Has there been a superhero that fans insist has more to prove than Captain Marvel? Despite not exactly being less well-known to the casual moviegoer than Captain America, Spider-Man, or the Incredible Hulk, Captain Marvel, through no fault of her own, has become the newest battleground for cinema’s soul. On the one side, there’s the right of women to be treated as equals in superhero-dom, to have their own narratives and arcs rather than being secondary characters in a man’s quest for glory; on the other, there’s the mewling of men who still tack “No Girls Allowed” on their treehouses and see any advances toward equality as a step to making them obsolete, a violent assault on their childhoods, their personhoods, and their masculinity. No single film or hero should have as many demands put on her as Captain Marvel and yet, here we are. Can she prove herself?
Captain Marvel opens on Hala, the capital planet of the Kree people, where Vers (Brie Larson) is training with her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). She’s a powerful warrior haunted by dreams of an older woman (Annette Bening), and having difficulty controlling her impulse to blast her mentor with photon rays. The Kree are at war with the shape-shifting Skrulls, and during an undercover mission to rescue a fellow Kree, the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) captures Vers. Subjected to a memory probe, Vers begins to uncover some of her past, and in an ensuing battle gets blasted to Earth, where she’s been told the Skrulls are planning an invasion to recover a light-speed engine. She runs into Nick Fury (a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), and has to fight the Skrull menace while uncovering the truth behind her identity.
Brie Larson, of course, is the one on whom the most weight falls, and it’s no surprise that she bears up under it quite well. Her Vers (eventually Carol Danvers) is already a powerful warrior at the start of the film, and she only moves upward from there. Larson has to tread a fine line – this is a heroine not written to be particularly funny, but she finds a sardonic humor in the character that a lesser actress might have missed, and she’s quite fun to watch without turning Danvers into a copy of other superheroes. She’s well-supported, too. Captain Marvel gives Samuel L. Jackson the most to do of almost any Marvel film to date, as he tries to understand who Danvers is and just whose side she’s on. Ben Mendelsohn is likewise a welcome addition to the franchise as Talos, and Annette Bening is finally in her natural element as the Supreme Intelligence (we all knew she’d get there someday). The secondary characters have a weight and breadth to them that stop them from being sidelights in the Marvel franchise: Carol’s best friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) has plenty to do, as does Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). The whole film has lightness to it that stops its more serious elements from becoming burdensome – there are even knowing little jokes about some of the more ridiculous plot points of the alien-invasion narrative.
Captain Marvel’s greatest weakness is one that has plagued Marvel for years now: the convoluted nature of the plot, largely demanding a depth of audience recall and knowledge of backstory that can get to be a bit wearing to keep up with. The first twenty minutes or so encompass Carol’s time on Hala, her relationship with her mentor, and her search for identity, but being plunged so immediately into this narrative is a bit discombobulating to any viewer not totally immersed in the Marvel mythos. Once the film migrates to Earth, however, Carol’s quest for identity and understanding gets thrown in focus, partially due to the presence of Nick Fury as a sort of audience surrogate who also wants to know what the hell is going on.
One of the most powerful underlying themes in the Captain Marvel narrative is that of a woman with spectacular, world-shifting powers, being told to keep them under control by any number of men. Her emotionality is first presented as something that must be held back, that must become guided and shaped by men. But ultimately, her emotionality gives her the greatest power. It’s only through her recovery of her past and her coming to terms with the morally ambiguous role that she has played that she’s able to come to full the expression of her strength. Carol Danvers’s greatest power is part and parcel of being female ,and Captain Marvel presents female emotions as the source of world-changing power and a rejection of male militancy.
It’s a mistake to view Captain Marvel as the salvation of womankind, and the posing of the film as a plucky feminist call to arms ignores the fact that it’s a major film with major stars, made by one of the most commercially successful studios of all time. But it is equally incorrect to dismiss its positioning as the first female-led Marvel film. One of its strengths is that it doesn’t over-rely on a “girl power!” theme, instead allowing the character to be a complex, fallible human being. Carol Danvers is as flawed and incorrect in her assumptions as Steve Rogers or Tony Stark, her relationship with her violent past and the choices she has made as ethically complex as their arcs. Her femaleness is not ignored—far from it—but it is not the only thing that shapes her or defines her. There are moments of girl power uplift, when Danvers pushes back, bluntly, against archetypes and assumptions – as when a man tells her to smile, or a fellow pilot explains to her why it’s called a “cockpit” – and those are deeply satisfying and recognizable to any woman who has tried to function in a world dominated by men (read: the world). But much of the film’s strength is in what it does not do – there’s no romance or love interest; there’s no insistence that Danvers be perfect or even, at times, accessible, nor does it ever become distracted by endless references to Thanos, the creation of the Avengers, or even overburdensome references to past Marvel films. In fact, the lack of cameos, for the most part, helps to establish Captain Marvel as a hero who must be taken on her own terms.
Captain Marvel is a fun, accessible, utterly diverting superhero film, building the scaffolding that can support the next generation of Marvel, and expanding on the myth-arcs that deal with militancy and the ethical conundrums of a world run by superheroes. It’s satisfying to watch Carol Danvers punch a few villains to a 90s soundtrack, and just as satisfying to see her suit designed by an eleven-year-old African American girl. Above all, Captain Marvel moves with a confidence that proclaims it has nothing to prove. The future of Marvel is female, and you can either accept that or get out of the way.
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