Note: Contains massive spoilers.
Finally, a female-led Marvel movie has graced theatre screens. After 20 MCU films, Brie Larson has been crowned as Carol Danvers a.k.a Captain Marvel, bursting into the universe as the most powerful hero we’ve seen. Unfortunately, a pimple that had been festering under the Marvel fanbase’s skin (since Black Panther’s release last year) also burst… all over the internet.
In the lead up to Captain Marvel’s release, Brie Larson gave some comments in which she expressed her concern towards lack of diversity in the press. Shockingly, truly shockingly, some would-be viewers felt attacked and decided to boycott the film. Captain Marvel has gone on to become the second highest grossing of 2019, bringing in $455 million worldwide at the time of writing. So, Disney probably aren’t too worried. Larson had also noted during her press junket that the film depicts the female experience and brings to light stories never seen in the MCU before. There are subversive moments and story beats that hit hard, arising solely from the fact that Captain Marvel is a woman instead of a man. The film also carries some interesting feminist themes and conversations, which seem to (unknowingly) actively engage in the public debate that surrounded the film. This marks the fact that Captain Marvel acts as a cultural barometer in gender politics of our time.
Criticism of the film began very early on, with the first trailer receiving flack for Brie Larson’s stoic performance, and more specifically, her lack of smiling. In response to the sexist comments, Larson posted photoshopped images of other Marvel heroes to her Instagram story. Iron Man, Captain America and Doctor Strange all looked goofy as hell, striking their superhero poses with big cheesy grins. Her acting chops and body were also called into question, with “fans” wondering if the Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe winner, who later pushed a Jeep at an incline, could handle the role. More kickback came when Larson drew attention to lack of diversity in her press rooms, and submitted that there are certain films where opinions that are not from white men are desperately needed, referring to A Wrinkle in Time (which had a cast primarily consisting of women of colour). This comment in particular sparked talk of a boycott, or the #alitachallenge. So, y’know, Twitter shit. Would-be-viewers were instructed by popular American conservatives to go see Alita: Battle Warrior instead, so they would not be supporting ‘SJW nonsense’.
It’s not like sexist criticism of major franchises or progressive mass media is new, not at all. Alicia Vikander was criticised for her boobs being too small to play Lara Croft. The 2016 gender-bent Ghostbusters remake was threatened with a boycott. Gal Gadot was body shamed; not curvy enough to play Wonder Woman. Major feature films that surround women are so often unfairly subject to hatred and misogyny. These films (including Captain Marvel) are nowhere near perfect. Some note that there is no address to intersectional feminism, that minorities and LGBT+ are often not given a place to speak or that the stories seem inauthentic or do not delve far enough into politics. There is legitimate, interesting critique and analysis that these films deserve, criticism that we need in order to progress our representations and stories in mass media. However, so much of the criticism unproductively seeks to destroy the voice these films give to women, to undermine the subversive messages they send. Captain Marvel thrives in the context of a misogynistic market, as it engages in the conversation with fierce attitude.
In the opening of the film, the hero is told by both her mentor and the intelligence that controls her society that she will never win a fight without keeping her emotions and powers at bay. Cap doesn’t really listen, operating throughout the movie with cheek, sass and strong connection to her tragic past. In the final showdown with her mentor, she is challenged to a battle, told to beat him without her powers, told she needs to control herself. She blasts him straight into a rock, basically giggling at his incompetence. It’s pretty satisfying, and sends a poignant message to some in the Marvel fandom, to those who wish to maintain the status quo. Those who could probably do with a shower and a deodorant other than Lynx.
In a holy-shit-was-that-written-before-the-controversy moment, a man on a motorcycle catcalls Carol, and then tells her she should smile. She ignores him at first, rolling her eyes in a way that is all too familiar. Then, she’s riding across the desert on his motorcycle. Interestingly, there isn’t a lot of weight to this moment, the movie just breezing past it to hit the next plot point. It remains well remembered, getting a good laugh out of the audience, along with some uncomfortable shifting in seats.
In a much more sub-textual manner, Captain Marvel delves deep into a feminist journey. The film concerns itself with the journey of one woman, seeking to rediscover the truth of her past, who is exposed to the horrific manipulation and corruption of her society. Her worldview is entirely shaken. Her superiors try to restrain her, to control what makes her different, but ultimately it is her allies, her resistance, her power and her emotion that push her to succeed. She is held down, but comes back every time, against ideology that suggests she shouldn’t. Once she is able to fight with both hands, no one is able to stop her.
This film is incredibly important. It is subversive to previous superhero and MCU films, even in the most obvious details of the story; it is an superhero origin story about a woman. The film and Marvel should be open to criticism, but criticism that is fair and productive. It might not go far enough for the time that we are in, but for women and young girls who have been waiting for 20 films to see this kind of hero it is a step in the right direction. Next, that step should be a massive jump.