Let me start by saying I liked Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, liked it much more than the first film in fact, which appears to be an unpopular opinion. It was my idea of a perfect summer flick: breezy, funny, and requiring little to no previous experience with the series.
In the second movie, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)’s unconvincing romance thankfully takes a backseat to focus on the platonic bonds between the Guardians. The film combines an impressive amount of family-themed subplots into its 137-minute runtime. The main storyline reunites Quill with his blood father Ego (Kurt Russel), a godly being called a Celestial with a talent for moulding matter into whatever creations his heart desires. Ego claims to have been searching for Peter all this time, but to no one’s surprise (in the audience at least), there’s more to him than meets the eye. Despite its general predictability, Vol. 2 shows glimpses of unusual cleverness and heart for a summer blockbuster. However, though there are marked improvements from the first film, it still has problems to sort out on the representation front: namely, women.
Volume 2 gets points for bringing two more female characters on board to round out its main cast. Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) returns with a bigger role and a more fleshed out backstory for her revenge quest: when the sisters were forced to fight repeatedly by their father Thanos, the punishment for losing was to have parts of your body replaced with cybernetics—and Gamora never once let Nebula win. The ensuing complicated rivalry between the two women is far more compelling than Quill’s tired daddy issues, though Nebula’s redemption comes just a touch too easily. Nebula herself is wonderful to behold: bald, black-pupiled, and built noticeably a shade stockier than most action movie heroines. (Not that you would notice from the blatantly photoshopped promotional images.)
The true newcomer to the cast is Mantis, played by Pom Klementieff. Mantis is part of a new species of alien with empathetic psychic powers, plucked off her home world so she could help Ego fall asleep. It’s worth noting that her character was drastically changed from the self-confident lady of the original comics. There have been some justified concerns over the film version’s meek personality, particularly in combination with Klementieff’s part-Korean heritage. Still, between the three women the film scrapes together multiple Bechdel passes, something few other superhero flicks can brag about (although with the new release of Wonder Woman there’s hope for many more).
But Volume 2 others its women in a subtler way than that. The Guardians franchise is known for its goofy, irreverent vibe, and the second film is no exception. The script can’t take itself seriously for more than five minutes; the two major acting methods on display are screaming your lines dramatically for the emotional bits and dropping zingy one-liners. And yet the humour that’s such an intrinsic part of the films seems to flow steadily around the its female characters, occasionally having a laugh at their expense but never really including them. The result is that the male characters are seen wisecracking like old friends, while their female counterparts sit on the fringes looking irritated or baffled.
Take Gamora, for example. I’ve heard Drax called the straight man of the team, but the moniker doesn’t quite fit. Drax is infinitely delighted in every stray joke that passes his way, and even more so at things that were never meant to be funny in the first place. It’s Gamora who’s tasked with sighing in aggravation whenever someone dares to show signs of levity. She spends most of the second movie giving good advice that’s always ignored, telling Quill and Rocket to stop arguing so much or pointing out the suspicious behaviour of Mantis. Call it Pepper Potts syndrome: the women of action flicks take care of all those silly trivial responsibilities that infest the real world, while the men get to crack jokes and shoot things. It’s always the female characters’ job to make sure everything runs smoothly, up to the point where it’s time to actually save the day―then the narrative swings the focus back onto the male characters’ arcs.
Why the dichotomy? Zoe Chevat wrote an excellent piece about Gamora and other action heroines when the first film came out, suggesting that “strong” female characters tend to be stuck in a warrior archetype that forbids them from having fun. The second movie shows much of the same logic. In one scene Drax tells Quill to find a woman who “dances” to crush on in place of Gamora. By this he means “a woman as pathetic as you”, a label Quill protests. Scenes like this only reinforce the idea that women can be tough or they can be playful, but not both. The addition of Nebula, for all the wonderful things she brings, only highlights the connection between female power and humourlessness.
Mantis doesn’t fare much better. As someone who doesn’t participate in battle in any meaningful way, she shows far more emotion than Gamora or Nebula, but she too cannot understand this mysterious thing called “humour.” The only time she does crack up it’s because she’s psychically channelling Drax’s emotions, which is about as blatant a metaphor as you could ask for. Speaking of Drax, Volume 2 drops the recurring joke where he calls Gamora a whore, but replaces it with him repeatedly calling Mantis hideous instead. The joke about her looks makes little sense even in context (how is Mantis’s appearance significantly different from all the other humanoids?), but more importantly, it continues an uncomfortable pattern of humour at the female characters’ expense. It’s especially awkward given Mantis is the only Asian-coded character. Even Gamora, deeply hostile toward Mantis at first, shows a flicker of concern for how easily she accepts that Drax is right. “You’re not ugly”, she tells the other woman flatly. But Drax persists, and as usual Gamora’s point is lost.
It’s frustrating to see the female characters sidelined from the movie’s comedy like this, especially when Volume 2 gets so much else right; an all-female Ravager crew, non-sexualized camera angles, and multiple Bechtel passes are nothing to sneeze at. Now the franchise just needs to take that final step and let its female characters actively participate in its irreverent comedy instead of being the butt of its jokes. Guardians of the Galaxy is such a playful, humorous universe, after all. Women should be able to join in the fun.