Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is my research associate. You can find her on Twitter @manishaclaire
The new Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy has been a “surprise” hit at the box office, earning over $100 million in North America since its release last week.
On the surface, GOTG showcases a new kind of superhero in Peter Quill, whose happy-go-lucky attitude (played with charm by Chris Pratt) stands out in a movie where almost every other character is hell-bent on revenge or a quick buck. On a quest to retrieve a magical orb from an evil overlord named Ronan, Peter is joined by a band of misfits including a talking raccoon and a giant magical tree, a vaguely alien being named Gamora and Drax, a man who wants to avenge his family’s murder at the hands of Ronan.
Actually, the movie’s plot isn’t important for this post, but then again, it’s not really important for the film either. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the soundtrack isn’t the only thing that’s vintage—the movie’s treatment of masculinity is disappointingly retro.
Over at Salon, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw talks about the ways GOTG portrays and promotes its female characters, arguing that while there are certain things that are laudable about the film in this respect, it feels engineered and ultimately doesn’t override the low-level misogyny that is played for laughs in the movie.
Much as Baker-Whitelaw thinks that GOTG fails women, I think it fails men as well. For a movie that supposedly represents a quirky new direction in superhero/space opera movies, GOTG relies on outdated and potentially destructive ideals of manhood.
As viewers, we don’t see how his mother’s death affects Peter as he grows up. The small references to his past are limited to a product placement (the Sony Walkman) he carries around with him, with tapes given to him by his mother, and we are supposed to take that as a sign that he hasn’t yet dealt with his grief. But any sadness he might have expressed is shoved aside to make room for him to show off his womanizing (by forgetting about a woman he just slept with), his virility (by making a weird black-light joke that goes on too long), and his fearlessness (fighting evil with a smile on his face). Any time he feels sad about his mother, he keeps the thought to himself, sometimes going out of his way to hide things from his friends (like his mother’s last gift to him, which Rocket the genetically engineered Raccoon finds on the ship). Being able to compartmentalize his pain is apparently how Peter can get on with his life, rather than dealing with his feelings in a healthy way.
Drax is another character who has experienced a great deal of sadness in his life. His wife and daughter were murdered by the evil Ronan, and his sole mission is to kill Ronan in retaliation. In one scene (perhaps the most emotional in the whole movie), Drax gets drunk and makes a reckless decision that almost kills everyone on the team. When pressed about why he did it, he starts to explain his feelings of deep pain and sadness at losing his family, and how those feelings cause him to act the way he does. Rocket Raccoon has no patience for this, snapping that everyone has “stuff,” and that the best way to get over it is to funnel his sadness into murderous rage, targeted to Ronan. Rocket’s remark is in character for him, but it shuts down any possibility of exploring Drax’s character, and also tells viewers that the most effective man is one who doesn’t access his feelings (unless those feelings lead to a climactic bit of violence).
For GOTG’s male characters, managing sadness (or rather, eliminating sadness) is achieved through anger, or rage, or a complete emotional shutdown. Wouldn’t it be more powerful to see a male superhero face his feelings, rather than see him punch them into submission?