It is extremely frustrating and worrying to find so few, non mainstream reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 that refer to the unsettling portrayal of new character Mantis and her relationship with Guardians’ muscle man Drax
It is true, I am a DC kinda gal and have recently tired of Marvell’s Cinematic Universe (MCU), whose superheroes are so sleek, witty and sharp it is exhausting me trying to come up with the kind of metaphor that would measure up. They are as quick with their tongues as they are with their, shield, iron suit, arrows or kicks and even when they are broken and tormented like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 and Captain America… well… pretty much all of the time they never lose that clever touch which makes them so annoyingly perfect and untouchable. The MCU battles are as clean as their superheroes hair, clothes and face and as aesthetically pleasing. But in the end, they become repetitive, tiresome and as boring as the villain from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, so forgettable his name and evil plans escape me. Indeed, I like my heroes like I like my battles, bleak, violent occasionally angry and always gritty and dirty. The DC superheroes are less likeable, not always witty, occasionally heavy, and if there is anything DC could improve on is sense of humour, which most of their superheroes lack, they are usually too busy suffering to be able to come up with one liners. None of the DC superheroes have got it easy, they hurt, they suffer and their heroism is often a burden and always have consequences, which are usually dire.
There are of course exceptions, DC has created Suicide Squad, which was their pathetic attempt to compete with Marvell’s ensamble films and I choose to pretend it never happened. Marvell have produced Logan which was exceptional and a lot more DC in nature than MCU.
But while this can be put down to taste and preferences, there are a few sins that MCU cannot and should not get away with, no matter how much flashy witticism and “cool” they throw at us, and one of them is their frankly embarrassing representation of women, superheroes or others. Starting with the fact that no Marvell female superhero has yet to get her own film, even though they spit out as many films as Tony Stark’s Iron Man suits, which is more than twice the amount of films DC has brought out, while DC is making history with a second female superhero film (the first is Supergirl in the 1980s) or perhaps even a third one if you count Catwoman from 2004, but perhaps it is better, like with Suicide Squad, to ignore that one. The women that do grace the Marvell films, usually as part of a group like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, or as superheroes’ girlfriends, function mainly as either a plot device, or to allow men to develop their characters. Black Widow’s greatest achievements include support for Captain America in Winter Soldier and Carer/love interest to Bruce Banner/Hulk. In Ant-Man the much more qualified and capable Hope must step aside and train the barely adequate Scott Lang and also provide him a love interest. Pepper Pot is mostly there to tut and point a reproaching finger at Tony Stark and Thor girlfriend played by Natalie Portman… well… I can’t even remember her name, what does that tell you? At least Captain America’s love interest, Agent Carter, who barely exists in the films, found life in the world of television, as did Jessica Jones, agent l Agent Carter was created by a bunch of men mind, but that’s something.
Not that DC is clear of those or all other charges, though both Smallville's Lois Lane and Amy Adams' Lois Lane from the recent Superman film are a vast improvement on the 1980s Lois Lane and any of the Marvell "girlfriends", but in Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 a line has been crossed and left a bitter taste and a foul feeling that continued to bother me long after the film. The almost complete silence in the media, which generally praised the film, over this issue has made it more disturbing.
In the film, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is an alien slave to Ego, the main villain of the film, who raised her since she was a larva. Kurt Russell is very good as Ego and without a doubt an improvement on whoever it was who was the villain in the first film. Mantis never questions Ego and his evil plans or motives, she does what he tells her to do, until our heroes, the Guardians, come to save her and show her the way. We know very little about Mantis and her life with Ego other than she has some empathic powers, which, in order not to be completely useless in a fight, she is able to use against Ego. Then there is Drax (Dave Bautista, who I usually like and was the best thing in the first film), Guardians’ muscle man, big and cuddly and a little bit silly. He thinks Mantis is ugly and a pet and he never misses an opportunity to tell her so. He even gags in disgust at the thought of being physical with her, which was that extra touch to make this interaction disturbing. This is supposedly hilarious because of course we know that Mantis, who finds Drax’s repulsion of her hysterically funny, is actually really beautiful. For Drax women should be big to be beautiful. And so, the first main interaction of a woman who was raised as a slave, with those who are suppose to save her, is that of insults, which she doesn’t understand and are to do with her value as attractive or beautiful in the eyes of a man who is a potential romantic interest. But because Drax is just a big child, it has been established in the first film that his thinking is literal and he doesn’t understand metaphors and says what’s on his mind with no filter, it is OK for him to insult Mantis with not but a pathetic reproach from Gamora (Zoe Saldana), quite possibly the most boring Guardian whose main function, once again, is to provide Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a love interest and in the first film a punching bag for Drax, who blames her for the death of his family and keeps calling her a whore.
Furthermore, Mantis is supposed to be an alien, yet her character is largely and suspiciously drawn from the stereotype of a submissive Asian woman/wife, a servant who laugh at insults because she doesn’t understand them and speaks funny. The film suggests a possible love story between her and Drax, a dominant man who treats her badly, why would she betray Ego then is beyond me.
Despite not liking the first film very much, I did not go to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 looking for flaws and I definitely did not want to get as angry as I did with the film. All I wanted was good music, some decent action and the joy that is Baby Groot! And there was a lot to enjoy about in Guardians 2, Yandu proved to be pretty damn awesome, Kurt Russell, as mentioned, was excellent as Ego, a tiny yet great David Hasselhoff cameo and indeed Baby Groot! The real star of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. Then Mantis appears and the abuse from Drax commences and the film regresses into an unwatchable terrible joke.
The character of Mantis becomes even more jarring and grating when digging in to her origin in the comic. A former Avenger, Mantis is a half Vietnamese human woman who was raised to be a celestial Madonna whose destiny is to give birth to the celestial Messiah, the most important being in the universe. Judging on her Wikipedia page alone, which granted is not much, her story seems to rely heavily on her role as a companion/love interest to some male hero and/or a mother to another. It is disappointing that MCU did not consider improving this potentially incredible character, who at least in the comic has not only empathic powers, but also some precognition and superb martial arts fighting skills, she even defeated Thor at some point. Instead the film reduces her to an idiotic trophy wife. It is hardly surprising that creator of the character, Steve Englehart was unhappy with her cinematic portrayal.
The excuse for Drax's behaviour is that he is not but a child who speaks his mind and doesn’t know better, does not make it better. Throughout history men have always been allowed to make comments, rude, flattering or otherwise, about women’s appearances and women’s value was measured by how attractive or useful they are to men. To declare that Drax “doesn’t know better”, “Is not human” “He is childish” "is stupid" is simply another way to preserve this appalling status quo.
When discussing this point, which truly bothered me and pretty much ruined a film I was enjoying until then, I was told that people will tell me that the problem is with me, that I am seeing things that aren’t there because I don’t like the film or Marvell or whatnot. While this might be partly true, I was genuinely taken aback and surprised by this display of misogyny and racism, I didn’t think this would pass in these days’ Hollywood who is desperately trying to prove with diverse gender swap remakes (Ghostbusters) and an array of films, still made by men mind, that put a strong badass and awesome female leads (Star Wars: The Force Awaken, Mad Max Fury Road and others) to the world that it is progressing. What happened with Guardians 2 and how come no one is outraged? The sad truth is that I don’t think this was in any way intentional or malicious, it is so inherent that it almost seems natural and therefore OK.
Following the extremely uncomfortable controversy of the Doctor Strange casting, of which I admit I was completely ignorant to when I watched the film despite a much wider media coverage, a certain ugly pattern emerges in recent Marvell films, or is it Disney? And underneath MCU's shiny, cool façade an ugly picture is revealed.