“Captain Marvel centers a white protagonist but offers significantly more fleshed-out roles for Fury and Maria that rise above sidekick status.”
Title: Captain Marvel
Directors: Anna Boden 👩🏼🇺🇸 and Ryan Fleck 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Anna Boden 👩🏼🇺🇸, Ryan Fleck 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Geneva Robertson-Dworet 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
—MILD SPOILERS AHEAD—
Comic book fans first met Carol Danvers in 1968 as a supporting character to a male Captain Marvel. An Air Force Security Chief, she was by turns a sharp investigator and a “batty blonde,” as some angry fans called her, often reduced to a romantic interest.
But when she reappeared in 1977’s Ms. Marvel, she was advertised as a “superheroine for the seventies...and equally well set for the eighties and nineties too!” Even the “Ms.” moniker nodded to the feminist movement, paralleling real-life superhero Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine. On her new career track as editor-in-chief, Ms. Marvel took on the fight for equal pay—and won.
Since these origins, audiences have seen a total of 7 different Captain Marvels. In making its film entry for the superhero, Marvel Studios could have easily drawn from one of its male iterations but the world would have been the worse for it. We need another male superhero like Tony Stark needs to borrow a dollar. Luckily, Marvel Studios finally seems ready to answer the pent-up demand for more diverse leads, and Carol Danvers was chosen to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), bringing with her a wealth of canonical material to pick and choose from.
With that long canon, however, came a challenge for the filmmakers who had to balance between the central mystery—how did the human Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) become the supercharged Vers of the Kree Empire, and why?—with the need to create a superhero exciting enough to stand with Marvel’s all-star lineup of Avengers. They succeed, for the most part. But for Carol, the problem of a muddled identity and a cookie-cutter villain fail to set her up for the kind of journey we’ve come to expect in a superhero’s origin story, let alone a superhero whose powers go far beyond anything we’ve seen before.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The heavy mantle of being the first female-led film in the MCU means that Captain Marvel can’t spend too much time actually confronting systemic issues of gender, lest it differentiate itself too much from the standard fare of kicking ass and saving the world. Rather, Marvel neatly weaves the patriarchy-smashing thread into the larger origin story by gender-swapping the role of Carol’s mentor, Mar-Vell (Annette Benning), making their relationship all the more significant. Mar-Vell—or as Carol knows her, Dr. Wendy Lawson—not only solidifies the importance of female relationships but provides meta commentary on women succeeding in male-dominated fields, be they the Air Force or a film franchise.
The bond between Carol and her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) proves similarly poignant, recounted in flashbacks as Carol begins to regain her memory of life before she wakes up on the Kree planet of Hala. Maria pervades her past, as both women eagerly become test pilots for Dr. Lawson in the only opportunity for women to fly combat aircrafts during that time. Their bond marks another first for Marvel, which—despite plenty of opportunities—has never deemed the relationship between two women worthy of its own narrative. Along with her role as conduit to Carol’s memories, Maria provides emotional support with the help of her daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar). Monica, in turn, provides affirmation through her belief in Carol, delivered with the sort of clear-eyed certainty that few adults retain.
Despite this brilliant lineup of role models, though, there’s still no staving off disappointment at the absence of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). After a tragically cancelled series, a painfully short presence in Ant Man (2015), and a heartbreaking death in Captain America: Civil War (2016), seeing the woman who founded and led S.H.I.E.L.D. welcome Captain Marvel into the fold would have felt more like an ending that honored her legacy.
The MCU has a dismal track record when it comes to characters of color, with the notable exception of Black Panther (2018). Consistently relegated to secondary roles with thin backstories, even Gamora (Zoe Saldana), whose history featured heavily in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), lacked autonomy. She was there primarily as a romantic interest to Starlord (Chris Pratt) and a means of tying epic baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin) to the fate of the Avengers.
Meanwhile, Captain Marvel centers a white protagonist but offers significantly more fleshed-out roles that rise above the sidekick status bestowed upon Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) in Iron Man and Captain America: Civil War, respectively. In fact, Captain Marvel offers two origin stories, delving beyond the stoic one-eyed stare and intimidating façade of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The Fury of the mid-nineties exudes humor and optimism, as well as a baby-talk-filled fondness for Goose the cat (or, as we learn, Goose the flerken). The movie also builds a bond between Carol and Fury that rationalizes how and why his last moments on earth before being “poofed” in Avengers: Infinity War are spent reaching out to Captain Marvel.
The relationship Carol rediscovers with Maria conforms slightly more to Marvel’s sidekick model. Like Rhodey to Tony Stark and Falcon to Steve Rogers, Maria is the ally in a deeply personal battle. Unlike previous ones, though, Maria exists in her own right, outside of her relationship with Carol. In preparing for her role, actor Lashana Lynch made a point of meeting pilots who were also mothers, emphasizing that she wanted the character to “have a real through-line that the Black community or people of color will be proud of” and for “mothers to be proud that there’s a single mother in the MCU.”
Where Captain Marvel does fall down is in its representation of Asians, something that has long been a problem in this universe. (If only it could take a cue from the Marvel of the small screen.) When Asian characters aren’t being whitewashed or reduced to tropes, they’re prone to being stripped of their Asian identity altogether. In the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Mantis, played by French-Korean actor Pom Klementieff, has her features distorted to appear “alien.” Filipino-American actor Dave Bautista’s character, Drax, has grey skin covered in red marks. While in Captain Marvel, Gemma Chan’s Minn-Erva is canonically blue-skinned like most Kree, it’s hard not to notice a pattern. That’s part of the problem with colorblind casting: It becomes altogether too easy to erase identity altogether.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.42/5
Captain Marvel finally delivers a female superhero to the MCU, one whose story stands on its own and earns her feminist cred while making for an enjoyable time all around. A few slow moments and Jude Law’s lackluster villain (sorry, Yon-Rogg, but ya basic) are offset by a strong set of allies, the thrill of nineties throwback references, and a peckish flerken masquerading as a cat.
Marvel also deserves major props for tying the Air Force’s past policies that barred women from combat into Carol’s backstory without making it seem contrived. Amidst manufactured outrage from misogynistic “men’s rights” activists and “incels” offended by the idea of a female superhero movie, the acknowledgement of systemic sexism is both timely and necessary.
Given everything, one outstanding mystery is why Marvel didn’t spend more time hyping Goose in the lead-up to the movie. Where Nick Fury knew to call in his most powerful weapon in a time of crisis, Marvel never saw to combat the online trolls hellbent on tearing down Captain Marvel and its star with the Internet’s most powerful weapon: a picture of a cat.