HomeMoviesReview: Captain Marvel - Higher, Further, Faster than the Boys

Review: Captain Marvel – Higher, Further, Faster than the Boys

Captain Marvel Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

Captain Marvel has a lot to live up to. The MCU has been around since 2008, but this is its first female-led installment and some fans are not happy about it. When the posters were released, those “fans” whined that Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers didn’t smile enough even though they’d never asked that of the men. Then, just last week, before the movie was even out, a bunch of trolls with nothing better to do left so many negative comments and ratings on Rotten Tomatoes that the company changed its policies. Given all that, for too many, the question going into Captain Marvel isn’t really whether the movie is good, but is its titular hero likable?

Before that question can be answered, however, let’s first consider the film itself. Set in 1995, it follows Carol Danvers (known as Vers for much of the film), a woman who appears to be a blue-blooded Kree soldier, but keeps having flashbacks to a life she forgot thanks to a crash six years prior. After an escape from another alien race, the Skrulls, leaves Vers stranded on Earth, she fights to find a mysterious earth woman (Annette Bening) before the Skrulls do. She also encounters a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who tags along to help her find the truth about her past. If that last part sounds like 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, in which Jackson plays a crook who helps a former spy discover her amnesia-forgotten past, that’s likely intentional. Captain Marvel commits not only to playing with that film’s plot, but its ‘90s setting.

Part of that setting, though, is in service to the larger MCU’s narrative: the story must be set far enough in the past to not interfere with what we’ve already seen. However, writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (along with Geneva Robertson-Dworet on writing duties) use that setting to their advantage. At the time, the ‘90s were seen as the Girl Power decade. The next generation of girls (Millenials, mainly) were poised to reap the benefits the feminist movement had secured them and gender equality seemed within our grasp. Yet anybody who’s read journalist Allison Yarrow’s 90s Bitch knows that air of empowerment was deceptive. Every woman who succeeded publicly was also criticized for it and spent just as much time achieving as defending herself. Carol (and by extension, Larson) are forced to do the same. Luckily, both are up to the task.

One of the major ways the film does that is through its use of nostalgia and references to contemporary pop culture. Things like the crash through Blockbuster or the grunge outfit Carol steals off a rack are just for fun. But then there’s the moment when she’s walking though Blockbuster and smiles at a copy of 1983’s The Right Stuff or the fact that she also steals a motorcycle with her grunge outfit. In those moments and throughout, what the film is actually doing is allowing Carol to take on all the traits of coolness previously reserved for men.

This is the MCU’s 21st film and while Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow or Danai Gurira’s Okoye have allowed audiences to see women be just as powerful as Captain America or Black Panther, it means something else entirely to watch a woman take those markers of power for herself in a leading role. Carol is just as capable and occasionally reckless as the pilots in The Right Stuff and she looks just as badass on a motorcycle as Tom Cruise did in Top Gun. She’s cool and she knows it and one of the film’s greatest joys is watching Larson swagger around and verbally out-spar Jackson. In those moments, what she and the filmmakers are forcing the audience to do is see her as equally capable and heroic as those men.

Unfortunately, as the discourse leading up to the movie has shown, that seems pretty unlikely. Still, even though Captain Marvel is trying to meet some of the standards set by fanboys determined to hate it, it’s also questioning those standards. Carol’s story here is essentially about discovering who she is and embracing her inherent power. Throughout, Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg tells Carol something that every working woman has heard: her emotions are a weakness that keep her from being taken seriously.

It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to say that there’s an element of gaslighting there. Like so many girls before her, Carol is being told to meet an impossible standard while simultaneously being forced to suppress all the things that make her able to succeed. If this were a race, she would start farther back from the finish line than the boys and then be judged for only meeting the same standards– the film slowly makes that clear. It’s a critique of patriarchy somehow both infinitely subtle and absurdly heavy-handed and yet watching Carol finally become empowered in the face of the men and structures built to keep her down–and all to a very specific No Doubt song no less–is likely to be one of the most wonderful movie moments this year.

After all that, I suppose the question still stands: is Captain Marvel likable? By the standards of modern commercial filmmaking, yeah, the movie is good. The action is strong, the story is compelling and the characters are well-drawn even when they have limited screentime. It also, like every other MCU movie, has an over-complicated plot with too much franchise business to take care of and long stretches of mind-numbing action. But maybe its qualities kind of aren’t the point. Maybe what we should really be asking is whether her likability should be questioned at all.

Sure, Tony Stark got to have more fun in Iron Man, but when we met him, he was the carefree heir to a fortune made through weapons manufacturing. He had to learn to be a good person. Carol, on the other hand, is not only already good, but she spent her youth being ridiculed by male authority figures and peers. And then, even when she proved she was just as capable, she was kept from doing her job simply because even as late as 1989, the Air Force wouldn’t let women fly in combat. Carol didn’t get to have fun because she was too busy justifying her existence. Perhaps the same is true of her movie. So, if at the end of Captain Marvel you find it doesn’t meet your personal standards of goodness, perhaps you should ask yourself, how far back did you set her before she even began?

Rating: 8/10

Captain Marvel is currently playing in theaters everywhere.

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.


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