What follows is my no-spoiler review of Captain Marvel.
I grew up reading comic books. My dad had not only been a fan, at one time or another he owned many of the first issue origin stories — Spiderman and Fantastic Four were both in his collection before they were thrown out by family members sometimes during his college years. (None of them had any idea what they’d later be worth.)
He had hardbound comic book anthologies that my brother and I would read through, and when I was old enough to make some spending money I’d go over to the comic book store every chance I got and buy whatever caught my eye.
As I grew older, my collection also wound up in boxes, but it didn’t stop me from being excited when comic book movies that weren’t completely cringe-inducing started to take the stage. Some Batman incarnations were better than others, and while overall I didn’t like Brian Singer’s portrayal of the X-Men, there were standouts in the group — Hugh Jackman made an entire career out of being a cut straight from the comics Wolverine.
And then the Marvel Cinematic Universe got started with Iron Man in 2008, and everything changed.
I remember being a kid mowing our ridiculously large lawn for hours with a stupid push mower and thinking about how I’d make comic book movies. The MCU did what I wanted and so much more.
And they’ve had a really good run. 21 films, and they’ve really only stumbled a few times.
Captain Marvel is one of them.
Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is a human found by the powerful alien race the Kree and made one of their own, and is trained by them to become a warrior. She has no memory except flashbacks she can’t place. After an extraction mission for a Kree spy goes sideways due to a Skrull ambush, she winds up on 1990s Earth, where she meets a young, two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and begins fighting off a Skrull infiltration as she tries to piece together who she was. Her path ultimately leads to the unlocking of superpowers so overwhelming that they make her nigh invincible — even sending one of the most powerful figures in the MCU into retreat when he realizes he can’t face her.
That’s all you need to know about the plot. If you’re an MCU fan and you’re planning to see Avengers: Endgame, you’re going to want to watch this one. But you should expect to be disappointed.
Carol Danvers is a fatally flawed hero. Her biggest problem is that she resists character growth throughout her entire story arc. The underlying theme for her is that boys of all ages have always told her she isn’t good enough, so she responds by keeping a huge chip on her shoulder & tries incessantly to prove she is. But without growth, there’s no excitement when she gets her powers. She just becomes nearly invincible.
I tried to ignore people panning this movie before its release, or talking about Brie Larson’s disparaging comments about white men not seeing her movie. Actually, I saw her being misquoted, so this is what she actually said:
“I don’t need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work about A Wrinkle in Time,” Larson said. “It wasn’t made for him! I want to know what it meant to women of colour, biracial women, to teen women of colour.”
It’s a silly thing to say about a science fiction classic that a lot of “white dudes” probably care a great deal about. I’ve read the book more than once myself. But when you pivot to a Marvel superhero movie, sorry kiddo, the audience has a LOT of white dudes in it. And as a white dude myself, we have something to say.
What I want to say is that I really wanted to like this movie. I love good escapist fiction, I love the MCU, and I’m excited that we’re getting three films this year, including this one. But the plot of Captain Marvel sucks. First of all, it lacks any clear villain, which makes the whole thing seem unfocused. But worse is that anemic story arc for the main character. The Hero’s Journey is essential to any of these films, and it’s about a lot more than something making you stronger than all your enemies without you going through the requisite challenges and growth to obtain them. I actually think that giving powers to someone weak as a means of making them great is insulting to them as a character.
They need to deserve them. That’s what makes it so satisfying when they finally “seize the sword” and have the power to accomplish the mission.
This was the same problem I had with Black Panther. It wasn’t, “Look at all the great accomplishments of Wakanda and how wisely they used the Vibranium.” It was, “Look at how they fight amongst themselves & are selfish and tribal but hey they’re super advanced & powerful because something they did nothing to earn fell in their laps.”
None of the other MCU characters have this problem. They all have different origin stories, but they all also have either turning points or natural character attributes that make them heroic with or without their powers.
Steve Rodgers is the strongest example. What made him work as the 98-pound-weakling-turned-Captain America was that he had the heart of a hero. His body just didn’t match up. When they gave him the super soldier serum, it didn’t change him, it allowed him to fulfill his potential. He became in a more tangible sense what he already was on the inside.
The thing that happens when you give people powers who don’t have character? They become bullies. They settle scores. They shove their abilities in their enemies’ faces. And that’s basically what happens to Carol Danvers. There’s a moment in the film where her Kree mentor, Yon-Rogg, challenges her to prove to him she can beat him without her powers. If she had really grown into her self-confidence and self-control, he should never have had the chance to ask. She should have volunteered. That’s what someone who has grown would do.
Instead, she bullied him with superpowers for a laugh line. It didn’t make her look powerful. It made her look weak. Her “girl anger”, however righteous we were supposed to perceive it as being, was just a mask for her own massive insecurity. And at the moment she says she has nothing to prove, what she’s actually doing is demonstrating that she has everything to prove. She demonstrates at that moment that rather than mastery, she needs a crutch to defeat her opponent, who is not some super villain, but her teacher. There was no “student becomes the master” moment. Instead, there was a “student gets a huge gun and shoots the teacher to prove she’s better” moment.
It robbed the scene not only of any humor, but of any sense of satisfaction.
If you think about it, “heroes” like this are why the Sokovia Accords were created. It’s a fundamental principle: might doesn’t make right, and the people behind the accords, looking at all the damage from all these battles, were worried about unaccountable superheroes. Cap, of course, didn’t understand that, because his moral code prevented him from using his power irresponsibly, and he knew red tape would slow him down when people needed saving. But Danvers appears to be the reason things like the Sokovia Accords actually have some merit.
It’s a bizarre feeling when the protagonist of a superhero film is so self-focused that she’s completely unlikable. I enjoyed every single member of the supporting cast — including the cat — more than her. (And I’m not a cat person. At all.) I don’t want someone like Danvers to have unstoppable power. What’s to keep her from using it irresponsibly? She wanted to be SEEN as a hero more than she wanted to be one.
And for heaven’s sake, Larson, get the vocal fry under control. It doesn’t make you sound more commanding. It’s just annoying.