Captain Marvel – Higher, Further, Faster
“This was pretty okay,” a friend of mine said, walking out of the theater. “I mean, I guess.”
He guesses. I’ve heard similar things from a lot of people.
This movie was not meant for them.
This is a movie meant for people that are told time and time again to limit themselves to make other people feel comfortable. That’s the central conflict of the movie. In flashbacks we see Carol Danvers as a child, told to go slower, to stay down, to give up, and every time she defies those demands society tries to punish her for it and every time they do she stands and faces the worst they have to offer. She does not go down.
As bad as that is, it’s worse in the present. Her memory has been stolen from her and the people around her are taking advantage of that, weaponizing her, limiting her, forcing her to live to their expectations. It looks like a science fiction world that is comparable to our own and it’s easy to feel comfortable with it, forgetting that we know nothing of the terrorists they’re fighting and taking for granted the lies we’re told.
When the lies are revealed for what they are, we share in Carol’s anger and sense of betrayal. She fights against the people that tried to define her by defining herself and proving herself better than them, and that would make for a fine movie. It’s the end, though, after Carol has shown exactly how powerful she is, that this movie goes from great to excellent: when faced with the one person who caused her the most pain, she let’s go of her anger and refuses to let his expectations mean anything. She’s moved past him. His ideas are meaningless to her, and while it isn’t a big effects-laden moment it is an emotional one.
Here’s the crux: Carol Danvers is already a hero when she gets her powers. Her tale is one of coming into her own strength and moving beyond what anyone else expects of her.
This is a complex movie, the sort of film that Marvel seems to be moving towards structurally. Things changed with Iron Man 3; we learned to expect lower physical stakes and higher personal ones, we learned that our expectations were going to be subverted and that superhero movies could not just be good movies, but stories laden with subtext and reflection. Both Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Thor Ragnarok, Civil War, Ant-Man, Spider-man, and Winter Soldier all came from that mindset.
Captain Marvel does the same thing Iron Man 3 does, and arguably the same thing Black Panther did – it lets us know that Marvel is changing their formula again, digging deeper into the social issues and politics that comics and superheroes were designed to confront.
And it succeeds in a way that about 49% of the population is not going to understand, not on the visceral level that the other 51% will. This is an action movie that female-presenting people will be able to take their male counterparts to and while the guys are enjoying the explosions and things everyone else can see the underpinnings of that Captain Marvel is really up against: a societal and systemic sexism that permeates every aspect of the world we live in.
On one hand, it’s inspiring. Captain Marvel works on a totemic level as someone that can be drawn upon, a patron saint of not letting anyone limit you and realizing that strength comes from the people you surround yourself with. On the other, it’s a criticism of people that say things like “you look like a feminist” or “we live in a post-feminist society” or “well, I believe in equality, so I’m not a feminist.”
It is a feminist film.
And that’s going to be a problem for people that view equality as a personal attack. Those same people will look at Captain Marvel and movies like it and think “but superheroes and comics are kid’s stuff!”, never understanding that comics have always been about more than people running around in spandex. They’re building a mythology, a cultural narrative, so when people say “people will get sick of superhero movies” or “the superhero movie is oversaturated,” they only show their own ignorance.
Marvel (and DC with Wonder Woman and, to a lesser extent, Aquaman) has moved beyond that limitation the same way Captain Marvel has, by moving past the style of their product to explore the substance beyond it. Wonder Woman isn’t a superhero movie, it’s a fable about the evils of war and moving from a simple understanding to a more complex one. Black Panther isn’t a superhero movie, it’s a story about what Africa could have become without the evil of colonialization and the psychological trauma of systemic racism.
Captain Marvel isn’t a superhero movie, it’s the story of a woman overcoming of societal sexism and gaslighting and maturing into her own strength and power.
These are stories of how great we can be that explore the mire of the world we live in and offering a hand up, an ideal to strive for.
And given all that, and the utter joy that is this movie, I’m now utterly onboard to see what Marvel does post-End Game.