As the Marvel Cinematic Universe chugs along, we’re introduced to more characters from the Marvel Universe — usually of the “obscure” variety. Against all odds, 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy made household names out of Star-Lord, Groot, and the rest of their space-faring outlaw teammates. If you can get people onboard with a talking tree of all things, you know you’re onto something good. This week, moviegoers seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will make the acquaintance of yet another oddity from Marvel lore: Mantis, the Celestial Madonna.
Strap into the Milano, because this one’s a doozy.
Mantis first appeared in The Avengers #112 (June 1973), created there by Steve Englehart and Don Heck. When we meet her, Mantis is a mysterious (and telepathic) martial artist affiliated with recurring Avengers villain Swordsman. We soon learn that she’s actually responsible for him making a heel-face turn, and together, they join the Avengers.
Also, she’s the Celestial Madonna.
I know, I know. Celestial Madonna?
Twenty-one issues after her first appearance, Mantis’ origin story begins in Avengers #123. As we start to learn in that issue, Mantis is the daughter of a German soldier, Gustav Brandt, and a Vietnamese woman who fell in love with him while stationed in the country. When violence tore the couple apart, Brandt fled to a nearby temple with a young Mantis in tow, where they were taken in by a group of monks who trained them to fight.
On her eighteenth birthday, Mantis’ memories were wiped for reasons unbeknownst to her, replaced by false ones in their stead, and she’s separated from her father.
It’s not until Giant-Size Avengers #2 some months later when Mantis is first addressed as “Madonna,” by Kang the Conquerer. From there, it gets… complicated. I’ll do my best to paraphrase…
The monks who raised Mantis were actually Kree pacifists from the planet Hala who took it upon themselves to protect the few surviving Cotati —an alien race of plant-like people also from their homeworld— when warfare and cosmic tensions stranded them on Earth. They believed Mantis would grow up to become the “Celestial Madonna” and mate with the eldest Cotati, saving their dwindling race from extinction.
Upon learning her fate, Mantis married the aforementioned elder —while possessing the body of a deceased Swordsman— and bid the Avengers farewell as they went off into space together. Well, sorta. There’s a whole other wrinkle about body and soul separation, which… don’t worry about it, okay? She eventually does give birth to the Celestial Messiah, Sequoia. You should know that.
And that’s not even mentioning how Mantis traveled to the DC universe. When Englehart left Marvel Comics for DC, he managed to take Mantis with him. Kinda.
You see, he couldn’t legally continue the adventures of Mantis elsewhere, so his solution? Give her a new name, different appearance, and avoid referencing her past in detail. In Englehart’s Justice League of America #142, a mysterious green-skinned woman calling herself Willow appears. While it’s not outright said to be Mantis, she retains the character’s unique speech pattern of referring to herself as “This-One,” and declines to talk about where she came from. She later shows up in Englehart comics published by Eclipse and Image, but is never actually referred to as “Mantis” — we just kinda know it’s her.
(Please don’t ask me how Mantis traveled between fictional multiverses during this time, because I don’t know and neither does anybody else. It’s comics. Go along with it.)
And that’s pretty much it for Mantis’ origin story. In later years, her skin turned green, she grew antennae, and gained telepathic powers — likely because of her ties to the Cotati people.
She’d later join the all-new Guardians of the Galaxy in Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s popular revival of the title in 2008, serving as a stalwart member of the team. While she didn’t play much of a part in Bendis’ 2013 — 2017 run, incoming Guardians writer Gerry Duggan has suggested Mantis will show up again, possibly on a full-time basis.
I highly doubt much (if any) of that will actually show up in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but I would be surprised if the Celestial Madonna stuff is set up for future instalments — probably with some major adjustments made, obviously.
This version of the character (played by French actress Pom Klementieff) is apparently a straight-up alien with empathy powers and antennae when we meet her, which is probably for the best. “Alien with antennae who can sense your feelings” is a lot more accessible than “well you see, she might be the Celestial Madonna which means she’ll one day bear the child of a plant person to save their race from dying out and the Avengers got involved?”