First up, if you haven’t seen Captain Marvel yet, leave this page, get in your car, drive to the nearest movie theater, drop whatever currency they’ll accept for a ticket, and see it. Come back when you’re done, because spoilers! this review contains spoilers.
Somewhere on the internet, during college, I read the phrase “we’ve come a long way, but we sure as hell ain’t there yet” at the end of an article about a feminist topic. I honestly don’t remember the rest of the article, but the sentiment that we’re halfway up the hill, not cresting the peak, has stuck with me throughout the past couple years. It feels particularly apt this month.
Finally, after eleven years, twenty-one movies, and behind a rival studio, Marvel Studios released Captain Marvel as their first outing with a female lead. I’ll run that back for you: eleven years, twenty-one movies, after DC. Expectations were astronomical. The HER-o marketing angle had me on edge. So much was and is riding on this film, and I was dreading the idea that they might be exploiting the goodwill toward a female-fronted superhero movie to take shortcuts where it counted most.
For the most part, they didn’t.
It goes without saying that Brie Larson is a talented actress, but I’ll say it anyway. She handles Carol’s challenging characterization pretty deftly, hopping over a clunky script, oozing confidence we expect exclusively from male characters. She shines brightest as the real Carol – the person under all those layers of Kree conditioning – when she’s with the young-ish Nick Fury, funnily enough. Their buddy-cop escapades trying to thwart the oncoming “Skrull invasion” provide the best glimpse into who we’ll probably be seeing in future films. Carol is brave, perhaps even a little foolhardy; hotheaded; snarky; quippy; and kind, in a reserved way. I don’t think the film follows up on those implied traits enough for me to call her nuanced or well drawn. But the bones are there.
Where I think Captain Marvel truly succeeds, however, is on a macro scale, in moments that matter more in that they’re the first time I’ve seen them on the big screen.
First up, Carol’s relationship with Maria Rambeau, her old Air Force buddy.
(Well, pre-first up, how often do we see female vets buddying around on screen? Never? Anyways.)
Once the Kree deception has been revealed to Carol, we’ve hit our superhero turning point. She’s possibly the only person who can help the Skrulls at this point, but when you find out the life you’ve lived for the past six years has been a lie, well, you’re a probably going to be a little unsure of yourself. You’re probably going to need a stabilizing figure to deliver some timely affirmations. It could have been Fury, or Talos the Skrull, or even the abstract concept of her rage at her old mentor, Yon Ragg.
But it wasn’t any of those things. It’s Maria, affirming her, encouraging her, assuring her she’s the only person in the universe who’s strong enough to help these weird snarky aliens not get turned to green goo by the Kree. Women affirming other women, pushing them up and spurring them to greatness? More of that, please and thank you.
The second hallmark moment is the final showdown between Yon Ragg and Carol. I spent most of the film waiting to see her best him without her powers because it’s set up so heavily in the exposition and honestly, that’s what we’re used to seeing in films. And it would have been satisfying to me if when he challenged her in their final showdown, she took the bait and beat him without. But Carol (who literally just got done punching a spaceship to bits) doesn’t. She doesn’t even let him finish.
Beyond the satisfaction, I get from a good prematurely terminated Bad Guy Spiel, Carol’s refusal to fight Yon Ragg on his terms feels monumental. There’s the outside context, that women are routinely punished and dismissed for being emotional, mirrored by Yon Ragg’s insistence that Carol masters her emotions to master her power. But in the real world and the Marvel world, deeply felt emotions are saving graces. Carol doesn’t need to strip herself of her feelings to be powerful or to win. She doesn’t need to bring herself down a peg to Yon Ragg’s level to prove anything to anyone – as she states pretty clearly. She beats him senseless using her powers because they’re her powers and she gets to decide when she does and doesn’t use them. Those emotions he told her to bury are her, and she gets to decide who that is. It’s a clear instance of this character’s agency and I was wonderfully surprised by it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise the film for another big surprise; its distinct anti-war message. I had my own misgivings before the movie about it being a glorified US Military advertisement, with the Kree being a proxy for the US and the Skrulls being a proxy for… whoever the US has decided to demonize this week. Instead, it poses the Kree as a highly imperialistic galactic force in need of checking. Through Talos (played impeccably by Ben Mendelsohn putting in serious work under layers of special effects and makeup), we come to see the Skrulls as refugees, victims of the merciless colonization, just trying to eke out an existence without having to bow down to Kree oversight. They aren’t absolved of atrocities, because, as Talos admits, they’ve committed their fair share. It’s a subtle, nuanced portrayal of the cycle of violence and abuse perpetuated by imperialism playing out in the background.
There’s still a lot in this movie that I found disenchanting. I take issue with the easily digestible, bite-size sexism present in Carol’s flashbacks; that felt like boxes checked rather than character motivations explored. I think way more time should have been spent with Carol and Maria and Mar-Vell rather than inserting Nick Fury’s origin story as well, because, come on, can’t a girl get a little screen time without it having to be about the dudes too? Its greatest flaw might actually be timing though. This movie would have blown me away five years ago. Today, some it feels a little too tread. Come on, the “smile for me” guy? Did the script writers just search the #feminist on Twitter?
But let’s be honest; this film made bonkers money in its opening weekend. It’s the second-highest grossing solo Marvel film behind Black Panther. Toys and merch are flying off the racks. She’s already confirmed in EndGame. We are absolutely going to get another Captain Marvel movie, and this one will hopefully go even higher and even further, hopefully, faster. Captain Marvel and ladies in superhero movies sure ain’t there yet, but this movie tells me they’re clearly well on their way.
PS: Oh, and at one point, when fighting the Skrulls, one screams at her in challenge and she screams back. It’s rad.