Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a family affair, building its action around an unexpected reunion between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his outsized father, Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), but the superhero feature also makes room for another fraught familial relationship: the estranged bond between Nebula (Karen Gillan), the purple-skinned, half-cyborg and her green-skinned sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana).
The sisters’ thorny relationship was framed with some large-scale action in Gunn’s 2014 Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. The new film casts it in a different light, one that doesn’t hinge on the two of them kicking the crap out of each other in skintight suits (though that happens, too). The pair reunite early in the film, and as the narrative winds on they are required to be more open and honest with each other — mainly about why Nebula hates Gamora so much, and what kind of future bond the pair could ever hope to have, if any.
It’s a storyline that dovetails neatly with Peter’s own family problems, but this subplot — an emotional one, about imperfect people who make some huge mistakes and hurt each other in the process — plays out between two women, and that makes it feel very different.
It also highlights one of the more glaring misconceptions about the kinds of female characters that should populate movies. In a time when more representation and true diversity are needed more than ever, women have to be “strong” to be compelling and must fit the tired “strong female character” archetype to get recognition.
“There’s just a great array of women in [“Guardians Vol. 2″], and different types of women,” Gillan recently told IndieWire. “Yes, there are females in big action, sci-fi movies, but we were sort of in danger of them becoming stereotypical in the sense that they’re ‘badass’ and ‘super strong’ and ‘sexy.'”
Nebula and Gamora are the most obvious, but “Vol. 2” also introduces new female characters like the innocent Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), and the Ravager Aleta (Michelle Yeoh), while adding closer looks at returning co-stars like Peter’s mother Meredith (Laura Haddock) and Glenn Close’s Nova Prime.
In particular, Nebula offers a refreshing alternative to what has become the stereotypical “strong female character.” She’s a wounded warrior with issues to spare, an emotionally damaged villain who is not “likable.” But that doesn’t mean she’s not a rich or realized character.
“The thing that attracted me to playing the role was this exact aspect of the character,” she said when asked about Nebula’s complex emotions. “Why is she a villain? What happened to her? How awful was that? What’s her relationship with her sister?”
Her favorite scene features the estranged sisters coming to terms with some of the horrific abuses their father inflicted. It’s pretty heavy stuff for a superhero movie, but one that allowed both Gillan and Saldana to tap into the kind of personal pain and deep honesty that often isn’t afforded to so-called strong characters.
That a blockbuster makes room for an entire subplot about the bond between sisters is refreshing on its own; that it pushes them both to explore emotional wounds in a rooted way is even more original and exciting. You can put reality and real emotions into these films — turns out, emotional veracity is a good thing — and that has to include women and women’s stories.
Nebula’s character is more than a collection of buzzwords, and that’s exactly what these highly visible female characters need. “Strong” means compelling or potent, passionate or vivid; it’s not about placing more weight on being buff than being bright.
Gillan, who infamously embraced Nebula from the get-go, shaving off her own hair and digging into months of hardcore training to prepare for the first film, is more than happy to use the character and the film to battle those kinds of expectations.
“That’s almost become a thing that you have to do, when really there are different types of strength and different types of women,” she said. “Some women need to find their strengths, and I think that in this movie, you see [those] different types of women.”
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC’s Extended Universe struggle to craft multi-faceted female characters to fill their ranks, there are some heartening options on the horizon, including this summer’s “Wonder Woman” and the long-planned “Captain Marvel” feature. Both characters offer opportunities for their respective films to tap into more complex emotions and stories – Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel is rife with emotional complications and one hell of a dark streak, while marketing for “Wonder Woman” has hinted at a painful past taking center stage in the story.
The question now is if those films — and others that will surely be inspired by them — will bank on high-energy fighting scenes over more intimate emotional explorations. But why not both?
“It’s like people think, ‘Oh, we’re going to do the right thing by making a female strong,’ when really, that’s almost as bad in itself,” Gillan said. “There has to be a selection. There has to be more than one archetype.”
Just “strong”? That’s not strong enough anymore.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens on Friday, May 5.