‘Guardians of the Galaxy’: a feminist perspective

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Guardians of the Galaxy is a blockbuster action epic out this summer, and it’s the second this year from MARVEL Studios. MARVEL are the first to make films covering a truly cohesive, pre-planned, shared universe and although there have been intersecting crossovers in film history since at least the 1940’s (everyone should watch House of Frankenstein for good or ill), these were spur-of-the-moment ideas for easy marquee value. MARVEL, on the other hand, are planning theirs out with an almost The Riddler-esque glee and doing so to great effect. It’s actually genius; MARVEL can market their other films through easter eggs and references in each installment and audiences will love it. I know, because I’m a part of that audience. I remember back in 2008 when after the credits for Iron Man finished, there was a cameo with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. I. Absolutely. Lost. My. Shit. I shouted, “ITH THURY! NICK THURY!” while spraying saliva over everyone in the rows in front of me like it was Seaworld, before leaping forward and chewing on the seat in front like a rabid shark. What an excellent day that was. I remember it fondly.

Considering that MARVEL have now made a bunch of movies in their shared universe, we still haven’t got a single film with a female protagonist. Not one. They have the capability – there are plenty of characters in their backlog that would fit – but those film haven’t materialised. And yes, I know that MARVEL haven’t got access to all their characters because they’ve licensed a bunch of them to other studios (which is why you’ll never see Spider-Man in the Avengers), but they’ve still got a shit-ton that they do have, so I don’t quite buy that excuse. MARVEL call themselves ‘The House of Ideas’, so where’s the progression?

That being said, they do put in a little effort, mainly around the side-lines if not for the main event. They have Black Widow, played with a semi-knowing comic detachment by Scarlett Johansson. She’s a Russian assassin (with an American accent) who is introduced in Iron Man 2 as a sort of stock sexy badass, who runs around and does stock sexy badass things like kicking people in the face sexily and nothing much else. But when Joss Whedon (no stranger to strong female characters) got the opportunity to write and direct the character, we suddenly got a Black Widow worth writing home about (which I did, but my Mum didn’t care) In Whedon’s The Avengers, Black Widow receives a dramatic arc built around a sense of malignant guilt of her violent past. She gets control, import and stakes within the action, she gets funny lines, she can be strong sometimes, weak at others, compassionate to some, violent to others, all dictated by where she is in the narrative and her past experiences and outlook in life; in short, she becomes a character. She even has a very cool scene where she is threatened by a genocidal psychopath who uses an old-fashioned gendered insult, and though she plays the victim, it’s all a clever ploy to get the villain to reveal his plan. One can argue about the validity of using the specific insult (“mewling quim”), as it might be a step too far but the reversal is so exquisitely portrayed that the overall effect is tremendous. This strong attention to her character is continued in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and hopefully to be further elaborated on in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Still, despite being a great character with lots of potential, there is still the funny problem, that some films have, where the camera has a leery quality, often positioning itself behind Black Widow. It’s not done to the ludicrous extent as seen in the works of Michael Bay, who pretty much shoves his camera up the arse of his leading lady, but butt-camera, as I shall call it, still appears in the MARVEL films. In all fairness, they’re not shy about showing off their male stars’ bare chests either, although whether that’s for the female gaze or a power fantasy for men, is up for debate.

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Featured: Nick Thury! And Black Widow’th arthe.

Widow is the only character in the Marvel films that can really be claimed as a female superhero. However, there are some textured female characters in otherwise oh-so-frustratingly traditional roles, for example, Pepper Potts. Now, Potts is great in these movies. Yes, she’s the ‘superhero’s girlfriend’, but she’s also funny, witty and charming, has great lines and actually is the strength behind what I feel is the greatest relationship in any superhero picture. It’s also very interesting that she’s kidnapped in Iron Man 3, which is a once dramatic yet increasingly boring trope in these films, but that the film brilliantly subverts it by actually having her defeat and slay the villain. There’s also Agent Carter in Captain America, who is another great character; not only does Hayley Atwell have a brilliant old-school cinematic presence but she’s also a genuine badass. If you want more proof of this, check out the Agent Carter short film on the Iron Man 3 Blu-Ray, where she absolutely decimates a warehouse full of goons. It’s fucking amazing, and probably the reason why we’re getting a full television series revolving around her.

Other than those few examples, there’s very little femininity in these Marvel epics. However, Guardians of the Galaxy, though no re-invention of the wheel, is a step in the right direction.

Guardians is a goofy, ludicrously fun, imaginative, colourful, space extravaganza with the thrills of Star Wars, the visual imagination of a Guillermo Del Toro joint and the character interplay of Ghostbusters. It’s amazingly good. It’s also a wonderful middle-finger to the insecure, ‘comic book movies should be dark, gritty and realistic’ crowd (there’s nothing wrong with a darker comic book film, as Nolan’s Batman films have proven, but there’s a lunatic contingent that feels that this should be applied to every film, because apparently we need a dark and grim Power Rangers).

Ostensibly, Guardians is a story about a bunch of self-centred scoundrels who need to learn that there’s more to life than whatever selfish pursuit they desire, and sometimes they need to put others before themselves. It speaks to core ideas about redemption, humanity, and moral boundaries, while also being amazing fun. It’s an ensemble piece; the lead is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, or Star-Lord (who?), who joins up with Bradley Cooper’s Space-Racoon Rocket, the house-plant/hired muscle Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, David Bautista’s vengeance driven Drax and ex-assassin Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana.

It’s Gamora’s character who I’m going to talk about right now, and I’m going to start off by looking at an interesting quote from Zoe Saldana on the subject of why she’s in more than one space movie (Avatar, two Star Trek’s, and now this):

“I like being in space because there are better parts for women in space. I don’t have to subject myself to just being the love interest or playing a character that doesn’t feel relevant to the story or playing a woman that doesn’t feel like an actual depiction of a real woman. When I read films in space and I’m working with these kinds of filmmakers there’s a neutral sense to the way they develop characters. It makes me feel very significant, very relevant and very excited.”

That is sensible enough, but also incredibly saddening. It’s a shame that Saldana needs to be in a full-on fantasy movie in order to get some dimensionality in the characters she plays. It’s a very weird reality that that if you’re a woman, and an actor, you have to paint yourself up in green and be the badass daughter of a space tyrant in order to get a sense of realism. This has to change.

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Hollywood does resist the urge to put Saldana in this version of Gamora’s costume, which is astonishing.

Gamora is a pretty cool character; it’s Gamora who kickstarts the whole altruism and idealism that affects the rest of the group. She’s the one who betrayed her genocidal father out of a sense of moral duty, and although she’s dangerous and amoral in many aspects (she’s an assassin, after all), it’s her desire to do good for once that inspires Peter, which in turn inspires the rest. She’s the noblest character of the lot.

However, Gamora, does get short shrift in the jokes department. There are some good ones, but she doesn’t have nearly as many memorable moments as Drax or Rocket, and it’s a shame, because her fastidiousness could have been further mined for juxtaposition humour. There’s also a missed opportunity to give her a bit more to do; although there is another fun subversion of the damsel-in-distress trope, where Peter Quinn’s self-satisfaction at his rescue of her is winningly undercut.

She’s also intermittently visualised sexually, as female characters often are. Though it’s done mainly from the perspective of Peter Quill, a serial womaniser, that doesn’t excuse it. Not only are some of the camera angles a touch cheap, they’re also boring, although their application here is positively restrained in comparison to anything from Michael Bay. Quill’s status as a womaniser is also played for charming laughs, which is not the best way to approach the behaviour but, then again, he’s a scoundrel and his story is about him doing something good for once. However, his poor treatment of women really isn’t depicted as the bad thing it needs to be.

The only other major female character is Nebula, another one of Thanos’s daughters. Nebula fulfils the typical role of the villainous enforcer; she’s not massively interesting but she is a touch more interesting than the main villain, Ronan, who is very much the CRUSH KILL DESTROY type of dude and not much else. Nebula has an enjoyable, feuding relationship with Gamora but otherwise just turns up to create problems for the heroes. That said, she’s ably played by Karen Gillan, who imbues the character with enough rage and authority that you do believe she’s the kind of person who would have been raised by the most evil dude in the entire universe.

Aside from that, we have Glenn Close as the leader of the Nova Corps. However, the role is so slight that it seems that it must have been significantly chopped down in the editing suite, otherwise, why hire an actor of Glenn Close’s stature?

So that’s three female characters, which is more than most. The film happily passes the Bechdel test and Gamora isn’t a romantic interest (Quinn tries but fails miserably). Gamora is a good character, a character with her own arcs and individual moments, whom has an important role within the narrative. She’s arguably the best female character yet in the MARVEL pictures, but it’s more than just her that proves that it’s totally time for MARVEL to be making female-led pictures. It’s also the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive risk. A huge one. It’s a film about a criminal, an assassin, a warrior, a raccoon and a tree all teaming up together to have adventures in space. It’s not based on a popular character (everyone’s heard of Spider-Man or Batman but no one outside of comic book circles knew what The Guardians of the Galaxy were; I didn’t know and I’m firmly entrenched in this nerd stuff), they were an unknown commodity and MARVEL, by hiring an incredibly talented film maker in James Gunn, made this shit work! If they can make Guardians, they can make anything.

squirrelgirlAnything?

So, godammit MARVEL, get on this! You’ve announced a bunch of release dates for future projects and though some of those will doubtlessly be sequels to already established characters, there’s space for some new ones, and this space should be used to the best possible effect. Don’t cut down on half your potential audience; Guardians has proven you can take risks and those risks can pay off, so give us some female led pictures. People are clamouring for it (this is by far and large not the first article asking for this, there are hundreds of them), and there’s a huge gap in the market where MARVEL could create another success story for themselves.

I think we’re in the beginnings of a major paradigm shift, where the status quo of what makes a blockbuster lead is ready to be transformed. It’s a shift that’s been coming for years and I think MARVEL, who are at the top of the blockbuster pile at the moment, have the ability and the duty to help usher it in. They have the power to do something about it.

And as one of their comic book characters has a fondness for saying: With great power, comes great responsibility.

Callum Birrell

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