To the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A” by Lee Greenwood, starting at the second verse:
Brie Larson won an Oscar, and one of the directors is a girl
So all of the problematic lady stuff, from Marvel will become unfurled
From Natasha to Wanda, and Okoye and Shuri
There’s pride in every fangirl’s heart, and it’s time we stand and say
That I’m proud to be a woman, for at least I know I’m free
To punch a man in the face, Carol gave that right to me
And I’d gladly stand up next to her, to defend our right to say
Don’t tell me to smile, she paved the way
It’s International Women’s Day!
If you were singing something along those lines going into Captain Marvel this weekend, then you were exactly where Kevin Feige and Marvel studios wanted you to be. Promoted as the response to Wonder Woman and a form of self-flagellation for the fact that Marvel has made 21 movies, 11 of which star white guys named Chris, it’s still sad that the studio is only now is getting around to making one with a woman. However, it hasn’t been easy. Captain Marvel has been plagued by online trolls, misinterpreted statements by its outspoken lead actress, and a boycott, not to mention ridiculous expectations put on it by critics and fans alike.
So after all of this build up, how is Captain Marvel? Is it our new modern third-wave feminist The Feminine Mystique? Does it give me any clues to which superheroes will and won’t stay dead during Avengers: Endgame so I may finally find peace? Will seeing Carol Danvers fly finally inspire me to live my life to the fullest and/or hit the gym?
Well, I am here to report that Captain Marvel is: fine. Hooray!
Ok, let’s break this down. To begin with, the epidemic that I’ve been growing weary of for a while now is that all Marvel heroes have the same personality. They’re all cool, calm, collected, and witty. If you watch the first Avengers film, sure, all the characters could be funny, but they were funny in different ways. And their personalities and values were different. Now, if I read the script of Avengers: Infinity War with the character names missing, there would be too many times I would guess a line was said by a different character because everyone’s dialogue sounds the same.
Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) here is witty, cool, collected, and calm. She is hyper-competent, which is now a requirement for all heroines, and her personality is so limited to what the plot requires of it that it’s hard to imagine what she would do on a free Saturday night. There are quiet moments in the film that give Larson something to play with, but they are too small and infrequent to make me feel that I’m not watching Captain America with a side of Tony Stark snark.
Counterbalancing this, though, is an excellent and vibrant supporting cast. Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson have excellent chemistry (this is their third film together), and I particularly liked Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, Carol’s best friend. Their friendship was sweet on screen, and at one point in the movie, as Carol is having a moment of personal doubt, Maria reminds her who she is, affirms her, and then they hug. And I realized that this is the first time I’d seen this kind of female friendship in an action superhero movie before. Hugging my girlfriends and affirming them is something I, and many women do, every day, but I finally got to see it on screen. And it was just as awesome as seeing Carol burst into flames and save the world, which was also pretty cool.
On a more technical side, while I don’t usually point out editing, I have to talk about it here. Marvel movies, at least ones not directed by the Russos, generally have quick and choppy editing in the fight scenes. But here, it feels extra insulting, not just because the action scenes are poorly cut to the point where it feels like the directors just didn’t want to think of more action for the character to do, but because Brie Larson trained nine months for this role, is ripped, and did most of her own stunts, and you can barely tell here. #GiveUsGratituousShotsOfBrie’sRippedArms.
The plot is convoluted, which causes the movie to have whiplash pacing and become distracted from being a character study. For example, one of the darkest aspects of the film is the fact that Carol was, basically, abducted, gaslit, and brainwashed to be formed in her captor’s image. While addressed in the film, what could have been an intensely emotional moment and a defining trauma for Carol, her Uncle Ben if you will, is handled with such stoicism and almost casualness that the revelation barely qualifies as a turning point for Carol, and is a completely missed opportunity because instead we gotta spend time setting up alien characters for future movies.
Ultimately, the most disorienting thing about Captain Marvel is that it tries to go two different directions, and ultimately does neither. The first is that it wants to be a very obvious “girl-power” movie, but it contains very little of the female experience. It tries to have some, like Carol being asked by a random man to smile, (a ridiculously perfect foreshadowing of what was to come) and her being told she’s too emotional. But these things feel much more like Womanhood 101, and not very deep. The second is that it is a very standard Marvel movie that doesn’t drift from formula. If it had committed to being a Marvel movie that could, in theory, have been played by a man and been exactly the same, then that could have been an interesting statement on why we put emphasis on female superheroes at all. It would have answered the immortal question of, “Hey, why shouldn’t women have a mediocre superhero movie to call their own?”
In the end, we have a movie that is neither an interesting examination on how being a woman would make one a different kind of a superhero from a male one, nor do we get a superhero movie that could be led by any of, say, the Marvel Chrises. We get something that’s pretty mediocre. So to be honest, I’m disappointed. There were plenty of scenes and things I liked, but it adds up to a movie I probably won’t remember the majority of in a few weeks. But despite that, I still think it’s worth seeing if you keep up with the Marvel movies, or even if you have already decided you want to see it. It stands alone well enough that you can enjoy it without needing to have any previous Marvel backstory. I want it to do well at the box office, mostly just to spite trolls.
Near the end of the film, Carol says to an antagonist, “I have nothing to prove to you,” which may ultimately be the best way to think of the movie. It doesn’t need to be a roaring success to justify its existence. Carol Danvers has nothing to prove, and neither do female-led superhero movies. So let’s raise the bar for everyone, without using it to keep others down.