The Need for More from Captain Marvel and Hollywood
About a week ago, I visited one of my favorite local bookstores with a friend to get some work done. As I sat down near the back of the store, I noticed that there was a group of about six people next to me who were excitedly chatting about something. As I listened further, it became clear that this was some kind of group meetup for die-hard Marvel fans. These weren’t your average nerds spitting their hot takes about the MCU, no, these were the kind of people who had read all the comics backwards and forwards and could name specific issues when trying to make a point. Eventually, they started talking about the MCU and it seemed as if their general gripe with a lot of the recent films in the canon (Captain Marvel included) was that they didn’t follow what occured in the comics. It makes sense for someone who is really into comics to see that as an issue, but most people who are passionate about film would probably say that those are two distinct mediums with different needs. Before this group left, though those who hadn’t seen Captain Marvel told the others that they would, the general consensus seemed to be that a lot of these movies weren’t made for aficionados like them anymore (or those of any gender).
I say this because it does not seem as if the feelings of comic book geeks and film nerds are too different on this point. Around the time Avengers: Age of Ultron was released, many in the film community had gotten pretty sick of the constant cycle of superhero movies that are being released every couple months. There are a couple exceptional ones like Black Panther that stick out every now and then, but it seems as if the consensus on a lot of these films is that they are generally adequate but more often tiring because they don’t bring anything new to the table. Even the memes generated by Avengers: Infinity War were often more prescient culturally than the film itself was. These movies are a staple of cinematic life in the twenty-first century at this point and those who are getting genuinely excited for them seem to be (judging from who was in the crowd at my screening of Captain Marvel) pre-teens and teenagers. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but I do think it’s telling that these films are attracting a fresh audience, because without the different facets of the discourse around Captain Marvel, it largely would have been seen as the stale, palatable film that it is.
More than the unnecessary (and largely performative) conservative male backlash to this movie, I think what is ultimately more telling about the film is that although Marvel Studios has waited over ten years to make a superhero movie with a female lead, it will hit you over the head with this theme of the strong woman overcoming adversity. I probably could have tolerated the faux wokeness better if the plotline hadn’t been so bland. Though it is ultimately told backwards, this isn’t enough to salvage a bland origin story. The main plot involves Vers (Brie Larson) who is part of the Kree military force, finding out on a mission to eradicate Skrulls (alien shape-shifters) that she was not born Kree, but rather human. In her former life, she was an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers and with the help of Nick Fury and her former best friend Maria, she is able to learn why her former identity was hidden from her and what she is truly capable of.
In terms of performances, there is not much to complain about. The interactions between Carol Danvers, Fury, and Maria are usually charming and feel quite authentic. Brie Larson does a good job embodying a new MCU heroine (though she is not given much to work with in terms of personality traits). Captain Marvel herself falls more in line with a Captain America in terms of her personality and commitments (fighting adversity and working for those who are disadvantaged being the main two). It’s clear that subsequent films will include her and I’m hoping that this will allow the filmmakers to round out her personality a bit more. Judging from this film and the new Avengers: Endgame trailer, those at Marvel studios are trying pretty hard to make her a staple.
In terms of Captain Marvel as a cultural icon though, I would hope that many of us would ask: can’t we do better? Sure, it was ridiculous that the film got some backlash just for featuring a female lead, but at the same time, the film gives us the safest possible version of that. It just seems as if we need a bit more variety in our female icons, and adding another white cishet able-bodied woman to the roster isn’t really challenging much. Especially since the film makes the American military look as cool as possible (with multiple screenings even advertising the Air Force beforehand). But it’s easier to make an alien race like the Kree be arbiters of genocide than it would to point a finger at the force that actually does so. In sum, though I am obviously cranky when it comes to what is coming out of the MCU and the opportunities it gives its female actresses, I still think there are good things that the studio can provide for women. At the very least, Captain Marvel does have a badass third act which is definitely worth watching. In the future though, I hope that we will be provided with heroines who don’t fit the typical Hollywood mold as tightly and that it doesn’t take ten more years for this to occur.