxy as a show of support for queer people: director James Gunn giving the governor a patented superhero biff in the snoot.
The truth is less defiant, though. Guardians of the Galaxy carefully avoids explicit queer themes even as it nods in their general direction. It also continues the MCU’s tradition of villainous progressives—utopian dreamers who want to change the world for the better, and end up just slaughtering people.
The film doesn’t show that Disney is determined to advance progressive goals. It shows mostly that Disney would rather avoid controversy and wants to sell tickets to everyone—even Ron.
Volume 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 manipulation by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who is on a quest to create a perfect society.
Rocket escaped from the High Evolutionary sometime before the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and now the High Evolutionary wants him back to study his brain. But of course the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t going to allow any evil dude to take their buddy Rocket! Cue lots of inspirational nostalgic rock music, explosions, fight choreography, and quips.
Rocket’s a very appealing neotenous protagonist, and the flashback sequences that show 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 that they don’t have names of their own—the High Evolutionary gives them numbers—and they decide to rechristen themselves. The parallel with trans experience is hard to miss and seems like it has to be intentional. Rocket’s father and creator insults him, bullies him, loathes him, and tries to kill him. And in response, Rocket finds a new community (or new communities) and a new self, with a name that he’s chosen, and that reflects who he is, rather than who his ogre father wants him to be.
The metaphor is moving. But it’s very much just a metaphor. The film has cyborgs, sentient trees, telekinetic dogs, and green-skinned women returned from the dead. But it doesn’t have any queer people. The one representation of an LGBT relationship is a throwaway gag; the Guardian’s mind-manipulator Mantis (Pom Klementieff) makes a guard fall in love with her bruiser friend Dax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). He’s exasperated, she’s amused. Men loving other men; it’s something to laugh at.
The MCU did include a gay relationship in The Eternals. But Disney obviously still approaches that material with some diffidence. The film could have made Rocket gay, if they’d wanted to follow their LGBT themes to their logical conclusion. But instead he stands in for the LGBT community, rather than being part of it himself.
The MCU also has often distanced itself from progressive causes by making its villains thinly disguised progressives-gone-wrong. Thanos in Infinity War and End Game wants to eliminate half of the people in the universe as part of a misguided environmentalism; he thinks catastrophic population decline will leave more resources for all. Both Black Panther films frame White colonialist nations, like the United States, as the villains, to some degree. But then our Wakandan heroes spend most of the films fighting other people of color who want to retaliate against white supremacy too harshly.
The High Evolutionary is in that villainous tradition of twisted radicalism. He’s Black and disfigured, and claims to want to perfect society, a la Communist and utopian medlars. But his lust for perfection leads him to genocidal lengths, as he incinerates and exterminates all his sentient projects that don’t quite work out. His surgical experiments are treated with particular disgust, and there’s an uncomfortable resonance with the current moral panic targeting trans medical care.
His surgical experiments are treated with particular disgust, and there’s an uncomfortable resonance with the current moral panic targeting trans medical care.
Obviously, Volume 3 isn’t trying to make some sort of sweeping statement about Black people in power, or to denounce medical care for trans people. On the contrary, it’s trying not to say anything. On television, Amazon Prime’s The Boys and James Gunn’s own Peacemaker on HBO denounce white supremacy and fascism directly; their villains are racist, power-hungry white men who glory in targeting and humiliating marginalized people. Those schemes are clearly modeled on Trumpism, and the critiques of these shows therefore encompass DeSantis, or any number of Republicans.
Gunn knows how to take a stand, if he wants. But Guardians does not. It’s carefully balanced and carefully distanced so that it can appeal to marginalized people looking for heroes without actually standing by them or naming any oppressors. When the Guardians get into a big group hug at the end of the film, it’s supposed to evoke love and solidarity. But it might better be characterized as the unity of capital, determined to offend no one and turn no one’s dollars away. Disney may be suing DeSantis, and they may well win. But they want his fanbase to come to the movies too, and so they give them a villain they can comfortably mock, and heroes who are carefully not queer.