Editor KC Wingert examines the female superhero in Marvel’s latest addition to their cinematic mythos.
I have to admit that I’m nothing more than a casual superhero movie fan. I’ve seen some, but not all, of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s seemingly unending filmography – and most of the time I don’t know what’s going on because I skipped Thor 18 or Iron Man 26 or whatever number they’re on. I don’t hate superhero movies, but do find myself feeling frustrated when I see a franchise churn out several films a year, some of which are disappointing at best (ahem, Ant Man), knowing that no matter what quality is achieved, loyal fans will continue to show up and spend their money on this cultural phenomenon.
I am especially jaded when it comes to female superheroes in these films. Hollywood’s brand of feminism is disheartening; they just can’t seem to get it right. Too often, the so-called “strong, female lead” is a mere token; her existence in a film is largely based on her sexual difference. She is the only woman in a group of men, whom she surprises with her incredible ability to kick ass and maintain visual desirability while doing it. She is intimidating, cold, and mysterious in a sexy way. She is not represented as a particularly complex or conflicted person until a male love interest comes along to “soften” her. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I am talking about Wonder Woman).
I am tired of watching films with corny, girl power-y lines that will inevitably end up emblazoned on a t-shirt sold by some twee Etsy shop that throws in a “Notorious RBG” pin in with every order over £10. I am tired of films that wrap up the battle women have been fighting for hundreds of years neatly, with a big pink bow—a sign that all is well, sexism and gendered violence are over, and we can go back to being pretty now. I am tired of seeing female protagonists with one body type, one skin tone, one sexual preference, and one purpose—either to mother or to seduce the men around her. I am tired of watching women who cope well, who don’t cry, who don’t show any fear or hesitation. I am tired of looking at women who are only there to be looked at.
It’s safe to say I’m a hard sell when it comes to blockbusters starring women—not because I don’t want women to star in big-budget films, but because I feel like they never quite capture what it is to be a woman, really. And with all that said, I must make another really big admission: I absolutely loved Captain Marvel.
In Marvel’s first title film for a female superhero, Brie Larson stars as Vers, a Kree Starforce member of the planet Hala. Vers has the remarkable ability to produce photon blasts with her hands—a unique power she has not yet mastered and which she cannot even remember receiving. Her memory before becoming a member of the Starforce is completely blank, except for the bits and pieces of her past life that flash by in recurring dreams.
In a Starforce mission gone wrong, Vers is kidnapped by a group of enemy Skrulls, the alien shapeshifters attempting to infiltrate other planets by disguising themselves as their inhabitants. She manages to get away in an escape pod, which crash lands in sunny Los Angeles, California. It is here that Vers remembers more about her past—and discovers that she was a U.S. Air Force pilot thought to have been dead for six years after crashing her aircraft during a top-secret equipment test in 1989.
While on Earth, Vers makes the acquaintance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a favourite for any returning Marvel fan. This is Fury in the early days of his career at SHIELD—before the eye patch, attitude, and seemingly unchecked power. (We find out, in fact, how Fury loses his eye—and it’s not as badass as you’d think). Together, Larson and Jackson have great onscreen chemistry; it’s an absolute delight to watch this odd couple escape the Skrulls and travel to find Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), one of Vers’ friends from her human life. There are no faux-empowering moments between them—no “not bad for a girl” moments or “that’s my kind of woman” remarks. Fury and Vers are on a mission, and Fury doesn’t question Vers’ ability once. Unlike in many other films with a female protagonist, Vers is not someone Fury feels protective over in a paternalistic sense. Her value is not something that he expects her to prove before she can fight alongside him; in fact, in moments when they are not working together as equals, Fury looks to Vers as a leader.
Being the first woman to play a title character in a Marvel film is a high-stakes job, seeing as being the first female anything typically carries the pressure of making the entire gender look good—but it’s a job to which Brie Larson is suited, dare I say, marvellously. Larson is one of those actresses who brings a down-to-earth, relatable tone to whatever character she plays. She’s the girl who sat in front of you in biology, or the girl who played goalie on your field hockey team. She’s the girl who wasn’t loud and didn’t seek popularity, yet she seemed to be friends with everyone just the same. She is, at the same time, exceptional and ordinary. As Captain Marvel, a sort of accidental superhero, she expertly manages the bizarre duality of being both a totally average woman and an intergalactic warrior. It is this aspect of Larson’s performance which is most empowering; she tells us that any ordinary woman with a strong will can be a hero in her own right.
Another strength of Captain Marvel is that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have recreated one of the most exciting elements of the massively successful Black Panther: they have put a black woman in a central and catalytic role in the narrative. The friendship between Maria Rambeau and Vers—whose name, we find out, was originally Carol Danvers—is a wonderful show of solidarity between two women who were once up against sexism in the U.S. Air Force and encouraged each other, instead of competing against each other, to fly in the only missions women were allowed to pilot at the time.
Before Carol’s “death,” these women took care of each other and had each other’s backs, both professionally and personally, to the point where Rambeau’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) refers to Danvers as “Auntie Carol”. For that reason, it only makes sense that Vers should now trust Rambeau to help her save the world, as all Marvel heroes must inevitably do—and help she does.
Rambeau is absolutely essential to the plot of the film. She helps Vers remember her life as Carol and unlock her true potential as Captain Marvel. She even outdoes Nick Fury himself in terms of helpfulness to the cause, by expertly piloting a spaceship she’s never flown before and fearlessly fighting the enemy. Next to Rambeau, the typically intimidating character Fury is practically only there for comic relief and to tie into the rest of the MCU. As a mother, a pilot, and a black woman, Rambeau is a complex and interesting hero herself, not a character boxed into the “sassy black friend” stereotype.
A film set in the mid-Nineties, Captain Marvel makes several cheeky jabs at the dismally slow-moving technology and now-defunct businesses of yesteryear (rest in peace, Blockbuster); this setting, of course, calls for a soundtrack that feels like a love letter to the female musicians of the mid-decade. (It’s worth noting, too, that Captain Marvel is the first Marvel film to be scored by a woman). From TLC to Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Elastica to Des’ree, Captain Marvel didn’t miss any of the hits or one-hit wonders that completely encapsulate the fun, laid-back vibe of its era. The film is heavily influenced by nineties grunge rock, too, in soundtrack and production design alike. Dressed in loose jeans and a flannel shirt, Captain Marvel at one point cruises down a highway on a motorcycle while Garbage’s femme grunge classic “Only Happy When it Rains” plays. Courtney and Kurt are included, of course, and No Doubt’s upbeat anthem “Just a Girl” sets the pace for one of the most crucial fight scenes in the film. The rebellious, riot grrrl-influenced soundtrack evokes a point in time when resisting the norm still felt productive and rebellion made a difference. The soundtrack isn’t just wistful reminiscence on days gone by, either; it serves a thematic purpose. These feminist grunge rockers rejected the testosterone-fueled rock scene of the early Nineties and challenged the status quo in a way that had a real affect on American culture. Captain Marvel provides a welcome escape back to a time when women’s resistance in the U.S. didn’t feel completely ineffective in the way that it sometimes does now.
Captain Marvel may not be the first female-led superhero movie, but it is, in this writer’s opinion, the most successful one. An entertaining adventure sprinkled with ironic humour, this is the film women who just want to be entertained without feeling objectified have been waiting for. For being in a film largely centred around fighting a hostile alien race, Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel is a surprisingly down-to-earth character whose wit adds richness to action-packed adventure, and whose confidence is empowering. Hopefully, Hollywood execs looking to add some feminism to their roster will see this film and understand: Captain Marvel is how it’s done.
Captain Marvel is in theatres now. Check out the trailer below: