We Need to Talk About Mantis’ Abuse in Guardians of the Galaxy 2
When it was announced that director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2 would feature Pom Klementieff as Mantis, I was cautiously excited. In the past I had criticized Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy for its moments of casual misogyny, but overall found the film to be a nice change of pace after the middling Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3. And Mantis represented a huge opportunity: while Asian women had made gains in Marvel’s TV and Netflix properties, aside from Dr. Helen Cho in Age of Ultron they were missing from the films. Mantis would be the first Asian woman to star as a lead character in the MCU, and actress Pom Klementieff had the mixed martial arts experience (learned since her time filming Old Boy with Josh Brolin) to pull off a martial arts-heavy character like Mantis. I had my reservations about GOTG2, but for Mantis I was willing to give Gunn the benefit of the doubt. Readers, that was my mistake.
It’s not just that the Mantis we got is a vastly different character from the Mantis in the comics. It’s that Gunn also saw fit to strip Mantis of everything that makes her a positive character–her strength, her fiery determination, her support of other women–and replace all that instead with an abused, submissive, and infantile Asian woman stereotype. Gendered insults and gendered violence are so integral to Gunn’s portrayal of her that I have to sincerely ask: Mr. Gunn, do you hate Mantis?
It’s difficult to understand how and why Mantis’ on screen rendition went so awry; with Mantis featured in over 100 comic issues, there’s no shortage of texts that Gunn could have drawn from. Mantis was created in 1973 by writer Steven Englehart and artist Don Heck, and was the fourth woman–and first woman of color–officially introduced as an Avenger after Wasp, Scarlet Witch, and Black Widow. Mantis was such a beloved creation to Englehart that when he briefly left Marvel he brought her with him and had her appear in other publications under a different name.
Mantis’ comic book backstory is admittedly a wildly convoluted one, but that Gunn disregarded it in its entirety is disappointing. In the comics, Mantis is born to a Vietnamese mother and a white father during the Vietnam War and ends up being raised by a group of peaceful Kree priests. The Kree believe her to be the celestial Madonna, the mother of a future celestial messiah, a perfect being who would be half-human and half-Cotati (a telepathic, plant-like race). Because of this special status, Mantis undergoes rigorous meditation and martial arts training to become the “most perfect human specimen.” Her training is so intense that when she’s first introduced she’s able to access a certain degree of the mystic arts, sensing vibrations, and events by communing with nature.
As the comics progress and Mantis accepts her role as the celestial Madonna, her abilities grow exponentially, giving her powers of telekinesis, fast healing, energy blasts, precognition, and the ability to transfer her soul into plant life and even generate a new body. She is nearly impervious to physical and mental attacks, and her celestial state allows her to project her mind across the galaxy. At one point she communicates with the entities of Death and Eternity, and even holds her own in a one-on-one fight with Thanos.
She is, suffice to say, an incredibly powerful force to reckoned with, and there’s a reason she’s a valuable member of the Avengers and later the Guardians of the Galaxy. But it’s not just her cosmic powers that Gunn leaves out entirely; despite casting Klementieff, film Mantis is portrayed as knowing zero martial arts–or having any way or desire to defend herself, really–despite that being an integral part of her comic book character. Sure, it veers into stereotypical territory to have the one Asian on the team be the martial arts master, but Mantis was one of the first Asian women to be introduced with the Marvel universe with that skill-set, and she became the first ever Asian Avenger because of it.
It’s not that having an Asian as the martial artist is a problem in and of itself; it’s only a problem if the character never develops beyond the token kung fu character, and Mantis is certainly far and beyond just that. In the comics, Mantis’ martial arts informs who she is as a person, and it gives much of her story a distinctly feminist overtone. We’re first introduced to Mantis because she defends Scarlet Witch from a group of aggressive cat-callers.
In issue 323 of the 1961 Fantastic Four, Kang the Conquerer notes that even without her celestial powers, Mantis is “the sort of woman who is never helpless.” At various points, Mantis is seen taking down Thor, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Vision, and Black Panther by striking their pressure points and throwing them into a flying triangle choke, literally a move where she crushes their heads between her thighs. Sure the old comics are slapstick and silly, but in an Avengers battle royale, we can still canonically say Mantis would win.
Notably, Mantis is vocally supportive of other women, and you never get the sense that she sees any woman as competition. She warmly greets Alicia in Galactus the Devourer and encourages the young Lupe in Avengers: Celestial Quest. She has an on-off love triangle with Vision and Scarlet Witch, but Mantis is never portrayed as being catty towards Wanda, and in fact often rushes to Wanda’s aid in a fight.
Aside from being a feminist character, Mantis also subverts the tropes that female Asian characters are often saddled with. Mantis is first introduced as the companion of Swordsman, a B-grade hero turned drunkard who claims to have been reformed by Mantis’ love. At first, Mantis appears submissive and loyal to Swordsman, who fell in love with her in Vietnam when she was working as a bar girl and/or escort. It’s a very stereotypical backstory, but as Mantis becomes more comfortable in her role as an Avenger, she actively overcomes her own problematic origins. Rather than remain a passive love interest, Mantis becomes an integral teammate, one who never hesitates to spring into battle.
As she grows more self-confident, it’s Swordsman who laments that Mantis no longer pays him any attention. When he says so to her face, she quickly shuts him down. When Swordsman is mortally wounded in battle, it’s Mantis who carries him bridal style like it’s nothing. In a final subversion of what you’d expect in this Madame Butterfly-esque storyline, it’s also Swordsman who ends up dying to further Mantis’ story. Swordsman fades into obscurity and is never revived until the 2011 Chaos War: Dead Avengers run; Mantis, meanwhile, goes on to star in numerous Avengers, Fantastic Four, and Guardians of the Galaxy comics.
After the Swordsman’s death and Mantis’ time with the Avengers, she becomes the celestial Madonna, travels the universe, and eventually ends up on Peter Quill’s team. Her time spent as a part of the cosmos makes her more serene and wise, but she is no less formidable by the time she meets the Guardians. In Joe Quesada’s Guardians of the Galaxy run we see Mantis’ characterization shift, where she uses her telepathy more than her martial arts, gazes into the future, and speaks in riddles. But even then, when she’s regarded as unknowable and strange, she’s still considered a respected member of the team.
So here we have the first female Asian Avenger and indeed the only Asian Avenger until Amadeus Cho’s inclusion in 2009; a woman who defends other women and crushes men between her thighs; a highly skilled and respected martial artist who’s gone head-to-head with the male Avengers; and a near immortal who’s been singled out by Thanos as the “goddess of light.” Mantis is a powerful and respected character, and it’s important for us to see that to more fully understand how much Gunn utterly failed her.
In GOTG2, Mantis is wholly unrecognizable as the Mantis of the comics; literally none of the aforementioned backstories, powers, or characterizations are in the film. Whereas in the comics Mantis is a celestial goddess, in GOTG2 she’s simply a servant to a celestial god, Ego, Peter Quill’s father. Stripped of her powers and physical strength, we are explicitly told that Mantis is only an empath, and that she travels with Ego to “help him sleep.”
Just sit with that for a second: in the comics, Mantis is a young Asian woman who’s trained from birth as a skilled fighter, becomes an Avenger, and eventually transforms into a goddess. In the film, Mantis is an infantile, wide-eyed Asian woman who is introduced as the servant to an old white man who she calls master. The white man raises her and keeps her by his side so she can use her skills to put him to sleep. She’s clearly afraid of him, and it’s revealed that she’s never interacted with anyone outside of her master. This relationship has horrendous connotations, and it’s a wonder why Gunn completely rewrote Mantis’ backstory to include this. It’s the exact kind of demeaning Asian woman trope that comics Mantis herself avoided, so why is it in GOTG2?
Immediately we are presented with a scenario where Ego is in an incredible position of power over Mantis, and her body language mirrors those often found in abused women. Whereas comic Mantis never seemed to fear anything and turned men’s (and women’s) heads wherever she went, here film Mantis rarely makes eye contact and continuously wrings her hands. She often looks on the verge of tears, and she struggles with social interaction, often sounding more like an unsure child than an adult woman. At one point she mentions to Peter that nobody has ever asked her a question before. Drax muses that Ego must keep Mantis as a pet, an assertion that she doesn’t deny.
Unlike what we see in the comics, Mantis has little means to prevent this sort of situation from befalling her: by whittling down her powers to only sensing and shifting emotions, her skill-set becomes incredibly limited and gendered, and she’s both damseled and abused throughout the film. Mantis is entirely incapable of protecting herself in GOTG2, and worse, she doesn’t understand that she even should.
Mantis exhibits all the signs of a woman who is being mistreated, but rather than save her immediately, the Guardians simply ignore it. Excited to finally meet his father, Peter is never bothered to acknowledge Mantis or her plight in any tangible way, a marked difference from the comics where Peter goes out of his way to recruit Mantis and has a positive relationship with her. As for the rest of the Guardians, they actively participate in Mantis’ abuse: not only are their insults and violence against Mantis normalized, they’re even used for comedic effect. Each of the Guardians’ actions help to enforce an idea that film Mantis has already internalized: she is worthless.
We see this a lot in Mantis’ troubling relationship with Drax, who is the only one of the Guardians who even remotely attempts to interact with Mantis, but half of those interactions involve Drax insulting Mantis’ appearance. Mantis views Drax as her first friend, and she doesn’t seem to understand that he undercuts her self-confidence at every turn. Drax repeatedly tells Mantis she is horrifying to look at. Later, when Mantis rushes to his room in a panic to warn him about Ego’s evil plan, he automatically assumes Mantis is there for sex, to which he exaggeratedly makes retching noises about.
During the final battle Mantis rushes forward and manages to temporarily put Ego to sleep. She struggles to hold him, but rather than any of the Guardians offering any aid, Drax simply comments, “I never thought she’d be able to do it, seeing as how weak and skinny she is.” At the end of the film, Drax finally tells Mantis she’s beautiful, but then mutters, only for the audience to hear, “…on the inside.” That is literally the last line spoken in the film. Mantis becomes a punchline in the end, and Drax once again ends a Guardians of the Galaxy film by insulting a woman. (Frustratingly, this also marks the second time Drax demeans a woman with a statement that’s not literally true; essentially, Gunn defies his own canon just to throw in a misogynistic joke again.)
And then there’s the physical violence that Mantis suffers. When she meets Rocket Raccoon, Drax leads her to believe he’s his pet. When she reaches out to touch him, Raccoon snaps around and bites into her hand; she cries out, terrified, as Drax roars with laughter. Later, when Mantis reaches out to Gamora to demonstrate her empath powers, she’s immediately grabbed by the wrists and told, “Touch me, and the only thing you’re going to feel is a broken jaw.” When Gamora finally finds out the truth about Ego’s plans, she runs up to Mantis, grabs her by the throat, slams her against the wall, and tries to choke her. Gamora never apologizes for this, and we never see any follow-up to assure us that Gamora and Mantis will have any relationship beyond these moments of animosity.
In the final battle, Mantis is struck by a piece of debris, knocking her unconscious; Drax warns her to watch out after she’s already out cold. The framing of the scene tells us we’re meant to see this as hilarious, a bit of “wow, really bro” between Peter and Drax. But after a whole film of watching Mantis get knocked around and verbally abused, it hardly feels funny. It’s also difficult to accept that in a film entirely about the importance of choosing one’s own family, these people are now meant to be Mantis’. How are women, especially Asian women, supposed to feel when the protagonists they’re meant to root for act so callously towards a woman clearly in need of help?
In light of all this, it’s unsurprising that Englehart was unhappy with Mantis’ onscreen adaptation. In an interview with Polygon, Englehart said:
“Well, I was not happy with Mantis’ portrayal. That character has nothing to do with Mantis…that’s not Mantis up there. I really don’t know why you would take a character who is as distinctive as Mantis is and do a completely different character and still call her Mantis. That I do not know.”
With Mantis confirmed to be in Infinity Wars, there’s still a possibility that we’ll get the Mantis that Englehart created. In the comics she’s certainly a key player in the fight against Thanos, and as an early member of the Avengers it would make sense to elevate her importance. But it’s depressing to consider how and why Gunn dehumanized her so. Gunn actively rewrote her from a strong, independent, and respected woman into a literal servant and punching bag. He took a three dimensional Asian character and reduced her to a damaging stereotype that Asian women have fought for years to dispel. Infantilizing and demeaning an Asian woman isn’t edgy, funny, progressive, or in any way necessary to this story. Gutting the story of an empowered woman so that she can be serve the character development of the men around her just goes to show that for all it’s success, the MCU still struggles with portraying it’s female characters in meaningful ways.
In Avengers: Celestial Quest, you find out Mantis has split her essence into five different bodies, and once they are all destroyed the true Mantis appears, fully powered up once again. With luck, Infinity Wars will retcon Gunn’s writing in a similar manner. The real Mantis will show up, and we can all just quietly pretend GOTG2 never existed.