Captain Marvel's a Historic Movie, but I Wish the History Was a Little Messier
The perfectly good 'Captain Marvel' glances against an opportunity to be great.
The problem with making so few woman-led tentpole genre movies is that nerdy women feel immense pressure to love the ones we get.
Any woman who loves superheroes knows that the male fanbase will react to Marvel’s first female protagonist in the same way they did with Star Wars’ first young female Jedi protagonist, or Ghostbusters’ all-female ghost hunting team: with skepticism, some with annoyance, and others with rage.
If you are a woman who loves superhero media, and you derive some kind of personal encouragement or even empowerment from it, you’ve already found the characters you can relate to in comic books. If that’s the case, and you identify with Emma Frost from X-Men or Shuri from Wakanda, you can feel either way about their cinematic adaptations and nothing changes.
All Captain Marvel had to do was tell Carol Danvers’ story — she’s an intergalactic hero with a soft spot for her cat — and sprinkle it with some MCU-branded comedic relief and a few moments of emotional resonance. It does technically check a lot of boxes, most of the dialogue feels natural, and even the set pieces impress. There’s nothing technically wrong with Brie Larson’s performance as Carol, especially considering the Oscar-winning actress is trapped on all sides by the character’s amnesia. She can’t commit to any big reactions or characterizations because Carol’s personality is being rewritten in real-time as she pieces together her memories. Still, even keeping all that in mind, it’s disappointing to see Larson act on eggshells and ultimately come off as disengaged.
"Why couldn’t she have started her story as a hothead?
Carol does end up a serious, reserved female soldier in the MCU, but why couldn’t she have started her story as a hothead, or self-centered, or cavalier about others’ needs? Female characters, just like male characters, must be allowed their quirks and flaws, especially in the first act of their origin stories. Imagine how boring the Iron Man trilogy would have been if Tony had started his story as everyone’s honorable father figure.
Unfortunately, though Carol Danvers is a sophisticated character in Marvel comic books — playing one role in the Civil War II arc and another in Marvel’s all female comic, A-Force — her big movie removes all her unique quirks and dulls her into the lowest-common-denominator amalgamation of what power means to women.
Captain Marvel is a ‘90s period film, so I don’t think anyone would have balked at Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck focusing on the feminism of that era. Nineties-era third wave feminism spawned ideas that are still popular today — transfeminism, sex positivity, post-modern and post-structuralism, and intersectionality with class, race, and disability.
But Captain Marvel doesn’t touch on any of those themes; weirder still, the script doesn’t touch on any wave of feminism at all. At least, not directly. There are two moments where characters imply Carol (Brie Larson) can’t do something solely because she’s a woman — her fellow pilot trainee and Jude Law’s Kree character, and Carol ends both conversations by punching the dudes in the face. The conversation never gets any more nuanced than “you can’t fight, fly, race cars, whatever, because you’re a girl,” and Carol knocks them out.
Now that’s not to say Captain Marvel needed Carol to debate these characters in order to make the movie more clearly feminist. All the film needed was a little more reflection on gender between Carol and the women in her life. She needed what every ‘90s straight man character in an action comedy needed: a foil. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) does a perfectly fine job in the role, loosening up Carol on occasion and giving her someone to trade wisecracks with, but it’s 2019, and this is Marvel’s first woman-driven movie. Why not give Carol a punchy woman sidekick, or a woman villain as captivating as Hela (Cate Blanchett) was in Ragnarok? The funny thing about representation is that we’ve already seen a million no-nonsense “badass” female characters in genre movies — we don’t have enough well-meaning female screw-ups like Ant-Man or selfish playgirls like Iron Man.
There’s something beautiful at work when Captain Marvel hints at the little trifecta Carol built with her best friend and mentor, but the script is still missing a few moments of reflection. We just assume Carol bonded with Maria (a standout Lashana Lynch) and their mentor (Annette Bening) because they were the only women in their squadron, but the characters never have a scene where they talk about it. It’s all glanced at via flashback or quickly explained in dialogue, but the emotional fact of their connection is rarely exposed on screen. It’s as if we never actually saw Wonder Woman on Themyscira and only heard her refer to it a few times.
Also present in all the flashbacks and little snippets of dialogue is the fact that Carol’s womanhood has been an obstacle in very specific situations. She’s been told that she cannot be brave, fast, clear-headed, effective, and strong. Here, the movie feels a lot like Captain America, Marvel’s other story about a hero who wants nothing more than to be a brave soldier. But, the cool thing about Cap’s origin story is that being a soldier and taking orders is eventually revealed to be a bad thing in his narrative arc. Iron Man tells him this all the time.
Because Steve starts out scrawny, he’s told he can’t be brave, fast, strong, etc., and when he transforms himself, he realizes that those skills don’t mean anything unless you’re fighting to end the fight.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to experience the emotional fallout with Carol when she realizes what the Kree are. She’s not allowed even a moment of weakness; when she tears up, Maria tells her to snap out of it and throws those buzzwords at her (you’re strong, you’re powerful), and she has to move on. Meanwhile, Cap got two whole films for those emotions (Winter Soldier and Civil War), and he still hasn’t recovered from losing the ethical framework he had in S.H.I.E.L.D. and the US Army.
It doesn’t say much about Marvel’s feminism that multiple male characters have wrestled with the idea of heroism and come out with a bunch of interesting, different solutions, but its first female protagonist’s arc looks like this:
Act One: I’m learning to punch people well.
Act Two: Oh no, I was told to punch the wrong people!
[Why doesn’t she ever question the idea of punching people in the first place??]
Act Three: I will now punch the right people, way harder than before.
Of course, people will say, “Oh it’s a superhero movie, and that’s how superheroes solve problems. She’s just acting according to the rules of the genre,” but ignoring those rules is what makes other female heroes like Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Shuri, and Storm interesting. They each experience an initial high when they receive physical power through a training program, or mutant genes, or high-powered weaponry, but quickly, another purpose takes hold. Also important: None of these heroines lose what made them unique characters before their powers arrived. So what do we even know about Carol?
If you put Captain Marvel in the context of just the women in the Marvel universe, as the comic A-Force does, you realize that she’s the most militant, the most stoic, and (you could argue) the least interesting. Not because she’s a badly written character, but because she operates like the straight man in Marvel’s female lineup.
Carol is kind of the Superman of Marvel’s all-female team. She’s ultra-powerful, Caucasian, classically attractive, and neither plagued by a dark secret or conflicted about her mission. The A-Force comic is mature enough in its feminism that the team around Carol includes a couple plucky underdogs, a sexy maternal kind of figure, some disaffected teens, comic relief, etc.
By erasing most of the women who typically appear around Captain Marvel in her movie, including her Banshee Squad from her origin comics, we’re left with the basic archetype on which the other heroines are riffing.
We can’t even deduce what she likes and dislikes from her own damn movie. When do we see her experiencing joy in Captain Marvel? I guess in the flashback when she’s singing karaoke with Maria (notice we have no idea what song it was) and in photographs where she’s playing with Maria’s daughter.
Otherwise, her emotional range stretches from vaguely amused to stilted and stiff to bluntly frustrated. She wears a Nine Inch Nails shirt because it was hanging at a thrift shop; she wears American colors on her uniform because Maria’s daughter picks them; and she fights in a war after essentially being drafted. They even took her freaking cat from the comics and gave it to Fury! In the movie, Carol never reacts to Goose at all!
Jude Law tells her a couple times that emotions (and also humor?) are a warrior’s greatest weakness, but Carol never really proves him right or wrong. She kind of just chooses anger and dials it up a lot.
In a montage set to Nirvana’s “Come as You Are,” we see that Carol has always fought to excel at male-coded activities, alongside other men, by proving that her abilities match theirs. To illustrate how this is a boring (and ultimately flawed) way to look at feminism, I have to commit a cardinal feminist sin and compare one woman to two other women.
Think about how Daenerys in Game of Thrones says she’s disinterested in the “wheel” of patriarchal power dynamics. Dany assess the game of thrones as it’s been played by men for centuries in Westeros, and she chooses which rules by which she wants to play. We learn by watching her that she values candor in her advisors and she likes people who reject narratives assigned to them, either by their lineage, or their physical stature, or their race. She’s not a fan of forcing anyone to do anything, and she doesn’t like politics, bureaucracy, or deceit.
In 2017’s Wonder Woman, Diana does the same thing. She assesses “man’s world” from the outside and decides what she values in it: babies, ice cream, monogamy, snow, music. Diana does not like politics, bureaucracy, men hiring women as personal assistants, or technology as weaponry. (Themyscira pours its technology into medicine, and that’s why its warriors use outdated defense-based weaponry.)
"Carol is like a rat in a maze designed by men.
Meanwhile, this MCU version of Carol is like a rat in a maze designed by men. She does figure the maze out and get the cheese (her binary powers), but as she stands there wielding it, part of the audience is cringing, thinking, “That’s it? She’s a super powerful soldier who can fly, so does that mean she won?”
If all of Marvel’s origin stories ended where Carol’s does, Cap would still work as a S.H.I.E.L.D. drone, Thor would have died protecting Asgard from Hela, T’Challa would have just given up after Erik defeated him in ritual combat, and Ant-Man would have taken his check from Hank Pym and walked away.
All of Marvel’s other protagonists, all of them men, spend the first acts of their stories learning to succeed within the terms life gave them. Their first narrative obstacle is not having their superhuman abilities or gadgets, then they receive them, and act three begins when they realize the game was rigged in the first place.
"Being a woman has never been Carol’s weakness, but it’s also not an asset.
Captain Marvel does realize that she’s on the wrong side of the Kree-Skrull war, but she doesn’t learn anything personal from this turning point. She redirects her powers and becomes an armed bodyguard for refugees instead of a militant occupier. By the end of her movie, it’s clear that being a woman has never been Carol’s weakness, but it’s also not an asset.
Whereas Wonder Woman reminded audiences that the rising of women is the rising of the human race, Captain Marvel ultimately tells young women that if we stop crying, fight harder, press down on the gas pedal, and refuse to make excuses, we too can scare bad guys away.
Neither argument is harmful per se, but Diana’s allows for a wider range of emotions, objectives, and personalities in a diverse game of superheroes. Carol’s just feels like more of the same.