Article ID: JAR31419MV | By: Corey Latta
A movie review of
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
(Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures, 2019)
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Editor’s note: We realize that various interpretations and reactions to storyline elements in this film and their ramifications have been debated. We offer this review as one plausible viewpoint. Please also be aware there are spoilers, as major plot points are discussed.
There is a telling and rather predictable line at the end of the new Marvel Universe film Captain Marvel that lands with such force it seems to reverberate backward into the movie. Five minutes into the movie, I knew it was coming. Still, once delivered, it left such a crater that I felt a modicum of surprise when it dropped.
First, some context. Since her origin in Marvel comics, Captain Marvel is a mantle worn by various individuals, one being a US Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers, played in this blockbuster iteration by Academy Award–winning actress Brie Larson. In the movie’s climactic confrontation with once tutor and commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Danvers resorts to hitting him with her signature photon blasts, sending him through the air, flat onto his back. He’s done. Fight’s over. I’d been waiting for that moment from the start of the film, when in an early scene Yon-Rogg and Danvers (known as Vers) spar. As Yon-Rogg gets the best of Vers, she starts to lose her cool, which she’s given to doing in the movie. Yon-Rogg responds by saying that she’s being too emotional. He taunts her, saying that she must control her emotions if she’s ever going to be a warrior: “Doubt makes you vulnerable…control your impulses.”
Yon-Rogg even incites the movie’s stand-in deity, the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), threatening that if Vers loses control again, she’ll have to answer for herself. When Vers does face the Supreme Intelligence, she’s told yet again, “You struggle with your emotions.” She’s also warned that her emotional volatility could lead to the seizure of her powers. “What’s given can be taken away,” she is told. According to the Supreme Intelligence, Vers has something left to prove: “Can you keep your emotions in check?”
Back to that signpost line. Right before Carol nails Yon-Rogg with a photon blast, he taunts her to prove that she can beat him, hand to hand. Her reply: “I have nothing to prove to you.”
Given the way the movie establishes the theme of Carol Danvers having to earn her way into the acceptance of her superiors, an acceptance associated with the cold logic and emotionless calculation of her reply, viewers should expect some kind of resolute return to self-acceptance. And “I have nothing to prove to you” has a certain symmetry to it. It’s meant to balance the movie out, given that early scene between Yon-Rogg and Danvers. Finally, a woman, emotionally let loose, has nothing to prove to her patronizing commander.
The problem is that the movie works its way up to that climactic moment so explicitly, with artless intent, rather than portray it with a feminist view that is secure with itself. This portrayal of female power clangs in desperation — demanding to be heard. It’s as if Danvers’s arc isn’t complete until we know she doesn’t have to listen to anyone or prove anything if she doesn’t want to. It’s as if the movie can’t end until we know that a woman, fully and finally freed from emotional suppression, knows what it means to be a hero.
“I have nothing to prove to you” also stands on a feminism so staged that at one point — a painfully low one — a young Monica Rambeau (who, in the comics, is the first human Captain Marvel), daughter to Maria (Lashana Lynch), friend to Danvers, and former fellow pilot, encourages her mother to leave her behind so that her mother can accompany Carol on a perilous mission…into space…with an alien. Monica exhorts her mom, “I think you should consider what kind of example you should set for your daughter.”
As much as the movie wants us to think along those lines, this exchange isn’t analogous to enlisted women going off to war for the good of a national interest. This is shoehorned ideology. This is badly wrought feminism.
The topic of feminism (in the female empowerment sense) and its relationship to heroism has been a trending topic on social media since the movie’s release. Desiring God’s Greg Morse wrote an article lamenting the ways Captain Marvel smuggles a new masculinized militant femininity, a kind of infinite regress from the archetypal fairy tale princess.1
Tyler Huckabee over at Relevant offered a response to Morse with a reminder that women can, and should, occupy the lead hero role, and that we, the viewers, ought to pause long enough to appreciate this empowered cultural moment.2
What Morse (who seems interested in conflating Christian ideas with Victorian restrictions) and Huckabee (who sees the movie as a needed occlusion to unjust depictions of women) both seem to miss is that Captain Marvel is a bad movie!
The feminism doesn’t work because the movie doesn’t work. The real critique of the movie’s feminism, of its clamoring up to “I have nothing to prove to you,” is that it fits tightly into a boring film that sermonizes the viewer.
In a better film, the scene with Monica would have ended up on the editing room floor. But in Captain Marvel, it fits. The shoehorning of the explicit, forced cries for female empowerment seems at home is this film, which is no compliment.
When the Skrulls, the movie’s alien antagonists, show up in Maria Rambeau’s home, we get Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Marvel’s staple figurehead and original Avenger assembler, saying: “I’m about five seconds away from complicating that wall with some uglya** Skrull brains.” And then Maria chimes in: “Call me young lady again, and I’m going to put my foot in a place it’s not supposed to be.” To an alien. To an alien wearing a sportscoat over his spacesuit. To an alien who, in all his camp, eventually sits at Maria’s table in a sweatshirt.
This is a movie that has Nick Fury so curious about the genitalia of an autopsied Skrull corpse that he can’t resist sneaking a peek.
This is a movie that turned Marvel comics’ most insidious villains, the Skrulls (from Marvel’s 1961 Fantastic Four series and also in the 2008 Secret Invasion series), into frightened refugees scrounging for a home under the threat of tyrannical nationalism.
This is a movie that can’t go more than fifteen minutes without reminding us that the sum of Carol Danvers’s relationship with men has been, it seems, without exception or nuance, hearing, “you don’t belong” and “you’re too emotional.” Honestly, about the most interesting thing about this iteration of Captain Marvel doesn’t have anything to do with her but with the one-dimensionally sexist way she’s been treated. She’s almost entirely without an identity other than all she positions herself against. I couldn’t stop thinking that her characterization felt as flat as her lines. Almost always, if Danvers isn’t being disagreeable, then she’s not in the scene; if she isn’t saying something predictably snarky, then she isn’t speaking.
I get it. Female empowerment matters. And it deserves depiction on the big screen, since young girls are looking for fiction heroes to identify with and admire. This is Marvel’s first female lead in a film. She’s supposed to be a force like she is in the comics. And if you know your comics, she’s also the last touch point before Avengers: Endgame, the most anticipated movie in the Marvel Comics Universe’s impressive ten-plus-year run, which hits theaters late next month (April 2019). Captain Marvel bears the responsibility of being the forerunner of Endgame.
Instead, we get Skrull genitals, a fatherless daughter begging her mother to leave her, and a foot stomping from Captain Marvel declaring, “I have nothing to prove to you.”
There is room to critique any work of feminist expression so lacking an identity and so insecure about that lack that it has to throw rocks at the imperial patriarchy. And there is a critical obligation to address a feminism that so easily finds its home in such a heavy handed, clunky movie.
Despite my critique that this is a clunky film that shoehorns feminism, I am glad to see Carol Danvers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the movie has moments that work, such as the montage of memories where we see a young Carol get up again and again in the persistent power of the human spirit. In such moments the film has heart. You feel it. I’d add that Captain Marvel is a fun movie…good for popcorn and a laugh. When Danvers comes into her powers, it’s pretty cool to see. But the movie is also flatly acted and poorly written with a low-stakes plot.
“I have nothing to prove to you.” Au contraire, Carol. You’ve joined the ranks of complexly crafted characters such as Downey Jr.’s Ironman, Hiddleston’s Loki, and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. You’re in the conversation with films such as Captain America: Winter Soldier and Doctor Strange. You’re flanked by the female characters Black Widow and the Scarlett Witch, whose emotional and social subtleties don’t demand “the patriarchy” be annihilated so they might shine.
You’re now in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You have something to prove.
Corey Latta holds MAs in religion and English as well as a PhD in twentieth-century literature. He is the author of several books, including Serving the Work: Reflections on Christ and Creativity (Cascade Books, forthcoming 2019). He is also coauthor of Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World (Cascade Books, 2017).
- Greg Morse, “Behold Your Queen: The Real Conflict in Captain Marvel,” Desiring God, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/behold-your-queen.
- “Tyler Huckabee, “ A ‘Desiring God’ Writer Is Mad ‘Captain Marvel’ Had the Audacity to Make a Woman a Hero,” Relevant, March 11, 2019, https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/film/a-desiring-god-writer-is-mad-captain-marvel-had-the-audacity-to-make-a-woman-a-hero/.