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Portrayal of Disability in Guardians of the Galaxy
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Portrayal of Disability in Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest Marvel superhero blockbuster, recently opened with rave reviews and even greater viewership. Viewers can’t get enough of summertime superhero movies and Guardians delivers all the action, love story, and relatable characters Marvel fans love. While I went to the move with my husband last week, I couldn’t help but pick up on the strong commentary the movie made on disability, namely through its offbeat characters and storyline.

The audience is introduced to a variety of characters one could consider “disabled” due to their unique differences. First, there are the guardians, themselves. Rocket, (a genetically enhanced raccoon), Starlord (played by Chris Pratt, the main character from Earth who lost his mom from cancer at a young age), Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana, a green assassin who turns from the dark side to the good), Drax the Destroyer (a muscular prisoner with tattooed skin) and Groot (a large tree-like being who can sprout leaves and branches and fight off enemies).

It is the portrayal of Groot’s non-verbal communication that most mimics what many people with disabilities experience in real life. While Groot is a skilled warrior and loyal friend, the only phrase he is able to say is “I am Groot.” Depending on his voice inflexions and facial expressions used when saying the phrase, the only other character who can really understand what he is implying every time he says “I am Groot” is Rocket. Because of this, many of the Guardians think he is intellectually inferior due to his non-verbal disability, but he actually turns out to be one of the most superior characters in the film. Ultimately it is Groot that bonds the team together and allows the Guardians to defeat the evil Ronan.

Just like Groot, many people with verbal disabilities or speech impediments and even those of us with other physical disabilities must fight the stereotype of being intellectually inferior to our peers.

Another display of disability comes through secondary characters during the jail breakout scene. The Guardians are plotting their break out and Rocket tells the others the rundown of all the things each one of them needs to do in order to make the game plan work. One of the things on his game plan list is capturing the prosthetic leg of one of the other inmates. Rocket, who is a modern day MacGuyer, tells the others that he needs the leg to maneuver their way out. After much effort by Starlord to capture the prosthetic leg and delivering it to Rocket to continue carrying out his game plan, Rocket breaks into hysterical laughter and explains that he never needed the leg – that he just wanted to see the guy who used it hobble around and called him “useless” without it.

Through that scene, Guardians reinforces another stereotype many people with physical challenges face – feeling like they are viewed as “useless” or less than or being laughed at for their differences. The same reference is used for comedic relief when Rocket tricks Starlord into gathering a bionic eye from another secondary character later in the film, just to quickly follow it up with “just kidding” and another outburst of hysterical laughter.

While the movie was overall entertaining, I couldn’t help but wonder how movies like this that are marketed largely to young people reinforce some of the not-so-nice social stereotypes around disability and use characters who are different as a means for making the audience laugh.

Have you seen Guardians of the Galaxy? Did you pick up on any other references to disability? What do you make of the way disability was portrayed in the film? Share in the comments!


photo courtesy of harunguclu1979 via Flickr Creative Commons

Leave a Comment

  1. urza216
    Rocket is NOT a raccoon. And Rocket is definitely not a "genetically enhanced raccoon'". This is important because you obviously missed something important. There's nothing "enhanced" about him. Rocket is a freak, a Frankenstein monster. He was created in a lab and made to look like a raccoon. Did you completely miss the scene where Rocket took off his shirt and he had metal and stitches sticking out of his back? What about the scene where he was drunk and lost it? He was telling everyone in the bar that if they call him rodent, vermin or raccoon one more time, he's gonna shoot them all. He said he felt like everyone was laughing at him. Also - Rocket isn't a "modern day MacGyver". That TV show began airing in 1985. Rocket's first appearance in Marvel comic books was in 1982. You may find it interesting to know that the co-creator of Rocket is a physically disabled man. He was given a private pre-screening of the movie. He cried tears of happiness, seeing his relatively obscure comic book character in a movie..
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    1. WheelerWife
      Thanks for your comment. As you point out, Rocket is a relatively obscure character -- to the average viewer and someone who hasn't read the comic, the best way to describe Rocket's character and pick him out from the photo that is used in this post is to point readers to the character that looks like a raccoon. Rocket does take offense to people calling him "rodent" and "vermin" because he obviously sees himself as more than the raccoon that he was created to look like. That is a strong commentary throughout the film- the characters are more than what initially meets the eye of the viewer. Alluding to Rocket as a modern day MacGyver is not saying that he literally IS MacGyver. Again, just a metaphor to allow the audience to relate to Rocket's genius ideas and ability to get his way out of a sticky situation
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  2. John Mark
    Vote #7 WheelerWife! Will definitely consider seeing this movie this weekend! Thanks for the recommendation!
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  3. Martina
    I enjoyed the movie thoroughly; although I was creeped out by Rocket's obsession with other people's assistive tech. Keep your hands to yourself. I was happy that, for once, PWD weren't the pathetic ones in the film.
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