So, Guardians of the Galaxy. Yeah. Saw it last weekend. Very pretty, very funny, lots of fantastically used continuity references (heck, they got in an actual Celestial, six-circle helmet and all). The best cybernetically augmented raccoon and talking tree double act in cinemas this year, no doubt.
Yet, there is one issue that keeps me from raving about it. I haven’t looked this up online because I avoid discussion sites like the plague, so maybe others more eloquent than I have already dissected it. But it is bugging me, so I think I should go ahead and write down my thoughts.
And, well . . . let me just quote the Marvel wikia article on Gamora:
“While engaging the US Military, it was mentioned that the armed forces were under the impression that she was no stronger than Spider-Man. However, her skill combined with her strength made them estimate her to be close to as dangerous as Iron Man.”
Question for the audience: did anyone watching Guardians of the Galaxy get the impression that the film version of Gamora was as dangerous as Iron Man? Because I sure as summersaults didn’t and that is what I would categorise as a Bad Thing.
Y’see, throughout the film, much is made of how dangerous Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon and Groot can be. We see them mowing down assorted bad guys with aplomb. Even our erstwhile morally ambiguous hero, Peter Quill, gets in on the at and he is pretty much in the way of being a squishy human by comparison. And yet the only time we see Gamora doing something truly comparable, as in properly working her way through a bunch of bad guys like they're made of paper mache, is when she fights the guards during the prison break. Oh, and fighting Nebula. She certainly doesn't get to throw Sakaarans around like rag dolls. In point of fact, she needs to be rescued from mortal peril three times.
Gamora's subtitle – an odd affectation of superheroes whereby they are so and so comma 'the merc with the mouth' etc – is 'the most dangerous woman in the universe.' She is the adopted daughter of a Mad Titan bent on destroying all life in the universe and was trained from a very young age to be a remorseless assassin. Quite apart from natural superhuman strength and resilience, she has been cybernetically enhanced to be just that little bit better an unstoppable killing machine. Oh, and then there's the years spent being the aforementioned remorseless assassin in the service of the aforementioned Mad Titan, which honed her skills to a truly terrifying level.
This is what the comics say about Gamora. This is also what the film says about her. But it does not show this.
I can buy her not being able to take Quill down on Xandar because let's face it, who would be prepared for the intervention of a tree monster and a gun-toting rodent? And the Nova Corp's stasis field is a smart way to take down just about anyone. But when the prisoners on the Kyln took Gamora to the showers by force with the intent of slitting her throat for what she had done in service of Thanos – I mean Ronan – I mean Thanos (that's another thing, I wish the film had settled on who it was that everyone considered the big bad) – when that scene begun, I was fully expecting and waiting for the moment when she overpowers the three of them in an instant. But that never really happened. Oh, sure, she knocks two of them down and grabs their weapons. But it doesn't seem like there's any real power behind the retaliation. The instant they were safely out of sight, 'the most dangerous woman in the universe' should have been able to flatten the lot of them effortlessly.
Except I suppose they were all men. But that can't have been a factor, right?
Part of the problem is it's never entirely clear if she's death seeking because of what she's done in Thanos' service or whether her intentions are to sell the gem and use the profits to escape. In fact, her whole plot thread is by far the most muddled of the five Guardians. What has she done to earn so much hatred? Is she running from Ronan or Thanos? We get far more of an idea of what life was like for Nebula than what it was like for Gamora before she ran away. Gamora's thread serves as a means of getting to Mr Exposition aka the Collector and of providing technical support for the final assault on Ronan's Aztec-Temple-In-Space, but it offers precious little insight into what she has actually lived through beyond 'he killed my parents'.
Anyhow, the second time she needs rescuing is the one instance where I think it's valid: she gets spaced and Quill has to give her his miraculous life-support mask (I'm assuming forcefields explain the lack of pressure suit). Spider-Man level strength says the wikia, not vacuum proof. It's the kind of situation even a master assassin wouldn't be able to easily survive and it gives Quill the chance to be stupidly heroic like he's obviously been aching to be since Act 1.
Then she and Quill are captured by the Ravagers and she just sort of stands there. I mean, yeah, there are loads of them, but she's the most dangerous woman in the universe. That scene should have played out with Yondu threatening Quill while Gamora approaches them across piles of moaning space pirates clutching broken bones. They're in close quarters, they think they have the upper hand – that should have been a perfect moment for her to unleash the talents that have made her so feared. Imagine it: Quill talking for all their lives because a three-way brawl that ends with them all dead will mean Ronan gets to Xandar without interference.
For the life of me, I cannot work out why it wasn't written that way. Likewise the prison scene and the assault on the Black Asta, where the only person Gamora seems properly fight is Nebula, another woman. She takes down a few Sakaarans along the way but nowhere near as many as the boys.
It's almost as if . . .
Nah. It couldn't be, could it?
After all, this is the studio that has, in two films, created the extraordinarily compelling character of the Black Widow, someone totally in control of herself, capable and ruthlessly competent without being an inhuman cipher. A heroine with depth and soul who nevertheless manages to take out rooms full of French mercenaries and even survive a close encounter with the Hulk.
This is the studio that took the bog-standard villain kidnaps the hero's girlfriend plot and resolved it with the girlfriend beating the ever-loving tar out of the villain and exploding him.
Surely it wouldn't be so unutterably sexist as to take the most dangerous woman in the universe and judge that that meant she wasn't tough enough to take on mostly male bad guys in a straight up fight? Would it?
All this is just my opinion. My observations. But the film version of Gamora seems to have been singularly ill served by a script that in most other respects is full of vim, vigour, zing and zest. She is the only female protagonist (the other nominally good female characters being Quill's latest squeeze who is shunted off screen once she's played her part in the obligatory joke, the Collector's put-upon slave girl who exists to die, and Glenn Close's admittedly fun Nova Prime who really has little more than a walk-on part), but throughout, she displays precious little prowess and even less real agency. It's not just martial displays that are missing. Gamora goes straight from doing what Ronan/Thanos wants to going along with Quill's madcap plans without being given a chance to be a character in her own right. Hells bells, Nebula gets given more depth by her brilliantly delivered 'Thanks dad' line to Thanos than Gamora gets in the whole of the 'Quill tries to seduce her and she puts a knife to his throat' scene.
And . . .
Let me put it this way: that means the talking Raccoon gets more to do and more real characterisation than the only female lead.
Do I even need to spell out why in the 21st Century, for a studio widely considered to be the leader in superhero movies, this is excruciatingly poor?
The absolute worst of it is that with very few rewrites and changes to the tempo of the scenes I've mentioned, Gamora could have been equally as strong as Pepper or Black Widow. Let's be clear: in no way do I mean this as a criticism of Zoe Saldana. She is an excellent actress and does an awful lot with what the script gives her. But what the script gives her is unacceptably little. The most dangerous woman in the unvierse is essentially reduced to a supporting role. She has been nerfed. Chickified. And it spoiled the whole film for me.
I am not one to argue that physical strength needs to be everything for a character. Quite the opposite. But Gamora is defined by being an assassin and not just a damned good one – one of the strongest and best. When she was reintroduced in the latest run of the comics Guardians, she was shown single-handedly taking down a entire occupation force, culminating in a fight where she used molten lava to first blind then drown the level boss.
That's the kind of thing I expected from the film version of Gamora. Perhaps that was naïve of me. Perhaps the world is not yet ready for a female lead who is physically a match for all the male leads put together.
But to hell with what the world is ready for. The most dangerous woman in the universe wouldn't have waited and frankly, neither should Marvel Studios.