Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019)


What is the source of Carol Danvers’ power? This is the question that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s excellent Captain Marvel asks, and the answers are various. The answer to the most literal form of the question is the typical sort of quasi-semi-demi-scientific explanation we’ve come to know and mostly love from the rest of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—something about an accident involving an advanced energy source, etc. etc. Where the movie becomes deeply interesting, however, is in its many answers to the metaphorical versions of the question, many of which will resonate deeply with most of the women in the audience, and many men. The movie details a specifically female set of experiences, and not only in the ways one might expect from a movie about a woman who rises through the intermittently sexist ranks in the U.S. Air Force, eventually to fight alien bad guys. To say much more on this subject requires spoilers, which are plentiful after the page break here. So before you read on, go see this enormously entertaining and wonderfully hopeful movie.

Feminist analyses of power often focus on the distinction between power over others, a hierarchical form of power that lends itself too often to abuse or oppression, and “power to”—power to accomplish shared aims, power to build and nurture, power to defend and protect, power to create, power to recover, power to self-actualize, power to live freely and fully. “Power to” is the form of power that informs Captain Marvel the most. There are fight scenes, but as Carol grows and comes to understand herself, the fights are driven by necessity rather than a thirst for conquest or a generalized desire to display badassery (though the badassery is there). More often, the action of this movie is the action of Carol voyaging out, discovering who she really is, discovering who her allies are, and freeing herself from limitations on her self-expression and on her life that are imposed from without. Where her opponents are static, clutching at their own ambitions and frozen in place by their own arrogance, she is dynamic, able to adapt to alien landscapes (such as ours), able to change her mind about what she believes and who she believes in, able to embrace the new, able to make connections across difference, to break down walls, to build alliances. Some of the characters who become her allies are the unlikeliest.

Marvel purists will probably object to the warm-and-fuzzification of the Skrulls, who in the comics have been perfect villains. Here, they only appear to be villains before the scales fall from Carol’s eyes and she sees them as they are: people who are only in search of a home and who are willing to defend themselves when necessary. This change is part of what makes this movie modern and honest—its understanding that many peoples who have been misrepresented as villainous throughout history are only said to be so because of the dominance of the imperial narrative. The Skrulls here are analogues for displaced Native Americans, or Central Americans, or Palestinians, or Romani, or even all women, villainized as we have been for being the temptresses, the weak, the instigators of the fall. The fact that Carol rises to the defense of a maligned people whom she herself previously hated is a measure of her transformation over the course of the film. She evolves from being a member of the armed forces of an imperial nation (ours) to a being member of a hit squad bent on destroying Skrulls (the Kree force led by Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg) to being her own person, making her own decisions and following her own moral compass.

Part of Carol’s power is her clarity of sight. Despite what she’s been taught to believe by the dishonest and manipulative people who have had power over her, she sees the Skrulls as people, and she stands with them and against the senseless imperial ambitions that keep them exiled and in fear for their lives. The analogies to present-day resistance to imperial wall-building and disingenuous vilification of marginalized peoples is deliberate and occasionally too obvious, but necessary.

To my mind, the movie’s best metaphor revolves around an inhibitor mechanism attached to Carol’s neck (by Yon-Rogg, we are left to assume) that suppresses her power. While we are initially (mis)led to believe that the device is in some way a source of her power, she realizes otherwise, removes it, and throws it to the ground. Somebody clearly thought about this choice, the nature of the device, and its placement. Nineteenth-century feminist and abolitionist Sarah Grimké famously said, “I ask no favor for my sex. . . .  All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.” For Carol Danvers to rise to her full power, what she must do is remove an inhibiting force, placed there artificially for the express purpose of controlling her. Once she is free of it, she can do anything.

As good—even inspiring—as the movie is, it does have its flaws. The soundtrack—composed of a series of female-fronted indie-rock “greatest hits” of the ‘90s—is often too on-the-nose, distracting from the film’s action rather than heightening it. (Do we really need to hear No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” ever again, for any reason, but especially over a “girl power” action sequence?) I would have appreciated a few more deep cuts, musically, with less obviously theme-underlining lyrics. I would also have appreciated more willingness to let the period of the piece be part of its background instead of a nostalgia-heavy mechanism for goosing the crowd into artificial enthusiasm. Some of the movie’s attempts at inspiration, too, are a little ham-handed. In one montage, as Carol remembers being knocked down and getting up again at various times in her life, the shots of her picking herself up, dusting herself off, and starting all over again wouldn’t have been out of place in a Nike commercial. (Thank god someone refrained from using Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” in this movie.) More problematically, the “black best friend” whose job it is to provide support for the white hero was a tired trope even in the period in which this film is set. I was sorry to see it dragged out one more time in the form of Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau, who could have had a fascinating story of her own, and whose precocious tot Monica gazes up at her white hero with unseemly admiration. That said, such missteps are few, and movie amply compensates for them with surprising depth of theme. Moreover, Carol’s scenes with Nick Fury are delightful, the humor is quick and clever, and the action sequences pop. I personally was grateful that (for once in the history of cinema, it seems) an adorable–and ultimately heroic–cat who is central to the action actually survives the movie. And of course, the spectacle of watching Carol rise to become her most truly powerful self provides a genuine thrill.

While not the greatest of the Marvel movies—that honor still belongs to Black Panther, by a wide margin—Captain Marvel nevertheless lives up to the promise of its feminist premises: “Power to” is better than “power over,” being part of a community is better than being a rugged individual, having allies is better than having followers, and building bridges is better than building walls.