[1 August 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Hello Daddy, hello Mom
I’m your ch ch ch ch ch cherry bomb.
Hello world I’m your wild girl
I’m your ch ch ch ch ch cherry bomb.
—The Runaways, “Cherry Bomb”
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is mad. She’s got her reasons: her adoptive dad’s a monster, her maybe-half-sister’s resentful, and her mother’s nowhere in sight. Plus, with her green skin and skin-tight-suit-accented curves, she’s the sort of alien-exotic-sci-fi girl who tends to get hit on by cocky lunkheads, as happens in her first scene with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s not a surprise, exactly, that Gamora so adeptly takes out Peter Quill, who calls himself Star-Lord and fancies himself irresistible. It’s also not a surprise that their expertly choreographed combat serves as its own sort of foreplay to other acrobatic and sometimes verbal foreplay, which continues for the rest of the film, as they bond over a mission to save, you know, the galaxy, along with fellow misfits, that is, Rocket, a genetic experiment of a raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), his Chewbacca-like sidekick, Groot (Vin Diesel), and a battering ram in humanish form named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). That Gamora is The Girl in this crew marks her difference even among their differences. It also makes her the same as so many other girls in so many other movies.
That sameness is key to the formula of Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that delivers to expectations like nobody’s business. One of many comic book movies—indeed, one of many Marvel Comics movies—it does what it needs to do, offering up the usual fine effects (Star Warsy battle scenes, Groot’s face), along with a charming soundtrack (‘70s hits ranging from “Hooked on a Feeling” to I Want You Back” to “Cherry Bomb,” all, apparently, Peter Quill’s mom’s choices) and a series of wisecracky asides less interested in creating characters than gratifying viewers. It’s cute, it’s colorful, it’s cluttered.
Moreover, and despite/maybe because of its eventual focus on the multiculti team, Guardians of the Galaxy begins with a common heroic origin story, as little white human boy Peter Quill’s mom dies of cancer (but not before she tells him he’s like his dad, “an angel”) and then he’s adducted by spaceship. As origin stories go, this one is pretty traumatic, though it seems to shape Peter Quill into that cocky lunkhead who hits on Gamora 26 years later, a lunkhead with excellent plundering and fighting skills, as well as a Walkman with mix tapes from his dead mom. Peter Quill has grown up to be a Ravager, meaning, he’s a sort of Indiana Jones, stealing stuff for hire. When at the start of this episode he steals an orb of tremendous and imprecisely known powers, he makes himself a target for many who want to rule or destroy everything, including Gamora’s adoptive dad, Thanos (Josh Brolin).
Thanos is mad, too but in a way very unlike Gamora. Being a villain, he’s the sort of mad that wants to rule or destroy the galaxy. Gamora’s the sort of mad that emerges when a child begins to rebel against a parent, only more so: she’s coming to see his violence as excessive and to wonder about the morality of the missions he assigns to her, including the one to recover the orb. This makes Gamora’s anger of a different order too, than that of her maybe-half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillian), whose glowering commences as soon as you see her, resenting Thanos’ announcement that Gamora is his favorite. This sets up for another predictable element, the girl fight that will come up amid the jumble of climaxes that prolong the film’s run time.
What may be slightly less expected, though, is Gamora’s enduring elusiveness. Certainly, she fulfills the roles she must, becoming, by turns, a target of her father’s rage, a damsel in need of rescue, a love object for Peter Quill, a buddy for any of the guys. But she also remains different, a misfit even within the misfits. Like Rocket and Groot, she’s a product of remaking, shaped by Thanos as a Bourne-like assassin. Before that, she was the only survivor of an attack that wiped out her race, the Zen-Whoberi, and left her scarred in any number of ways. “I’ve lived most of my life surrounded by my enemies,” she says. That seems about right.
Many of her scars are visible on Gamora’s cheeks and forehead, though not directly discussed by anyone. The movie, however, makes a point to show her scars, repeatedly, with shadows that accentuate the damage, close-ups that draw your attention to her ever fierce face. So yes, she’s mad, like everyone else in Guardians of the Galaxy. But where you see Peter Quill’s trauma, listen to Rocket’s frequent complaints about his laboratory genesis (“I didn’t ask to get made!”), and you hear a sad story about Drax’s horrific loss, the film offers few details about Gamora’s background (it does offer one brilliant, standalone moment, when the inevitable slow-motion shot of the heroes striding into battle comes, she yawns). Gamora’s story is her face, the scars and the fierceness.
This story might have to do with the obliteration of her race. It might be connected to her bad dad. It might be related to all the dead moms and wives who haunt boy heroes in comic book movies. Or maybe it has to do with all those many years of images of exotic women, green and blue, voluptuous and sinuous, dancing and desiring. It might even have something to do with “Cherry Bomb.” Whatever it’s about, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t quite tell it.