There’s a hidden political message beneath Marvel’s family space opera.
Most of us know and love Guardians of the Galaxy as a bloody good romp of a film, one that features a talking tree and a cybernetically enhanced racoon. You could accurately state that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. With the sequel coming to the UK, this provides a perfect opportunity to look back and explore some of the original’s more hidden themes. It turns out that the film can be read as an allegory for American foreign policy.
Firstly, before the anti-snowflake snowflakes begin to whine, no, I am emphatically not calling the film, or anyone who worked on it, racist. What I am saying is that read through a postcolonial lens Guardians of the Galaxy looks very different. We won’t be taking a look at the main story but the exposition at the beginning. The information that’s brushed aside so the Guardians’ antics can take centre stage. The context in which the movie’s events can happen if you will. Chief among these is the villain: Ronan (Lee Pace).
Like most Marvel villains, Ronan is pretty forgettable. But it’s the backstory he gives us in his first scene that’s important. He and others make it clear that his central motivation is that the Xandarian Empire, the “good guys”, have some serious beef with his people, the Kree. In the first scene he’s introduced, he spits the following at a captured Xandarian: “I do not forgive your people for taking the life of my father, and his father, and his father before him.” So this war, later mentioned to have lasted over a thousand years, has left the Kree decimated. The Xandarian government later mentions that the new Kree government has just signed a peace treaty with the Xandarians, but Ronan fails to recognise its legitimacy.
Is this getting a little too nerdy? Okay. The gist of it is this: a foreign government has committed atrocities on another sovereign planet, set up a puppet government and is now retroactively making peace with that government. There have been atrocities on both sides and now the Xandarians are being threatened by an extra-governmental militaristic insurgency. Is this starting to sound familiar yet?
Ronan and his army are a stand-in for Islamic extremist terrorism. Even in his introductory scene, his head-smashing execution forms a morbid visual connotative of recent Isis beheadings.
So clearly Ronan and his army are a stand-in for Islamic extremist terrorism. Even in his introductory scene, his head-smashing execution forms a morbid visual connotative of recent Isis beheadings. This analogy goes beyond the generic commentary of the post-9/11 superhero film genre. Most understandings comment that these films indulge in orgiastic urban destruction to allegorise our latent fears of domestic terrorism. In Guardians, this allegory is more overt. Indeed, this reading is essentially confirmed in Ronan’s very first line on screen. He says: “They call me terrorist, radical, zealot.”
Obviously, there is a caveat for this. Namely, Ronan is the bad guy and so is inherently unreliable in what he says. Having said that, why would he lie? His only audience is a man who he’s about to kill. You could chalk this up to a vague attempt to give the character motivation but he isn’t all that well developed apart from this. A simpler explanation is that this could be read as Gunn giving commentary on America’s scorched earth foreign policy and extremely short term collective memory. The Xandarians have created a monster in Ronan, and no one seems to acknowledge why.
Indeed, the Guardians and the Nova Corps are too busy focusing on Ronan’s own atrocities that we are never given any more information on the Xandarian side of this recent conflict. The entire reason for the film to take place is essentially swept under the rug.
This is where the postcolonial reading comes in. In his seminal book, Orientalism (1978), Edward Said theorises that literature projects a specific, counterfactual representation of the Orient in order to reinforce the west’s hegemonic dominance. Essentially, western culture stereotypes other cultures, representing them before they can represent themselves. We see this in Ronan’s first line “The call me terrorist”. You see? ‘They call me’. They are representing me, not allowing me to represent myself.
We are led to empathise with the civilians of Xandar as the Kree pilots bombard the city in a Kamikaze attack. And yet we are told nothing about the plight of the Kree.
But Ronan is a terrorist, right? He killed Drax’s (Dave Bautista) family! He almost killed Drax! He almost destroyed an entire planet! Of course Ronan is a monster. But surely by that logic so are the Xandarians? “I do not forgive your people for taking the life of my father, and his father, and his father before him.”
Essentially, Ronan is driven by the same rage and lust for revenge that Drax is, just on a much more genocidal scale. But the reason we view them as different, and we ignore the Xandarians’ crimes against the Kree, is that the audience is aligned with them. The Xandarian officers that we see, played by Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly, can wisecrack with the best of the Guardians. In the final battle, we are led to empathise with the civilians of Xandar as the Kree pilots bombard the city in a Kamikaze attack. And yet we are told nothing about the plight of the Kree.
Perhaps leaving out this information was simply to save time, or perhaps it would have taken away from the focus on the guardians themselves. But perhaps Gunn was implicitly criticising the way the West views conflicts in the Middle East. Perhaps this silly movie about the limited vocabulary of a tree can teach us something about perspective.
Danny Shanahan is a writer based in London.