First: I loved Guardians of the Galaxy. I loved every minute of it. I cannot wait to watch it a second time, and a third, and a dozenth. There were moments that I was hugging myself and crying with laughter. It's joyous, breathless filmmaking with clearly defined stakes and action I can follow. It's hilarious, it's fun and it's heartfelt.
But it's impossible to deny that Gamora is the least interesting of the Guardians.
And that's a bummer. It's a bummer because that's almost what any of us could have guessed before seeing the film. I assumed, though hoped I was wrong, that the talking tree and the former wrestler would be more engaging onscreen than the woman, and sure enough, that's the case. There are moments that Gamora is a joy to watch: when she's fighting, obviously, moving like a weaponized dancer leveling entire crowds of foes, and when she's allowing herself, for just a moment, to be charmed by Chris Pratt's Starlord before shouting, "I will not succumb to your pelvic sorcery!" But the most interesting part of Gamora is what we can only hope lies beneath the surface - what we assume we will actually see in the sequel. It would be giving too much credit to the film, and to the script, to say these hidden depths were intentional. I believe it's fair to give that credit to Zoe Saldana, who does a lot with a little, but on the page, it really is a very little.
While that's equally true of Karen Gillan's Nebula - and I'd love to see more of Gamora's even angrier half in the sequel - the flatness of her character is less striking because none of the villains is particularly memorable in Guardians (appearances aside; everyone looks incredible). But up against Rocket and Groot and Starlord and Drax, Gamora feels like an afterthought. It's wonderful that those characters are all so deeply compelling, every one of them indelible and uncommon in their own ways, and it's maybe unfair to complain that one character out of five isn't a homerun.
I just hate that, of the five, it had to be the female character who didn't entirely capture my attention. It's not that Gamora is charmless, it's just that she's the least charming of the Guardians. And while that is mostly because the other four are extraordinarily charming (it's important to note that in another superhero film, Gamora would probably be the most exciting character), I just wish for once it could be the woman who's hilarious and captivating and endlessly quotable. (Although you can be sure that I'll be quoting that pelvic sorcery line for at least the rest of the year, if not the rest of my life.) And it's not Guardians' fault that I've been feeling this way all summer - that I enjoyed Godzilla and Days of Future Past and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, all while wishing the women written in those films were half as interesting as the men. It's weird, I think, that of this summer's films, Neighbors will be the one that I remember for the fact that its female character is the most vibrant, the most hilarious. I had higher hopes for Guardians because James Gunn wrote and directed it, and he's the guy who wrote the characters of Starla and Libby. But with Guardians being a big tentpole superhero movie, my expectations on the score of female complexity were tempered. I don't know what it is about this genre of films, but it does not reward its female viewers.
All of that said, I want to end on a positive note, because I loved Guardians of the Galaxy, and I think in anyone's hands other than James Gunn's (and, it should be noted, cowriter Nicole Perlman), Gamora would have been even less realized. I do trust, entirely, that the sequel will further both Gamora's and Nebula's characters, and take their rivalry into really provocative territory. When Gunn isn't preoccupied with establishing a truly bizarre universe and a ton of unfamiliar characters, when he has the time and resources to develop those characters and their dynamic, I know it will be great. And here's how I know, even aside from Slither and Super (two of my favorite films):
There was one scene in Guardians that had me cringing in anticipation only to become surprised and relieved at where it went instead. When the Guardians find themselves in the intergalactic prison, and all of the inmates turn on Gamora in glee, I was so certain we were about to be subjected to that old standby: if a filmmaker needs to make the audience concerned for the well-being of a powerful female character, she is menaced with rape. It's a trope I've seen again and again, on TV and in PG movies and in books, and I'm so sick of it I can scarcely stand it. But that's not where Guardians was headed. Those inmates aren't turning on Gamora because she's a sexy lady in a prison filled with men; they're turning on her because she's responsible for the deaths of many of their loved ones, and they want to kill her for her crimes in the name of Ronan. She's not being threatened because she's a woman - she's being threatened because, as far as these guys know, she deserves it. The scene would be just as frightening if Gamora were a man. The threat isn't inherent because of her gender; it's a simple result of the circumstances. Any other film would have gone the route of threatening her with rape before she's saved by Quill; Guardians didn't do that.
It's what sets the film apart in its treatment of women, and makes the scene far more interesting than it would have been otherwise. And yeah, that's one hell of a low bar - she wasn't threatened with rape! - but it's something I noted with immense gratification. And it's part of the reason that I can't wait to see what Gunn does with Gamora when the Guardians of the Galaxy return.