“Guardians of the Galaxy” is being billed as a “different” kind of Marvel movie. In many ways, that’s true: It takes place in a distant part of the galaxy, and a fictional reality that’s only loosely linked to any of the existing Marvel franchises. It’s also looser and less self-serious than any of those franchises: The cosmic bombast of Thor, or the grim 70s thriller vibe and real-world politics of Captain America 2, are missing here. This is a silly comic-book movie which pauses, at several points, to make fun of itself for being a silly comic-book movie. It’s also refreshingly free from the expectation that, as a summer blockbuster, it has to be kid-friendly: Characters flip people off, joke about their spaceships being covered in invisible jizz stains, and call each other “batshit crazy.”
If you can’t tell already, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is not only different, but substantially better than most Marvel movies. I admire Marvel’s essential project — telling one vast, ridiculously complicated story through several simultaneous franchises, with each of those franchises essentially taking place in a different genre, from the high fantasy of Thor to the improv-comedy-plus-CGI of Iron Man — for its sheer ambition. But the actual movies are often weighed down by the same basic script (an amazing mystical/technological thingie exists; bad guys want it; the main bad guy is exactly like the hero, but evil; they punch) and the need to keep seventeen different story lines on track. There have been high points: The Avengers was lots of fun, buoyed up by Joss Whedon’s whipcrack dialogue and talent for taking absurd material so seriously that you have to care. That second Captain America movie — helmed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who directed many of the best episodes of Community — was great. But, quite frankly, I would rather hang nine long nights from the tree of Yggdrasil than ever watch another Thor. For the most part, the Marvel saga runs into one long, confusing, CGI-explosion-strewn blur.
To a degree, “Guardians of the Galaxy” does fit the expected script. An amazing mystical/technological thingie (an “Infinity Gem;” this is also what the last few Marvel Thingies have been, for anyone keeping track) does exist. Bad guys do want it. And, in Marvel tradition, yet another genre is being colonized: In this case, old-fashioned sci-fi, the kind with interstellar travel and spaceship battles and hotties with crayon-colored skin. But, rather than solving the problem with yet another square-jawed manly man whose virtue is as engorged as his biceps, “Guardians” is an ensemble piece, and its characters are distinctly non-heroic: All of them are career criminals, essentially after the Infinity Gem for profit until they inevitably band together against evil. They include the trained assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the transplanted Earthling-turned-thief Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a guy who is on a heroic quest for vengeance that seems to involve a lot of random murdering. They also include a talking tree (Vin Diesel) and a cybernetically enhanced and/or sociopathic raccoon (Bradley Cooper, doing a surprisingly delightful Joe Pesci impersonation) who just likes blowing shit up. The generally scummy worldview of the heroes, along with the unlikely-family dynamic, makes the movie feel less like The Avengers, and more like a spiritual sequel to Whedon’s own Firefly. Which, if you’ve long since given up hope on an actual sequel to Whedon’s Firefly, is very welcome.
Yet that very Firefly comparison necessarily draws your attention to Guardians’ most disappointingly typical choice. Namely, in Firefly’s ensemble cast of ragtag space criminals, 44% of the roles — four out of nine — were played by women. In “Guardians,” we get… well, we get Gamora.
It’s not that I fault Zoe Saldana’s performance. She’s steely and vulnerable in all the right ways. Nor do I wish to hamper Saldana’s quest for unquestioned dominance of the science fiction genre. (Between this, Avatar, and the new Star Trek franchise, she only has to secure a role in the Star Wars reboot to have a total monopoly over all existing franchises.) It’s also worth noting that, with Saldana, Diesel, and Bautista in the core group, the Guardians line-up is crushing the nearly all-white Avengers in terms of racial diversity. Granted, Saldana is green, Drax is grey, and Diesel is a CGI tree, but at least they didn’t automatically cast the tree with a white actor.
Still: Gamora is arguably the least developed non-plant in that main cast. Peter, Drax, hell, even Rocket Raccoon all get moments devoted to exploring their extensive psychological scars and tragic back-stories. Gamora’s life ought to outdo them all, in terms of sheer trauma value — her family was exterminated by genocidal ultra-villain Thanos, who then tortured and brainwashed her into becoming his “daughter” and evil minion — but we only get a brief mention of it. And that scene is merely a prelude to the moment where she’s pressed into double-duty as the obligatory love interest for lead hero Peter Quill, a role she may occupy simply because she frequently appears to be the only woman in any given solar system.
Or maybe that’s unfair. Because there are women in Guardians of the Galaxy. There are, for example, nameless hotties that Peter Quill hooks up with to establish himself as a rogue. (All due credit to Chris Pratt, who is one of the most ineluctably lovable actors working today; the character is explicitly written as a jackass who treats women poorly, yet Pratt’s guileless, doofy charisma makes him seem immature, rather than sleazy.) There’s a slave-girl who gets blown to bits to demonstrate the perils of the Infinity Gem. There’s a woman who shows up, silently, for five seconds, to demonstrate that a minor character is married. There’s Glenn Close, showing up for maybe six or seven seconds, as the leader of a planet’s police force. An actress I quite like, Karen Gillan, even gets a villain’s-henchman role, as another “daughter” of Thanos who, unlike Gamora, has embraced her adoptive Dad’s evildoing. (In fact, you could say that she’s exactly like Gamora, but evil. Now, who wants to take bets on whether these two end up punching each other?) But in terms of developed, central female roles, Gamora is pretty much it.
There’s no real reason for this — or, at least, no reason that derives from the source material. The line-up in this film is derived from the comic’s 2008 run, in which Gamora was one of three female team members, the others being a super-strong “energy sponge” and a martial artist who was raised to become the mother of a Cosmic Messiah. A fourth female character was added in 2013; the comic’s original 1969 run offers a fifth, which is relevant, since some of the characters in this film were adapted from the 1969 version of the story. This isn’t obscure information; it took me ten minutes on Wikipedia to discover that there are so many pre-existing roles for women in this story that, even if the filmmakers had wanted to stick to a five-person line-up for Guardians of the Galaxy, they could easily have filled all five slots with women.
This casual sexism extends to off-screen decisions, too: Guardians is being billed as the first movie in Marvel’s line-up to be co-written by a woman, Nicole Perlman. She gave a lengthy interview to Buzzfeed about her role in championing the franchise, her career as a woman in the male-dominated sci-fi screenwriting business, and her prior uncredited work for Marvel, punching up Natalie Portman’s science dialogue in Thor. (A thankless task if ever there was one.) Yet, in that same interview, Buzzfeed quotes Guardians director and co-writer James Gunn explicitly dismissing Perlman’s script and taking credit for her work: “The original concept was there, that was sort of like what’s in the movie, and then there’s the story and the characters — those were pretty much re-created by me,” he says. In other words: She wrote it. But he wrote everything that’s on screen. At least, that’s what he’s telling the press. Something tells me Perlman wouldn’t be entitled to that “co-writer” credit if her “story and characters” were 100% unusable.
Guardians of the Galaxy is being sold as a “different” kind of Marvel movie. It is. And, in many moments, it approaches something like greatness. But Marvel’s approach to women isn’t changing: We get one per franchise — two, in a sequel, or if they can plausibly fight each other — and we get them only so that the hero has an obligatory love interest to make eyes at, during the quiet parts between CGI explosions. Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun, funny popcorn movie, and for the most part, I enjoyed it. Yet I couldn’t help wondering what it would have looked like if it were truly “different,” and how much better that movie might be.
Photo by JD Hancock, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license