We Need to Talk About Avengers: Infinity War’s Treatment of Mantis
And the MCU's.
Avengers: Infinity War is a film up to its eyeballs in superheroes. In fact, there are superheroes of almost every variety: the technologically advanced, the genetically modified, the masters of magic, and even a god or two. That said, one can’t really be angry that Mantis, the newest member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, didn’t have many lines of dialogue. Though, one can certainly be disappointed with what she said in those limited lines, particularly the way in which she underestimated her own empathic abilities.
During the course of the film, Iron Man, Star-Lord, Spider-Man, Nebula, Doctor Strange, Drax, and Mantis find themselves on Titan, Thanos’s home planet. It’s about the most unlikely group of superheroes—some Avengers, some Guardians, and, um, Doctor Strange—but the team works quite well. Together, they devise a plan to take down Thanos by relying on the individual strength of each character. It really wasn’t a bad plan, as Doctor Strange’s mystical arts, Spider-Man’s web shooters, and Mantis’s empathic ability confused, overwhelmed, and disabled Thanos enough so that Tony Stark was this close to taking the gauntlet. That is, until Star-Lord went and did the thing that Star-Lord did. But Star-Lord has always been a charming screwup, so it’s unfair to hold the annihilation of half the galaxy against a personality trait the audience already knew he had.
Anyway, Mantis. We need to talk about Mantis.
In the plot to take down Thanos, Mantis’s empathic ability may, in fact, be the single most integral superpower. It’s Mantis’s ability to subdue Thanos that finally, for the first time in the entire film, makes him vulnerable. Without Mantis, it’s likely that the combined power of the others wouldn’t have stood a chance next to Thanos. With Mantis, this ragtag group almost pulled off the impossible. What’s troubling about this scene is that, of all the characters present, it’s only Mantis who voices doubt in her ability.
Mantis’s self-doubt is hidden in seemingly throwaway lines, but it’s definitely there in the way she says Thanos is too strong and worries that she won’t be able to control him very long. It’s a line already communicated to the audience through Pom Klementieff’s performance, the struggle evident in her expression. The line feels superfluous at best, and at worst, it feels sexist. Why should it be Mantis who comments on the strength of Thanos?
This isn’t the only time Mantis has specifically mentioned the power of her opponent or doubted herself against said power, either. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Mantis’s emphatic ability is, once again, essential to the gang’s plan to take down the villain. In the showdown against Star-Lord’s father, Ego, who is a celestial being, it’s Mantis’s ability to put Ego to sleep that ultimately saves the day, as it buys enough time for Groot to plant a bomb in Ego’s core. Yet, Mantis hesitates because she says Ego is too powerful. It’s only after Drax tells Mantis that she doesn’t have to believe in herself because he believes in her that Mantis successful attempts to put Ego to sleep. This scene actually gets even more problematic, as a stunned Drax says he didn’t really think Mantis would be able to do it because she’s weak and skinny.
Mantis’s doubt in her abilities feels like the MCU’s equivalent to women in the workplace prefacing their input with “sorry,” or “I think,” or “maybe,” or presenting their ideas as questions. Studies have shown that women using these undermining phrases and unnecessary apologies can project a lack of confidence, which may ultimately result in employers and coworkers losing their confidence in said employee. This certainly seems to be the case with Mantis, as audiences don’t necessarily view her as a very powerful character in the MCU. She’s even been dubbed as “useless,” yet she’s never been useless. Her power is literally necessary in both films in which she appears, even if Star-Lord messes things up in Infinity War. So, it may be Mantis’s doubt in herself that, in turn, makes audiences view her character as useless when she’s anything but.
In comparison, there are very few fans who would consider Iron Man useless, and that may be because his language is rarely self-doubting or of a negative, losing tone. In the Thanos scene, Iron Man does physically struggle, but he doesn’t say Thanos is too strong. Instead, Iron Man simply asks Spider-Man for backup, which has a positive, can-do spin, especially in comparison to Mantis’s comment. Similar to the employee-employer dynamic in the workplace, the language specific heroes use can certainly play a major role in how audiences view them.
Curiously, and perhaps fortunately, Mantis is the only female character in the MCU who consistently doubts her strength. Gamora, Okoye, Black Widow, and Scarlett Witch rarely, if ever, doubt themselves when faced with a villain. This seeming insecurity is a character trait belonging specifically to Mantis, but why? Why her? In every scene in which Mantis employs her powers, especially against the strongest being in the universe, Thanos, and the literal planet Ego, her abilities work as well as one could hope they would work. So, what’s with all her self-doubt?
It sticks out even more considering her insecurity isn’t rooted in her comic book counterpart. In the comic books, Mantis is highly skilled in martial arts, with powers of energy projection, astral projection, accelerated healing, and the empathic abilities we’ve seen onscreen. Comic book Mantis portrays a determined personality and consistently defends other female characters. For whatever reason, the MCU rendition of Mantis stripped her of all physical ability and fiery personality, opting to introduce Mantis to a subservient character, abused by Ego for her singular power.
It’s not too surprising that, in an interview with Polygon, Steve Englehart, who penned Mantis’s comic book rendition, said, “Well, I was not happy with Mantis’ portrayal … That character has nothing to do with Mantis. I will say that I liked the film [Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2] quite a bit overall, they’re doing good stuff and I enjoyed my night at the movies so long as I turned my brain off to the fact that 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.”
In speculating as to why Mantis’s MCU incarnation has been so watered down, especially evident in her insecurity, screenwriters James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (Avengers: Infinity War) may have felt that Mantis’s lack of confidence served some kind of narrative purpose. But if so, what was the narrative purpose? If it was to remind audiences that the villains are strong—which, duh—did that line of dialogue really need to fall to a female character?
Another option, and perhaps most concerning, is that the male screenwriters absentmindedly penned Mantis’s seemingly throwaway lines of dialogue after being conditioned by lifetimes of hearing women underestimate themselves or apologize for their own abilities in the workplace. The screenwriters may have written Mantis’s lines thinking, simply and instinctively, that this is how women speak because it’s how they’ve heard women speak. Although, these are also the same men who have written lines for Gamora and Black Widow, so it seems to be a Mantis-specific issue rather than a female character issue.
Whether intentional or unintentional, Mantis’s consistent self-doubt is problematic. Women and young girls deserve role female models who don’t underestimate themselves in any capacity. Sorry, not sorry.
Veronica is a freelance writer. Her work appears on sites such as Bust, HelloGiggles, InStyle, xoJane and others. She firmly believes Sansa Stark deserves the Iron Throne, and she’s dealing with the fact that it probably won’t go that way. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
(image: Marvel Entertainment)
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