There's a lot to love about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. There's the soundtrack (which features the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Sam Cooke, and Cat Stevens, to name a few); there are the jokes (the best of which are delivered by Baby Groot, hilariously voiced by Vin Diesel, via his translator Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper); and then, there's the all-star cast (led by Chris Pratt as Star-lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, and David Bautista as Drax).
All in all, it's a vibrant, action-packed film with glitzy fight sequences and even more dazzling CGI animation. But amid all the joy and entertainment, there's one really irritating part of the film, and it involves a brand-new character, Mantis, played by French actress Pom Klementieff. In the film, Mantis is a naive and sheltered alien who was abandoned by her family and raised by Ego (Kurt Russell) on an isolated planet. He is literally the only person, alien, or living creature, she has ever met and interacted with — until she meets the Guardians. And do you know what happens when she finally meets people, and tries to make friends? Drax tells her that she is hideous. That she is ugly. That she is disgusting. That she is too skinny and frail to be desirable. Gamora won't talk to her, and Star-lord shuns her after she uses her powers to reveal his (not-so secret) desire to be with the stubborn and unflinching Gamora.
Why, in a film promoting a misfits gang full of a diverse range of characters, with varying levels of skill, intelligence, and attractiveness, is this female character being singled out for her looks? It's a cheap and lazy plot line, and it almost ruined the movie for me. There's only one woman among the lead characters, and another three playing supporting characters (two of which were villains, because of course). Out of the four women in the film, do we really need one of them to be entirely defined by the perceptions of others? (In, need I remind you, outer space! Everyone in this movie is weird-looking!)
There are a few reasons why the "Mantis is ugly" dialogue and plot line does not work. First of all, it relies on the archaic and problematic idea that if a boy is mean to you, he likes you. It's clear throughout the film, that there is a romance brewing between Drax and Mantis, fueled primarily by his animosity and rudeness towards her. The more he reminds her that she is ugly, the more she starts to trust him. "I'm ugly?" she asks him. "Yes! Terrifying!" he says, looking her up and down while making a horrified face. (I'm paraphrasing.) This happens more than once, and since these are her first ever friends, and potential allies, Mantis hangs on to every word the group says to her. "I'm ugly!" she repeats to herself at one point, gleefully because she has no concept of the insults being hurled at her. Because of her character's secluded upbringing, she's like a little kid. So just imagine children watching this movie, and hearing a strong male character telling a sensitive and empathetic female character that she is unattractive until she is conditioned to think so herself. It's awful. And that scenario coming to life was all I could think during those scenes.
Mantis has one of the most powerful gifts of any of the characters (I'll avoid spoilers but and, no, it doesn't involve killing people). She is soft-spoken, shy, and sensitive. Where Gamora and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) are strong and independent, Mantis is delicate and trusting. And those qualities didn't make her ugly or weak-spirited — they just makes her different. And in a crew like the Guardians, that should be praised, and not punch-lined.