The French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel once observed, “There is a tyranny in the womb of every utopia.” I’ve no idea if James Gunn has read Jouvenel’s works, but the Guardians of the Galaxy filmmaker has certainly absorbed his lessons.
Gunn’s final installment of the hit trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, raked in $300 million at the box office in its first four days. After taking my own family to the movie, I can say Guardians 3 is every bit as good as Gunn’s first two films. But what stood out most was the film’s powerful warning about the dangers of utopianism, which is explored in the genesis of a favorite Guardians character: Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper).
We know from the previous films that our furry friend, a genetically engineered and cybernetically enhanced raccoon, was created in a laboratory. But that’s really all we know. In Guardians 3, we finally get the backstory of Rocket, who was created by a man known as the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a villain who wants to engineer a new Eden.
“My sacred mission is to create the perfect society,” says the High Evolutionary.
Rocket is one of several animals engineered for this purpose. He is equipped with intelligence, which gives him the power to reason and speak. But Rocket is treated as a prisoner, not a sentient being. To the High Evolutionary, Rocket is not even a pet; he’s simply a means to an end. Because of his unique ability to problem-solve, his brain is useful and worthy of examination.
Rocket’s animal friends are treated even worse. Once it’s determined they are obsolete, the High Evolutionary seals their fate with a two-word order: “Incinerate them.”
Rocket, our hero, tries to intervene to save his friends. He fails but manages to escape, which eventually leads him to become a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Years later, the High Evolutionary (wearing a new face) wants Rocket back, setting the stage for a big battle with the Guardians.
Guardians 3 is rip-roaring fun, but its joviality is balanced with tension, tragedy, and tear-jerking moments. This was the saddest Guardians movie in the trilogy. I may or may not have fought back tears four times, but nobody can prove that.
The source of all pain is the man who desires something good: perfection. Because his ends are so pure — who doesn’t want a perfect society? — the High Evolutionary has little problem doing terrible things, whether it’s incinerating the subjects of his experiments or leveling a planet. In this, he’s much like Thanos, the purple villain of the Avengers movies who wanted to usher in paradise through bloodshed.
The Marvel universe might be fiction, but its moral message reminds us of an old adage: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The adage reflects a sad and ironic truth the great philosopher Leonard Read observed in his 1969 book Let Freedom Reign. “Many of the most monstrous deeds in human history have been perpetrated in the name of doing good,” Read wrote.
The 20th century is littered with dictators who committed genocide to usher in a “perfect society.”
"Our policy was to provide an affluent life for the people,” Pol Pot explained in one of his final interviews . “There were mistakes made in carrying it out.”
The “mistakes” the Cambodian dictator was referring to in his march to utopia were the mass murder of some 2 million people.
Guardians 3 and the greater Marvel universe seem to understand the danger of those who promise paradise in exchange for freedom better than most. The film is still a heck of a great time — if you don’t mind crying.