Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 introduces one of the heaviest hitters in the Marvel Universe, Adam Warlock, to the big screen. Played by actor Will Poulter, Adam Warlock is a genetically-engineered warrior working on behalf of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Fans of Marvel Comics will know Adam Warlock as an important player in the Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Watch storylines, but his portrayal in the MCU is much different from his usual role in comics. In fact, Adam Warlock operates in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 as a critique of the MCU’s brand of heroism, particularly in its early Phases. In doing so, the film boldly makes the case for how the MCU can change with the times, calling out its own shortcomings in the process.
The third Guardians of the Galaxy film follows the team as they race to protect Rocket Raccoon from his creator, the High Evolutionary. Rocket’s tactical genius makes him one of the High Evolutionary’s greatest achievements, prompting the latter to send Adam Warlock in search of him. Against this backdrop, the team must also come to terms with how larger events in the MCU have changed their found family dynamic, as Gamora is no longer in the group. It is an auspicious choice for Adam Warlock to debut in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, given how the team’s unconventional lineup of heroes compares to standard superhero expectations.
Adam Warlock’s role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 touches on how superhero fiction is centered around moral and physical perfection. Characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Hawkman, Captain America, and Thor are physical and ethical paragons. They were created to inspire readers to be their best selves. Superhero teams like the Doom Patrol, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and the Guardians of the Galaxy are meant to counter the genre’s focus on ethical and beautiful people; however, their existence still underscores this basic truth.
The film’s Adam Warlock is supposed to be a model of perfection seen most clearly in Phase 1 of the MCU. Warlock (like any basic superhero model) is male, buff, handsome, and indestructible. He listens to authority presents as a white person. This is further solidified with several parallels between Warlock and key moments in the MCU’s Phase 1. Adam Warlock’s birth cocoon is reminiscent of Steve Rogers’ chamber that Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger. You know, the one that turns a skinny asthmatic into a muscly super soldier. His lofty way of speaking and cluelessness recalls Thor in his first film. Likewise, when Kraglin fires his Yaka Arrow at Warlock, it bounces off of him with the same comedic imperviousness as Iron Man’s Mark I armor in the first MCU film.
But while Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man are amenable to audiences, Adam Warlock’s introduction has an opposite effect. He destroys the sense of peace on Knowhere and its moody atmosphere, courtesy of an acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” that Rocket put on. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 sets Warlock up as the direct antithesis to the Guardians crew. He isn’t “a weirdo” like the one in the aforementioned song. Never before has “normalcy” carried such a destructive presence in an MCU film.
We see this with how the Guardians respond to their injuries during the fight versus Warlock. Groot sprouts four tendrils from his head and nonchalantly walks away on them while Nebula cracks her shattered limbs back into place. These are quintessential Guardians moments, built around the unique bodies of its “too strange” heroes. Warlock, on the other hand, embodies physical perfection. The literal golden boy doesn’t have a single hair out of place when Nebula finally stabs him through the chest.
While audiences accepted heroes like Thor and Captain America in Phase 1, Adam Warlock and his relationship with the High Evolutionary reveals the sinister side to this quest for perfection. For the High Evolutionary, lifeforms that aren’t “perfect” like Adam are lesser. It’s how he is able to experiment on and then incinerate innocent animals or genetically engineer children and make them run for hours on end without a second thought.
For the High Evolutionary, life is malleable. And physical perfection is always a few tweaks away. If Tony Stark was able to build a life-saving arc reactor in a cave, with a box of scraps, then what’s stopping the High Evolutionary from creating the perfect man? As such, Adam Warlock illustrates the physical and emotional costs of the superhero genre’s obsession with perfection. Because after all, Warlock doesn’t exist to show the denizens of the universe a better path. His creation is for violence.
The parallels between Adam Warlock and Phase 1 MCU films proves why the franchise needs the Guardians of the Galaxy. The superhero genre’s roots may envision a new type of perfection, but it’s also been the place to celebrate deviation. It’s no wonder Nebula and Rocket Raccoon—two characters who posit as disabled—are the anchors of this film.
In contrast to Adam Warlock, Nebula and Rocket are a different idea of heroic built on empathy from past pain. This especially comes to light when Rocket insists on rescuing the High Evolutionary’s other animal test subjects. (In fact, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is the only film in the trilogy that doesn’t have a gratuitous shirtless moment with Chris Pratt.) The thesis of the film celebrates the diversity of life and bodily autonomy. As such, it’s fitting to leave behind the stereotypical marker of white male heroism from the MCU’s Phase 1.
Adam Warlock’s arc with the High Evolutionary explores the toxicity, along with physical and emotional violence, rooted in idolizing perfection. He now makes Steve Rogers’ transformation scene in Captain America: The First Avenger uneasy to watch. Dr. Abraham Erskine believed that America needed “a little guy” to defeat the Nazis and their horrific supremacism. Steve Rogers had the heart of a little guy. But his body had to rapidly balloon in size and muscle tone in order to be adequate. To fight an enemy that believed in biological supremacy, Steve Rogers needed a whole new body type all together.
It’s almost a shame that Warlock’s debut comes in this late-stage Guardians offering. But with physically marginalized characters like Rocket and Nebula, the Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the only self-aware and self-critical teams in the MCU. With this franchise’s future up in the air after an uneven Phase 4, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 proves that the MCU must seriously reckon with its past to properly evolve.