A beautiful story struggles to shine through the MCU’s misogynist positioning and passive first female superhero lead
As I’ve written about before, I’ve been looking forward to Captain Marvel the movie for a long time. Since I first read Kelly Sue DeConnick’s first trade paperback in 2013, really. Carol Danvers was my introduction to comics, in fact, having been isolated and/or excluded from that portion of the nerdverse during my childhood in the 90’s for a host of reasons which includes the fact that comics have historically been considered to be just for boys.
But when I read Carol’s origins story, I got it. I was hooked. This was a superhero I could love unequivocably: not for her mad powers which outshine the rest of the Avengers, but for the conflicted nature of her character. Carol is a loner, a rebel, and faces great inner turmoil at the prospect of leadership, and even more towards the alien DNA inside her. She’s haunted by an inner drive to go higher, further, faster, which makes her an unstoppable force, yet her instinct to care for and protect the few people she’s allowed to become family is even stronger. And she doesn’t know what to do with herself when they die.
She’s powerful, but also more than a little bit broken. And I like that about her, because I can see myself in that duality. The relentless drive. The gaping hole of my father’s death. The tension between wanting to nurture my family and wanting to be alone, and free. Carol gives me permission to be all those things at once.
Also, let’s be honest: on any given day, all I have to do is put on jeans, a bomber jacket, steal my husband’s aviators, and mousse my hair in order to cosplay casual Carol Danvers. She feels like my doppelganger. And that feels nice.
This is what people are referring to when they talk about the importance of representation. Yeah, I can have lots of love and respect for Bruce Banner, and for Peter Parker, and for Clark Kent, but their stories don’t give that same warm inner glow of empowerment as when I’m looking at someone who looks and acts the same as me.
So yes: all that to say I love the character of Captain Marvel, and I’ve been looking forward to this movie.
Yet ever since Marvel started fucking with the release date and dragging their feet on selecting a lead, I’ve had an increasing sense of dread. Executive producers niggling over creative direction and casting that early in the game rarely bodes well for movies, particularly in this genre. It was clear the MCU had decided that Captain Marvel was going to be positioned as a political turning point for the Avengers, and that they were struggling to know how to approach casting their first female superhero.
Because it’s the first female superhero movie. It has to be handled differently. Right?
*massive eye roll*
Then they announced Brie Larson, and my heart sank, because who the fuck is Brie Larson to the nerdverse? A few bad cameos in Community aside, Larson has done nothing noteworthy that would set her up to be the MCU’s next roguish, quick-quipping pilot. While the mainstream media have continually fawned over Larson’s pedigree of really bad action movies (Skull Island, I’m looking at you) and an Academy Weinstein Award winning role (you know Harvey Weinstein made the Academy Awards what it is today, right?) in an unwatchably sexually violent and voyeuristic movie, the nerdverse has echoed with puzzlement and unfamiliarity.
“Yeah I really haven’t seen her in anything except community…” has been the widespread sentiment. Yet MCU has historically chosen off the beaten path actors for its leads — Robert Downey Jr was plucked from rehab obscurity, Chris Evans was plucked from unspoken disaster (we don’t talk about that Fantastic Four), Chris Hemsworth from nowhere, Mark Ruffalo from indie film, Chris Pratt from Parks and Rec, Chadwick Boseman fresh from a duo of idiosynchratic first lead roles (42 and Get on up), Paul Rudd from a career to silly rom coms, and the list goes on. These leads were chosen, by all evidence, based on their fit for the roles, and by the fact that they really didn’t have anything bigger going on in their careers. And for these two reasons, these actors nail it.
Larson, on the other hand, seems to have been chosen for how well she plays in the media, leaving infinitely more qualified choices like Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) and Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) to languish in nerd obscurity.
The trailers with Larson’s wooden expressions and bad CGI came out, and reinforced my fear.
Then Larson began her press tour, and began explaining to us all how little she cared about the genre until Marvel approached her with the opportunity to do an important “feminist” role, and how it was a really difficult decision for her to make. And I screamed into my pillows.
Like so many butthurt fanboys before me, I feel betrayed. And while the movie turned out better in many aspects than I anticipated, I’m still disappointed, and I still feel betrayed.
But not, ironically, for the standard reasons. I’m not upset that Captain Marvel’s story doesn’t do justice to the comics. Quite the opposite: I think it fucking nails the origins story. I’m upset because Marvel seems to have lost its way in trying to capitalize on social politics, and forgot one of the most fundamental rules of good creative work: show, don’t tell.
If something is a thing, then the best way for it to demonstrate those properties is for it to simply go about the business of being that thing. Not to go about the business of proclaiming what it is.
Have you ever met those types of people who constantly state what type of person they are? “I’m a big picture person” (usually coupled with “I’m not a details person”), “I’m a people person”, “I’m a Christian”, “Parenting is my life”, “I’m such a hippy”, and perhaps the most obnoxious of all: “I’m a vegan”.
What’s your gut reaction to being deluded with such statements? Trying too hard is the statement that comes immediately to my mind.
If you have to advertise to people who you are and what you believe in, you’ll never be as effective at getting people to believe you as if you just focus on being and doing those things. Show, don’t tell.
In its eagerness to show the world how feminist it is (with the goal of making that paper), Marvel has neutered the MCU’s best potential to demonstrate genuine feminism.
Which I think is actually pretty fucking sexist.
But before I ramble on in vague generalities any more, let me get down into the details and talk about the actual film.
And yes: here there be spoilers.
Yes: there are lots of awesome things to love about Captain Marvel. Almost too many to keep track of, because as I said before: the storytelling is actually quite good.
Carol’s mentor and Mar-Vell
The storyline that most captivated me in the comics was the one of Carol’s mentor, Helen Cobb, who taught her how to be a pilot, as well as a woman out of her time. The movie pays serious homage to Helen in the character of Wendy Losson, played by the effervescent Anette Benning, who turns out in the twist to have actually been the Kree double agent Mar-Vell. While many old school comic nerds may have been disappointed to not meet the male Kree warrior Mar-Vell from the comics, I thought that the fusing of Helen and Mar-Vell was a powerful combination, and a very tidy way of tying up Carol’s rather disparate origins story. I don’t, however, understand why they didn’t just call Benning’s character Helen Cobb instead of Wendy Losson; this feels like a really obvious oversight, albeit a minor one.
The 90’s setting
The crash landing in Blockbuster, the Radio Shack love, the grunge costume — this movie was made to appeal to me, and these stylistic elements absolutely did that. It was an elegant way, too, to tie this story in to the chronology of the MCU. Nostalgia’s always a ringer.
The levity of the Skrulls
The twist of the Skrulls becoming sympathetic refugees was a welcome changeup from the standard MCU storyline, and frankly a welcome one, in these times. The main Skrull Talos, played by Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) brought incredible physicality and humor to this role that was delightfully and consistently pitch perfect. And — wonder of wonders — he’s not even tragically killed in front of his family, yet another welcome change in standard pace.
Nick Fury, buddy cop, cat lover
The buddy cop vibe Fury was sporting with Danvers was a really fun dynamic, and a welcome changeup from how we’re used to seeing Director Fury. Watching him fumble with antique tech was almost as big a treat as watching him fawn over the cat — or flerkken, rather — and subsequently loose his eye (that’s how that happened!!).
The flerkken, again, is a direct callback to a favorite plot line from the comics. Except again: Carol’s cat was named Chewie, not Goose. I don’t understand why they’d change the name — but whatevs.
Friends over lovers, and Monica Rambeau, ftw!!!!
In the movie, we’re introduced to Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau, mother of — you guessed it — Marvel comics universe veteran Monica Rambeau. This places a lot of the focus of the story on the friendship between Maria and Carol, who flew as pilots together and who both worked to raise Maria’s daughter, Monica. It’s another refreshing twist from the standard pace; instead of watching Carol have some dumb love affair with her male mentor, her emotional evolution and manifestation of love comes in the form of friendship.
This also sets us up very tidily for Maria’s daughter, Monica Rambeau, to join the Avengers back in the MCU’s modern day timeline. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see a new Monica Rambeau in Endgame — and that has me genuinely excited.
Yep, there were a handful of things that weren’t ideal, which I’ll keep brief here in list format:
Jude Law was Jude Lawing all over the place, and it was just too much. Marvel could have cut its expenses by 90% on that role by casting someone like Luke Evans (Bard in The Hobbit), and it would have had more charisma and been less distracting. Jude Law was just…totally unnecessary here, and another notch in my argument that Marvel’s casting was sexist. What, Captain Marvel can’t be successful without a Jude Law type on the supporting list? Go fuck yourself. (Actually, now that I think about it, that’s kind of exactly what the first Thor did with Natalie Portman — a casting choice I also hated. So my argument stands.)
The dialogue needed work. Especially the jokes. I don’t know what more to say here; there were so many moments when I wanted to laugh, but just didn’t, because the timing and inflection wasn’t quite right. It made me long for the days of James Gunn’s effortless quips and boundless chemistry. But now he’s working for DC, and is lost to the MCU. I mourn for us.
They went to the flerkken well a little too many times. Or they needed to pull back on the reveal until later in the film. It’s a beautiful easter egg, and I was so happy to see it included, but it became more than a little gimmicky, and felt like it was substituting for genuine plot and character development.
The soundtrack wasn’t nearly as awesome as it should have been, and in some spots downright sucked. Nirvana; Garbage — these were excellent selections, and well timed. But (and I know I’m far from the first to point this out) of all the deliciously angsty songs produced in the 90s, why in the name of all that is good and holy would you pick Gwen Stefani to headline the key climactic scene? I’m Just a Girl — seriously? Why don’t you just bash us over the head with my DnD character Yvanna’s tallywhacker to help reinforce that this is a feminist movie? Did Bikini Kill, and Carrie Brownstein, and Alanis Morisette, and Amy Mann, and Sheryl Crow all turn Marvel down for rights? Where’s the Jimmy Eat World and early Modest Mouse? As a music lover and child of the 90s, again I say to the creators of this mess: go fuck yourself.
Nick Fury felt neutered. There’s just no way around it. Yes, of course, this was young Nick Fury who was supposed to be a bit more unsure of himself and fumbling than we normally see, but his low levels of swagger made him nearly unrecognizable, and it gave the buddy cop vibe a weird, kind of sad and awkward feeling. Which brings me to my last point…
Brie Larson is garbage in this role. I can’t even say she’s a dumpster fire, because that would imply that she has at least some heat and passion, or point of interest, which is not the case with her performance in Captain Marvel. Not only is her expression wooden and passionless — even her body movements are stiff and unnatural. She spends the better part of the movie holding her fists at her side, elbows slightly bent, in the same pose we see Captain Marvel in her comic cover artwork spirally upwards, and while it’s nice to see that she’s done at least some research, why she’s standing in a bar talking to a guy holding her fists that way is…simply inexplicable.
Even her comedic lines fell flat; my brain registered them as humorous only after I’d processed her words and their context, because her delivery made no indication of humor. She’s passive, she’s demure, she’s unintimidating — she’s everything that is not Carol Danvers. Larson isn’t even believable in her dramatic acting, as she’s uncovering the origins of her genetic mutation, or connecting with her lost friend. There’s just…nothing there.
It’s the reason, I suspect, Nick Fury feels so neutered. I can only imagine that after initial screen tests with Larson and Jackson the director had to ask Jackson to tone his character down so not as to dominate Larson’s limp noodle performance.
Where mainstream outlets like Mashable and The Guardian come up with the idea that we get “pure energy from Brie Larson” is absolutely beyond me. Honestly: when I read these reviews and quips from carefully positioned Marvel PR personnel, I feel like I’m being gaslit. Or like we’re talking about two completely different movies.
Being garbage in the role of Carol Danvers doesn’t make Brie Larson a garbage human, or even a garbage actor. Clearly the Academy likes her dramatic work (I’m sure Harvey Weinstein would be happy to bankroll her next film, if he were still in business). I honestly feel bad for her. It’s not her fault Marvel made the biggest miscast of the MCU by choosing her to play Carol Danvers. I do wish she would have turned it down, though.
Surrounded by misogyny on both sides
While the angry manboy trolls are banging down the back doors with their Rotten Tomatoes ratings spam, wielding torches at a movie they’ve never seen based on comics they’ve never read because they don’t like having to share their toys with girls, Marvel has quietly taken its misogyny in the front door with a suit and a tie.
Marvel delayed this movie over two years — because “girl superhero movies” are, apparently, delicate and fragile. Marvel worked extra hard to hire so-called “A list” (and expensive) celebrities on this film, because apparently a story focused on a woman needs that extra support. Marvel chose their lead based on her political appeal and social influence, not on her talent and fit for the role, because apprently when it comes to working with women, talent and fit don’t matter as much as media aesthetics.
Marvel is just as guilty, as far as I’m concerned, of misogyny as the fanboy trolls who are spewing raw hate into the fiberwire. It doesn’t matter that Marvel was motivated by money and not by the desire to get laid (are they really different in the end, though?); the net result is the same, and it’s the same bullshit pattern of behavior Hollywood has dealt with since its inception.
And instead of bringing about genuine equality by demonstrating exceptional storytelling, it pours gasoline on the sexist troll fire.
You want to know what a truly feminist masterpiece looks like? Watch Bird Box, which stars a 54 year old female lead who plays a mother surviving the apocalypse with her two small children, and is pregnant for half the film. And is also directed by a woman. Watch Russian Doll, executive produced by Amy Poehler, written and led by Natasha Lyonne, and otherwise directed and created by an entirely female army of talented creatives who knock it out of the fucking ballpark.
Did you notice either of these films positioning themselves as “feminist masterpieces”? Did you notice Natasha Lyonne or Sandra Bullock blathering on about their perceived leadership of the feminist community during their press tours?
No. These works didn’t hype themselves as feminist, because they arefeminist. By nature, and at their very core — they exude that thing. And they don’t have to detract from it by slapping a trademarked label on it and plastering it across a billboard.
Captain Marvel isn’t terrible, but it’s not the masterpiece it should be. That we needed it to be.
I blame Marvel for their greed-induced sexism, and also the media and fury of morally aggrandizing radical left so-called social activsts who drag our discourse down into the mud with relentless optics campaigns.
But whatevs. Who knows? Maybe Marvel will decide to show its quality again and cast Janelle Monae as Monica Rambeau, and they’ll give her her own solo film, and we can forget all this unpleasantness with Brie Larson ever happened.