Oh, you absolute manchildren who cannot cope with a woman headlining a Marvel movie? Who cannot abide a female actor with the temerity to take on such a role while also expressing zero interest in courting your fandom? An actor who doesn’t give a shit what you think? Just wait till you see the movie! (You know you will.)
In Captain Marvel, Brie Larson’s alien badass Vers is a warrior for *checks notes* social justice. She doesn’t realize at first that that is what she is going to be, but when the evidence is laid out before her, it’s what she knows she has to do. She is a woman who overcomes all the gaslighting she has been subjected to, the lies that attempt to ensure she can never reach her commanding potential, the lies that tell her she is other than and lesser than what she really is. Because what she could be scares some people! This is a movie overtly about someone who is invited to see through the massive edifice of bullshit cultural bigotry that she has been subjected to, the stuff that tells her what is right and what is wrong, who is an enemy and who is a friend, who matters and who doesn’t... and she does look, and it’s uncomfortable at first, but the truth is the truth and ya gotta deal with it. Which she does.
Which is what makes her better than you, you whiny crybabies, and you know it, and that’s why you hate her. Her ability to face challenges to her preconceptions and to change and grow as she learns new things terrifies you, because you can’t do that, or won’t. What’s more, Vers is so goddamned awesome and powerful and confident that she doesn’t even need to kick a man’s ass — not even a man who desperately needs it and is literally asking for it — to prove it. Hidebound, small-minded men are beneath her, and she will not play their stupid dick-measuring games. Vers is not a woman succeeding in a man’s world by following men’s rules... and she’s not a female superhero succeeding as a character in a blockbuster movie by doing the same stuff male superheroes do. She is throwing out the rule book and going her own way.
But no, wait, Captain Marvel gets better. The writing-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have brought an indie ethos — their Mississippi Grind is a small masterpiece — to the big, rowdy comic-book action movie, and turned the origin story upside down and inside out. Almost literally. (Thank goodness, because we did not need another straightforward origin story.) As the film opens, Vers (Larson) is already living a life that is a science-fiction dream, at least as current fashions for nerdery would have it: She lives on a sleek high-tech alien world, part of the interstellar Kree civilization consisting of all sorts of alien races. She works as an elite soldier-spy with a small team of fellow badasses led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is also her good friend and mentor. It’s a Star Trek utopia. Yes, she has strange nightmares and odd memories of her earlier life, some of which we clearly recognize as a childhood on mid-20th-century Earth, but, so, like... this another Guardians of the Galaxy, rescued-by-her-space-parents kinda thing, right? Cool! It’s what we dorks have always wanted, to get whisked away from boring old Earth. Yay! (Seriously, manbaby dudes: this isn’t a fantasy only boy-geeks have, and shame on you for not appreciating that and, apparently, not being able to identify with and empathize with that when it’s a woman living it.)
Of course, what’s going on with Vers is a lot more complicated than that, and so Captain Marvel is as much a refreshing sci-fi mystery as it is anything else: What are the secrets of Vers’s past, and what shape will her future take when she discovers them? It’s hardly spoilery to “reveal” that amnesiac Vers is actually Carol Danvers, a USAF pilot presumed dead in a crash (on Earth) several years earlier, so when she arrives on planet C-53 — aka Earth — in pursuit of creepy terrorist shapeshifting reptiloid Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) who are after a technological macguffin, many questions are raised. Starting with, Just how is it possible that backward Earth — “a real shithole,” as one of Vers’s Kree colleagues calls it — has produced something that superadvanced alien reptile baddies would be interested in? And going all the way through to: What the heck is going on with Vers/Danvers, and where did she get her energy-bolt-throwing superpowers, which no other Kree seems to have?
Captain Marvel is, in fact, a historical movie: it is set in the 1990s, which is when Vers and the Skrulls arrive on Earth. Boden and Fleck have some solid fun introducing us to “early” versions of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) — damn if age-regression FX technology hasn’t reached seamlessly plausible maturity — which gives the movie a sidebar origin story for the Avengers project. But there isn’t a lot of overt nostalgia going on. Sure, there’s the bit set in a Blockbuster, and the NIN tee Vers borrows as a disguise, and other little throwback asides. But it’s mere set-dressing, not the cheesy self-indulgent nonsense it could have been. Captain Marvel is more earnest than that. Oh, this isn’t a humorless film, to be sure, but its humor is gentle, and occasionally bitter, sometimes both at the same time. Like with Goose the cat, who insinuates himself into the proceedings and won’t let go. (Surely it’s no coincidence that Goose calls to mind the 1970s Disney movie The Cat from Outer Space.) And as Vers/Danvers starts to reclaim her past, and the people she once knew, like Danvers’s best friend, fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and her sparky 11-year-old daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar). Sweet and bitter, grief and relief: a lot of contradictory emotions are at play here, without the movie ever getting bogged down in its complicated humanity. There’s a charming fleetness to Captain Marvel even as it’s rather melancholy, particularly for a comic-book action adventure.
Oh, and about Rambeau: Yes — yes! — the world of Vers/Danvers is a world full of women. Just like the real world! (Sorry, manbabies. Women exist.) Which also includes another woman on her Kree team (Gemma Chan) as well as the scientist, Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), who developed the macguffin everyone is after and who seems, from Vers’s messed-up flashes of memory, to be someone important to her. (There are lots of people of color, too! Though some of them are blue...) This is not a world, as is so often the case onscreen, of women isolated from one another. That may be part of why it feels like Vers/Danvers stalks through the movie with so much self-assurance. Some of it is down to the fact that she comes from — at least as far as she has any memory — the sci-fi realm of Kree where, it seems, there isn’t any sexism and so she doesn’t realize that she is “supposed” to scurry around without upsetting men too much. But a lot of it is because, in the context in which this movie exists in our sexist world — and she takes some sexist shit in the movie on Earth, as well — she is nevertheless not alone in her femaleness, as if she were the oddity too many movies, especially the big blockbusters, treat women as.
I mean! Even when us mere Earth women don’t hold much truck with being obsequious to men, we become the other side of the Either/Or women exist on: we’re either “proper” women or “problematic” women. As depicted here, though, Vers/Danvers is completely outside that paradigm. It’s so refreshing... and it’s something that you don’t even realize is an unspoken subtext of almost every depiction of women in our culture until it’s suddenly not there. Even the fantastic Wonder Woman — about which a lot of what I’ve said here would also apply — didn’t make me think about this.
It’s so terrific to see that no one involved with Captain Marvel is interested in a timid, toe-dunking experiment in a female-led MCU movie. (It took Marvel long enough, so they had plenty of time to muster the courage for it.) Nope: doubling-down has been engaged in. Vers/Danvers is not fucking around, and neither is Captain Marvel: nothing and no one here has the time or the desire for coddling anyone or anything. Some people were never going to give this heroine or her movie a pass anyway, were always going to condemn her and it for the same things they love the likes of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers and Clark Kent and Thor for. So Captain Marvel upends it all, from our expectations about how these stories should be told and what sort of crimes are being committed therein to who gets to put things right.
Honestly, the big message of Captain Marvel is this: “Whoever you are and whatever you think, your perspective is probably too narrow. Open it up a bit.” That’s what science fiction is supposed to be about, and it often gets lost in the maelstrom. Not this time. Even if some of the putative devotees of the genre don’t want to see it.
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