I love Marvel films. I absolutely, unashamedly adore them, as both a comic nerd and a film enthusiast. There’s just something about this massive, intricately-constructed shared universe that they’ve brought to the screen that’s inherently magical. And there hasn’t been a single installment in the MCU that I haven’t enjoyed so far, which is particularly impressive considering there’s been over 20. That being said, I think there’s certainly a spectrum of quality among the massive roster of films in Marvel’s library. I’m fond of each and every one of them, but some are inarguably better than others. Their biggest fault is the fact that, often, they tend to fall victim to a certain formulaic approach, especially in the introductory films for new heroes. Origin stories all have to cover the same ground, with a requisite amount of exposition and character work, making them often seem rather bland and predictable. It’s later, when the character is already introduced and no longer needs establishing to the viewer, that they can really shine, either in sequels or crossovers. And since we’ve been seeing these stories for over a decade now, it’s getting harder and harder for origin films to really do something special that we haven’t seen before.
That alone should have been the biggest hurdle that Captain Marvel faced upon release. But thanks to the actions of some whiney, maladjusted basement-dwellers on the internet, the film suddenly found itself under an avalanche of false negative reviews. The reasons for this aren’t worth getting into, because they’re absolute nonsense, but it essentially boils down to comments star Brie Larson made regarding diversity and inclusion among film critics, along with her general feminist beliefs. This coupled with the fact that Carol Danvers is the MCU’s first female-led solo outing made it a prime target for trolls. In short, a bunch of white guys online got ornery because a woman had opinions that they didn’t like, and decided to try and tank the film’s reputation. So to say that Captain Marvel had an uphill battle ahead of it is a bit of an understatement.
The film’s status as the first MCU installment with a female lead has similar ramifications as DC’s earlier Wonder Woman. It’s a delicate balancing act for the studio: Certainly, you want to address the fact that the lead is a woman, and all of the accompanying feminist ideals that go along with that. You want to make sure that the character is strong, that it doesn’t play to stereotypes, and that it accurately and fittingly portrays a female lead in a way that doesn’t seem insincere. But at the same time, also acknowledging that the fact that your character has flaws, and still allowing them to grow as a character. Captain Marvel, unfortunately, seems to have some trouble with the last part.
Brie Larson herself perfectly embodies the Carol Danvers of the comics. For those of you unfamiliar with the character, there’s a running sort-of joke that fans use to compare her with Captain America: When Cap gets knocked down, he gets back up because it’s the right thing to do; When Carol gets knocked down, she gets back up because f*&$ you, that’s why. And Captain Marvel absolutely nails this. She’s impulsive, cocky, and snarky as all hell, but still has an enormous sense of duty and responsibility about her. She’s almost like a complete personality cross between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark in that regard. She’s charming, funny, and incredibly likeable, but you never doubt for one second that she could kick your ass.
But herein lies the problem: There’s really nothing else to her character. She’s a hardass, she can fight, and she can sass, but other than that, she has no real nuance. Her character has no real journey, no point where she has to overcome any real emotional or psychological speedbumps. The only thing she overcomes is amnesia. Look at the rest of the heroes of the MCU: Tony Stark’s journey saw him go from a selfish industrialist and war-monger to a heroic, self-sacrificing philanthropist. Thor begins as an arrogant, hot-tempered royal brat who learns humility and respect for his own powers. These heroes, in addition to overcoming physical challenges like their respective villains, also overcome their own personal demons in the process. They both become likeable to the audience because we experience their growth with them. Their development feels earned, and therefore they seem much more layered and complex because of it.
Carol Danvers doesn’t have this kind of journey. She begins the film as a brash, reckless soldier who has a problem with authority, and she ends the film the same way. There’s no growth on her part, because we as the audience are never given the impression that any of her personality traits are faults. Superhero films work because, again, we see the heroes overcoming obstacles from both the external world and their own internal psyches. Captain America is endearing not only because he fights Nazis, but also because he defeats his own self-doubt and sheepishness. We love Peter Parker not because he can web up bank robbers, but because his powers give him confidence and self-worth. Bruce Banner is both literally and metaphorically at a constant struggle with his inner demons. With Carol Danvers, there’s nothing about her character that is presented as something in need of change. Her stubbornness, her aggression, and her devil-may-care attitude are all, by the end of the film, traits that are meant to be a source of pride and praise, rather than detriments. She is exactly the same as a person throughout the entire film, with the addition of some forgotten memories.
This is a big problem for two important reasons: One, it makes for rather stagnant storytelling. It reduces Captain Marvel to being solely about overcoming a physical enemy, making all the conflict and turmoil shallow and skin-deep. It takes depth away from the character, and gets dangerously close to categorizing the film as spectacle only. The second and larger issue this creates is that it essentially devalues the underlying feminist themes that the film is trying to present. In the press leading up to the film, both Brie Larson and the film’s producers and directors have all stressed that this is meant to be a film about feminine empowerment. Fine, all good. Of course it should be, it’s the first female-led solo MCU film, absolutely it should reflect that in its ideology. But the execution is so crucial.
A character who is being written as a manifestation, representation, or prototypical example of some underlying ideology or theme can’t just be that. There needs to be more to their character, more layers to who they are. Otherwise the character comes across as lazily-written, and fails to realistically portray the intended message with any real nuance. Carol is almost a full-blown caricature: She’s always on top of every fight, she always gets the last word in, and she almost never seems challenged by anyone or anything. She’s presented as perfect, able to do anything without any real challenge. And that completely undermines the point of the film: Carol, if she truly is meant to represent feminist progress, should have to overcome something, be it internal or external, that’s oppressing her. Or, barring that, she should have some sort of epiphany about her own self-worth or her standing in society. Instead, this is the basic outline of her character arc:
Carol: I’m a badass.
Yon-Rogg: Not really, you need to calm down a bit.
Carol: Lol no. *Punch*
By the end of the film, Carol becomes superpowered to the point where she may be the most powerful hero in the MCU, but there’s no repercussions to this. No consequences, no “great power, great responsibility” moment, and no tragic turning point to serve as inspiration. It’s just so static that to me, it’s honestly rather uninteresting. Compare this to Diana in Wonder Woman. She’s a powerful warrior, nigh unstoppable in a fight, but she’s flawed. She has an internal journey as a character, as she learns to navigate the world of man and sees the horrors of war for the first time. She’s a badass in the face of adversity, be it the sexism of World War 1 or the physical manifestation of war itself, rather than simply being a badass in spite of it. She loses people, she becomes jaded, and she learns that her powers can’t solve everything. It’s nuanced, makes her seem much more dynamic and realistic, and overall makes her seem like a much more emotionally powerful figure, having to actually overcome some kind of anguish and adversity. The other female heroes in the MCU are similar: Scarlet Witch overcomes her desire for revenge and puts aside the loss of her brother in order to defy an evil AI who seeks to control her. Likewise, Black Widow harbors immense pain from a broken childhood and being trained as a weapon, yet still moves beyond her fractured past in order to help those who can’t help themselves. There’s no excuse for Carol having so little in the way of obstacles to overcome.
And the sad thing is, I can see elements in the film that would have worked. The pieces are there, they just weren’t properly assembled. Have Yon-Rogg and the other Kree treat Carol as an outcast, make her think that she’s less than them because of her origins. Have her emotions be treated by the Kree as a weakness. Make her feel inferior to Yon-Rogg, show the other woman on her team, Minn-Erva, being treated equally terribly. Have Carol become a hero in the face of these struggles, and her journey becomes much more powerful, her victory more earned. There’s moments where it seem like the film is going in that direction, with bits of dialogue here and there, but they’re quickly abandoned in favor of a joke or another action set piece. And lastly, Carol’s powers need some sort of cost. She can’t just suddenly be a demigod just because. She needs to have some sort of cathartic moment where she realizes their value, their importance, and their repercussions. Instead, we get none of that. Just a “Wow, I’m awesome” ending without any serious lasting consequences. It’s the same problem I had with Alita: If she’s such an unstoppable badass, why do we care about her? Where’s the suspense?
This is all accentuated by the fact that Captain Marvel has all the subtlety of a cement truck crashing through a brick wall. A film with a strong thematic core needs to be able to work it organically into both the narrative of the film’s plot, as well as the individual arcs of the characters as well. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, we see the exploration of trust in institutions play not only a key role in the plot of the film, which follows HYDRA agents infiltrating and using SHIELD as a means to their own nefarious ends, but in Steve’s growth as a character as well, with his steady distrust of the government growing slowly over the course of the film. What doesn’t work when exploring a core theme, however, is simply telling it to the audience, rather than trying to naturally express it through storytelling. Captain Marvel is awful with this. So much of the dialogue is incredibly on-the-nose and cartoonishly blatant, from jokes about why planes have a “cockpit,” to ham-fisted speeches about being a strong, single mother. When the big, climactic fight scene begins to loudly blare “Just a Girl” by No Doubt, I audibly groaned. And her big, affirming battle cry at the end of the film is “I am Carol,” which would be poignant and fitting if she had to journey to gain self-worth and identity. But no, it was literally just addressing the fact that the Kree called her by a different name, and she forgot her old one. It’s certainly no “I am Iron Man.” Like most of the things in this movie, it’s no deeper than it sounds.
I know all this sounds like I hated Captain Marvel. In fact, I actually really, really enjoyed it. It has all the fun and joyful, popcorn energy of the rest of Marvel’s extensive film catalogue. It’s funny, well-acted, and has some great supporting characters, including a delightful, de-aged Nick Fury and an adorable cat. Also, it probably has my favorite villain twist in the entire MCU. I just think it was a bit of a missed opportunity in terms of actually exploring a timely and relevant theme in a way that had any real gravity and nuance. Which is a shame, but then again, solo origin stories tend to be a bit bland. So I look forward to seeing if the Russo’s do anything interesting with Carol in Avengers: Endgame next month.