Author’s Note: This post has been modified. The original version incorrectly identified the planet Darth Vader blew up as Tatooine, not Alderaan. This mistake was made because the author is not a nerd.
Guardians of the Galaxy may have saved Hollywood from a truly awful summer at the box office, but what of its politics? Most Hollywood blockbusters skew conservative by reinforcing the status quo – you don’t sell tickets by challenging anyone’s worldview – but the Marvel movies have been more of a mixed bag. The Iron Man movies pitched the world on a revisionist theory of the War on Terror with defense contractors as the bad guys. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, of course, contained some of the most progressive and politically-relevant messaging in the Marvel catalog, riffing on drone warfare and extrajudicial assassination in its story of a surveillance agency gone rogue.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Avengers had a less nuanced take on war. It was the best feature-length military recruitment video since Top Gun. “I’m not a soldier,” Tony Stark tells the Captain at one point. Well, no – not until he overcomes his self-interest and sacrifices his body to save New York City from an evil despot who hates America for its freedom. The Avengers is essentially a war movie about a Special Forces battalion that re-experiences 9/11 and wins.
So where does Guardians of the Galaxy fall on this political spectrum? Far closer to The Avengers than you might expect, given its irreverent tone. Maybe it is not a surprise, given the questionable gender and racial politics of its creator, James Gunn. But just in case the millions of Americans who plunk down their hard-earned money to see it this month are not reading between the lines, here are a few ways that GotG skews conservative.
Julianne Ross at Mic tackled this as well as anyone, but let me sum up her findings. GotG gets off to a fairly chauvinistic start when hero Peter Quill gets into a dangerous, high-speed chase in the opening scenes, nearly crashing his spaceship on the rocky terrain, and afterwards realizes he forgot about the girl that was still in his bed from the night before. The beat is played for laughs, placing us firmly on the side of Quill’s chauvinism, and so is the following moment when he shamelessly admits to have forgotten her name. Isn’t the objectification of women hilarious?
Then there is Gamora, the heroine, who offers a perfect snapshot where Hollywood’s treatment of women currently stands. In some ways, she is exactly what we have been asking for in female characters. She can hang with the guys when it comes to fighting, although as Amy Nicholson so insightfully pointed out in her recent LA Weekly column, that’s not enough. Still, she has a fully-developed backstory and her own story arc. More problematically, she is thoroughly objectified by the camera, with several shots lingering at ass-level, and she also oscillates between being a strong female hero and a damsel-in-distress. Quill’s heroic qualities are defined by his willingness to risk his life to save her from death – twice.
There are two black actors who have key roles in GotG, and both depictions are problematic. Zoe Saldana, who plays Gamora, is black, but the film takes her race away from her and paints her a lovely shade of green. Maybe in the world of GotG, green is similar to black, but there is no mention of her character ever being oppressed or prejudged based on the color of her skin.
The only other black actor that actually displays their natural skin color is Djimon Hounsou. Born and raised in the small African nation of Benin, Hounsou’s big break came in 1997’s Amistad, but in this stage of his career, he is increasingly being used as some sort of “exotic” or “other” due to his dark skin. Here, he is a bad guy defined whose defining characteristic is his propensity for violence. Earlier this year, he was an evil dragon-tamer in How to Train Your Dragon 2. In both cases, his dark skin and African accent are supposed to be menacing and evil.
3) Foreign Policy
Many science-fiction films that take place in other worlds have an Earth-like planet in them. Star Wars had Alderaan, and when Darth Vader blew it up, it was supposed to resonate in the audience as if he has just destroyed Earth. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill is an actual Earthling, but after being kidnapped from his home planet in the film’s opening scenes, Earth is nowhere to be found. Instead, we get Xandar, a planet that looks like a pretty great version of Earth. It’s clean and pretty, and the government is totally benevolent. That’s why Quill has decided it’s the only place the precious Orb (you know, the one that has the power to destroy all of humanity) will be safe.
It doesn’t take much unpacking to read this as an allegory for American exceptionalism and the War on Terror, especially since the film’s primary bad guy –Ronan – is designed to sound like a Muslim radical. In his opening scene, he lays out his motivations: the universe has been corrupted by bad morals, and the only way to save the sinners is to destroy them. Sounds like an argument against the West by Al Qaeda or ISIS to me. And so Guardians of the Galaxy essentially comes down to a question of who should have the power in the universe: the benevolent Americans or the big, bad Muslim? There is little doubt which side the film is on, and we have plenty of evidence these days that its simplistic view of foreign policy – just give all the power to the “good guys” – does not work out quite as well in real life.