A few too many members of the ensemble cast of Army of the Dead — Zack Snyder‘s colorful, epic zombie heist movie now streaming on Netflix — register as largely generic. For instance, Raúl Castillo’s Mikey Guzman is meant to be a pastiche on cocky YouTubers right down to his overly formal wear in a zombie quarantine zone, but beyond his influencer exterior Guzman never takes off as his own character. Similarly, Ella Purnell‘s Kate Ward is simply a “daughter with daddy issues,” filling a predefined role we’ve seen onscreen dozens of times.
But that doesn’t mean everyone in this cast is just a carbon copy of other figures in pop culture. Case in point: Tig Notaro’s expert pilot Marianne Peters.
Notaro is impressionable from her very first scene, and from that moment on she’s got a candor that serves as an amusing contrast to everyone else in the movie. Dave Bautista’s Scott Ward dresses up the central heist mission as a grandiose way of “doing something for ourselves” while the man who organized this heist, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), has, of course, hidden motivations for asking a crew to enter zombie-infested Las Vegas.
There’s no such duplicity when it comes to Peters. From the get-go, she’s upfront about her crummy job at an airstrip, her desire to score some cash, and what a calamity her life is right now. Unlike everyone else Ward recruits for this mission, Peters doesn’t even want to know the details of this assignment. She insists that Ward keep these details under wraps. Peters exists in her world and she doesn’t want any information that could disrupt that and bring her back to reality.
All that matters to this character is that there’s money at the end of this blood-drenched rainbow. She’s self-serving, obviously, but the way she makes no apologies for simply being herself is so entertaining. Notaro establishes such a lived-in quality to her character, it’s like Peters came out of the womb rocking shades and a detached aura. In a montage of colorful characters getting recruited for certain zombie doom, Peters immediately establishes herself as the one person you want to see more of.
Of course, Marianne Peters isn’t a totally original creation. Peters exists in the grand tradition of cocky blockbuster characters who seemingly look out only for themselves but secretly have a heart of gold, a mold memorably inhabited by the iconic Han Solo. You’d quickly lose count trying to get an exact number of the variations big-budget movies have delivered on this persona, but there are qualities in Army of the Dead that help ensure Peters is no simple clone of past incarnations, namely that she’s played by Tig Notaro.
Co-writer/director Zack Snyder has made the wise decision to have Notaro basically play a variation on her stand-up comic persona. It’s why eschewing a tragic backstory for Peters makes a lot of sense. The reason the character acts the way she does is because Notaro has turned this kind of personality into an artform.
In the field of stand-up, Notaro has refined the art of deadpan while delivering her observations on subjects ranging wildly from cats to children to even just moving around a stool on stage. All the while, she maintains a steady eye that humorously juxtaposes with the situations she’s talking about. That demeanor is brought over to this zombie action movie fully intact.
It’s all the more impressive considering that Notaro shot almost all of her scenes by herself against a green screen, digitally inserted into the movie during post-production as a result of being cast in a role that was previously played by Chris D’Elia. He was in this particular role for the duration of principal photography, but was cut from the film once allegations about him engaging in lewd behavior with minors surfaced. It’s a testament to Snyder that he not only acted swiftly to replace D’Elia, but did so with someone like Notaro.
Indeed, how many times have women in general been allowed to inhabit a character like this? In the world of blockbusters, women have largely been relegated to either love interests, sex objects, or some mixture of the two — almost always someone who needs saving. Marianne Peters, meanwhile, waltzes into a scene very clearly being defined by only herself. She doesn’t need a man or even any other character to help shed light on who she is or help her through this zombie wasteland — she’s got the kind of cavalier confidence and worldview usually reserved for male characters in these types of movies.
While we’ll never know for sure what D’Elia’s performance in this part was like, we can probably take a guess. Put simply, it would have looked like a lot of other self-serving side characters we’ve seen in blockbusters before. A cis-het white guy with a laidback but detached worldview taking on this part would have just turned the original version of Peters into the most generic character in Army of the Dead’s cast. Instead, she’s now a standout.
Though she wasn’t originally set to be a part of this film, luck smiled over Army of the Dead by ensuring Notaro could take over the role. Not only did she inherently break new ground for what kinds of people could inhabit certain archetypes, but the character of Peters was perfect for Notaro’s masterfully crafted style of deadpan comedy. There are plenty of principal players to keep track of during the runtime of Army of the Dead but Notaro makes sure you’ll never forget about the movie’s best character, Marianne Peters.
The new animated series reveals how and why the Empire phased out the Clone Army.
About The Author