Trigger warning: abuse.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 came out last week in the US (and a few days before that in the UK). I watched it last Wednesday and have been thinking about it ever since.
For all intents and purposes, this is a fun, light, genuinely affecting superhero movie that should have been a breezy watch, a couple of hours of light entertainment. I liked most of it a whole lot and even cried in the highly emotive ending – but the movie repeatedly punched me in the face. What went wrong?
The treatment of the new female character, Mantis.
Mantis is a new introduction to the team and to the franchise, appearing for the first time in the new movie and by the end of it, it looks as though she will be a recurrent character. Mantis is an alien with empathic powers: she can not only read people’s emotions when she touches them but also effectively control those emotions. Mantis is found by the team when they visit a planet called Ego and from the moment she first appears to the very last scene she is in, she is constantly negged, belittled and cruelly treated by another member of the team, Drax. All of it is played for laughs, because Drax is a character who serves not only as comic relief but whose literal mind often serves as framing for telling “the truth”. “The truth”, when it comes to Mantis as a character, is: she might be ugly but that doesn’t matter because she is “beautiful on the inside”. Her constant abuse is disguised as some sort of positive, acceptance message. It’s even worse if you think about the character’s backstory as presented in the movie, if you think about the scarcity of female characters in the franchise and above all, if you put it in historical context.
Let me try to unpack all of this.
Mantis is presented as a naïve and trusting character. That is so because she has had no other meaningful interaction in her life apart from her relationship with a male character called Ego. Ego took Mantis from her home planet, brought her up to serve him (he calls her a pet, if I am not mistaken. She calls him master) and kept her away from any meaningful contact with anybody else until the Guardians arrive.
Her backstory is already one of abuse to start with.
Enter the Guardians and Drax. From the moment Drax sets eyes on Mantis, she calls her ugly and disgusting, even going as far as making vomiting gags when he looks at her. It’s constant and unrelenting verbal abuse. Mantis takes it in stride because she doesn’t understand what is happening and doesn’t have a reference frame to understand it. But we do. And we are supposed to laugh at the expense of a character who has known nothing but abuse her whole life and doesn’t entirely understand what is going on.
We also do have a historical frame of reference: we, the viewers should know that this is a man, verbally abusing a woman, telling her that she is ugly over and over again. Because Drax is one of the “heroes”, the expectation here is that he and the other Guardians have “saved” her and that he is now the “only one” who can see the real her. Therefore he is the only one who truly finds value in her, beyond her ugliness. This, friends, is textbook abusive tactic and that’s how real life abuse plays out.
To have one of the few female characters in the franchise be the butt of a recurring joke only compounds the fact that Mantis’ entire arc seems to evolve around her being useful first to Ego (she puts him to sleep) and then the Guardians (she saves them and once her usefulness is exhausted, she is taken out of the equation, carried away as a damsel in distress by no other than her abuser). Her other plot purpose is to “read” Peter’s feelings and making Gamora deeply uncomfortable when she reads out those feelings in front of everybody. In the comics, Mantis is a grandmaster martial artist – what happened to that?
All in all, this is textbook abuse, played for laughs and disguised as an empowering message. It was a cruel, gross and completely unnecessary arc for a character that has so much potential.