Honestly, it feels like such a futile task talking about Max Landis. The screenwriter behind films such as American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein seems to have carved out a handy side gig on Twitter as a semi-professional troll, only without the self-awareness or wit. To even talk about him is to incur his unwanted interjections into your conversations, as he searches his own name on the site to ensure that your thoughts never go unwatched. Why bother having a chat amongst friends or colleagues on his awful work and nasty attitude towards women when he can just search for you, retweet you to his fans — who exist — and set you up for a barrage of trolls, attacks and the occasional bout of misogyny?
Yet his continuing presence in both the film world and pop culture criticism at large is something that undeniably warrants further analysis. After all, when you get paid $3m for a script despite lacking any commercial hits as a writer in several years, then have the tenacity to dictate the merit of prominent female characters in more successful material while attacking critics as the true enemy, there’s something important at play there that should be understood. And so we find ourselves back in his unappealing headspace, one where women seldom seem to be people.
The latest focus of Landis’s critical eye is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, particularly the relationship between Gamora and Peter Quill. It is utterly incomprehensible to Max why the pair would keep their feelings secret or not act upon them, and “the only reason” he can come up with “is that Gamora like… maybe doesn’t have a vagina or something?”
Remember, $3m for End of Watch with orcs. And also he’s writing the Pepe le Pew film.
Landis’s attitude towards women is no secret amongst those in the know. Check out a now infamous interview where he bragged about the “chicks” whose legs “will open up a lot quicker” because he’s a director, as well as the woman he gaslit into social anxiety and body issues, not to mention his disdain for “chicks who haven’t figured out their orgasms.” His confusion around the Schrodinger’s Cat of vaginas suddenly makes a lot of sense.
This led to some Twitter criticisms, of course, including some from yours truly, which he gamely found and shared with his own followers, before attacking other critics, including Jason Bailey of Flavorwire, who he tried to have disciplined by tweeting at his editor. If he wants to do that with every critic who thinks he’s awful, he’s going to need to get out the rolodex.
There’s a whole thesis to be written on Landis and his repeatedly ludicrous criticisms of women in film, from Rey the supposed Mary Sue to the accused lack of an emotional core in Arrival, but we shall stick with Gamora and Peter for now. Guardians of the Galaxy is a series with nostalgia built into its core. From the music to the 80s era Harrison Ford inspired persona of Chris Pratt’s Quill, James Gunn’s films are rooted in their use of that most potent of emotional triggers for its target audience. Nostalgia can be an unreliable crutch, but when the Guardians movies are firing on all cylinders, they capture a vibrant essence that simultaneously works as homage and reinvention. It’s a Goonies-style story of oddballs against the world with a 21st century franchise twist.
Now, after establishing that familiar dynamic in the age-old “the gang comes together” foundations, we get the new shades to the inter-personal relationships within the Guardians. Gamora and Peter are a familiar dynamic in pop culture. The subtext was established, and now Star-Lord wants it to be full-on text. He’s the roguish charmer with the occasional case of foot-in-mouth; she’s the rigid and more serious figure with big responsibilities and less tolerance for buffoonery. You don’t need to be a retro guru to see the parallels with Sam and Diane in Cheers. Hell, the film points it out for us. Peter tries to describe his feelings for Gamora to her with the metaphor of the sitcom’s long-running on-off romance, which greatly confuses Gamora: “I don’t know what Cheers is.” Well used nostalgia relies on audience awareness, and in this case the joke lands harder because we have a greater awareness than Peter himself. He wasn’t around on earth when Cheers ended, so he never got to see the conclusion of Sam and Diane’s relationship. It’s a great romantic metaphor for him, but it’s a cracking reference for the rest of us, and one that adds a new shade to Peter’s outlook on life - the space cowboy who never got to see Unforgiven, the dashing charmer whose idealized childhood relationships ended worse than he realizes.
Yes, will-they-won’t-they relationships in pop culture can be tiresome, and there’s always the fear of the Moonlighting curse kicking in once they do get together, but the skill required to create a truly effective and even-handed romantic relationship in fiction cannot be overstated. Too often, the woman is simply a prize to be won, or we don’t buy the chemistry, or the obstacles to their love are ineffective. That’s not the issue with Peter and Gamora. Both are natural loners who have a history of family strife, and Gamora’s upbringing would probably be detrimental in her personal growth. Trusting people is hard enough without the weight of trauma on your shoulders. Of course, there’s also a lot of pleasure to be derived from a drawn-out courtship. Any romance reader worth their salt can point to countless novels where the build-up was more satisfying to read about than the sex. Is it so inconceivable that viewers might enjoy the Peter-Gamora banter, or appreciate the emotional barriers both need to break down before they can be together, if they ever choose to do so?
The chances are that Max is currently reading this, so I want to expand upon a tweet I sent last night that seemed to make him upset. I called Landis “the Hollywood representation of the Trump era, whether we like it or not”, and I would like to explain myself there with a few observations.
A screenwriter who is consistently paid highly and awarded major industry opportunities despite a lack of commercial and critical clout to justify it; a product of nepotism who insists his father’s name had nothing to do with his success; a rampant Tweeter who constantly searches for criticism of himself to share to his loyal supporters, particularly picking on writers doing their jobs; a misogynist who cannot conceive of women as anything beyond fuck toys or Mary Sues who obsesses over women more powerful and capable than himself; an ideologically mess of false equivalences that invokes alt-right language to attack women; and a walking representation of white male privilege who is afforded multiple second chances while women and people of colour languish on first base, waiting their turn.
Seems pretty clear to me.
Landis is hardly the bad seed of Hollywood. He is merely a particularly odious representation of an industry that has never treated women especially well. His success is but one symptom of a wider and increasingly toxic problem. Being a critic, and a woman, pointing this out will probably not do me any favours, because ultimately Landis has set up people like me as a roadblock to his success, one rooted in unfairness that he can simply put a target on and call ‘attack’. This will simply be accused of yet another critical conspiracy against the perpetual underdog, while his repeated misogyny and attempt to have a critic fired a mere quirk in his personality. Women’s fears of the men who will hurt them, especially in an industry where those of us in the critical sphere are routinely attacked for something as benign as disliking a superhero movie, are dismissed because we’re painted as “narcissist hypersensitive trigger warning sjws”. So for every man who will inevitably end up in my Twitter mentions demanding answers to this piece, I simply ask this: Why wouldn’t we be weary of someone who sees hesitation to entering a relationship as a sign that they’re lacking in genitalia?
Grab them by the pussy, or maybe they don’t even have one. Neither option inspires hope.
To Landis’s credit, he did seem to take time to learn from this Gamora episode. It would be nice if that continued, because frankly, we need all the education we can get right now.
The best answer that I got on the Gamora thing is that Gamora isn't that interested and feels a little harassed and pressured by Quill.— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) May 8, 2017