After its world premiere at the London Film Festival, Marvel Comics’ latest adventure, Captain Marvel, was released to cinemas in over 50 countries during the same week. Its co-directors and screenwriters, former television series writers/directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, were incredibly lucky in landing this as their first feature film: as a Marvel release, it was heavily promoted and bound to be a popular success; but it actually received more attention than the average super-hero film. A significant reason was the lead character, the first female superhero in the Marvel film universe, along with the perception of the story as representing female empowerment, openly and in an assertively positive way. This created interest, but also a surprising amount of controversy.
Captain Marvel’s political overtones caused conflicts even during the film’s origin story, prior to its release. It received an unusual barrage of negative online ratings, angry comments, and warnings to avoid the film – all before anyone could have seen it. As reported by the New York Times, online movie sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMdB had to deal with members attempting to manipulate the movie’s ratings and limit box office success in a strange vendetta. In fact, the pre-release hostility toward Captain Marvel caused Rotten Tomatoes to alter its longstanding rules for audience feedback, in an attempt to limit deliberately misleading ratings from popular attacks of this kind.
It appears that several features of Captain Marvel brought on this reaction. Simply featuring a female lead in a standard superhero film was enough to irritate a few of the more conventional Marvel movie fans; the praise Marvel received for this decision would add to the grumbling, as did purposely releasing the film on International Women’s Day. The conscious decision to make the cast more racially diverse than previous Marvel productions also had its detractors. The casting of Brie Larson, who has been a vocal critic of lack of diversity, both in film casts and among movie reviewers and journalists, added more fuel to the fire. However, Captain Marvel takes it further, producing a superhero battle story which not only features a woman, but which makes female empowerment and distinctively female strengths part of the super-warriors back story and a source of her power. This approach led to more online criticism, but also to more interest in the film. Finally, including thinly veiled references to American political issues in the plotline would certainly be more than enough to set off a debate, if not threats of bodily harm, in the present-day United States. The film became the target of a small but vocal group of alt-right critics who objected to comic book characters being used to, as they saw it, act as ‘social justice warriors’ or make political points. In the end, the main result was added publicity for a fairly good Marvel Comics movie which was fun and entertaining.
The story begins with a group of well-trained interplanetary soldiers of an alien (but completely human-looking) race known as the Kree, who guard their planet, and its various colony planets, from any form of incursion. Warrior-in-training Vers (Brie Larson) is no ordinary member of the guard: she gained unusual powers at some point during her mostly forgotten past, when some mysterious, violent event both wiped out her memory, and gave her the powers she is urged to hold in check rather than develop. She is being trained by the Kree to become a better fighter by suppressing her emotions, and by setting aside her wishes in order to serve the collective needs of her people.
The film’s running thread of political innuendo is introduced when the Kree are sent to monitor a distant planet, which turns out to be Earth during the mid-1990s. Asked about the planet, an older Kree guard remarks, “It’s a shithole.” Other references to present-day American politics eventually emerge. Meanwhile, Vers becomes stranded on Earth, which is a humorous caricature of the 1990s, from defunct businesses like Blockbuster and Radio Shack, to outdated technology and passé fashion choices. She becomes aware of the presence on Earth of her people’s enemy, the Skrulls, aliens who can change form in order to become indistinguishable from the rest of the local populace. We are given quite a bit of foreshadowing in the way the Skrulls are discussed: as being which are considered inferior, inherently dangerous, and constantly “invading our borders.” Vers manages to enlist government agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), well known from the Marvel franchise Agents of SHIELD, to help her with her mission, and they form both effective comrades in the frequent scenes of battle and scheming, and an amusing pair of slightly antagonistic, constantly bantering and mutually challenging accomplices.
When Vers recovers her memories of her time on Earth, when she lived as test pilot Carol Danvers, she not only learns more about her past, she begins to discover the source of her mysterious powers, which partly derived from a female mentor she had once worked with – played in a small but significant role by Annette Bening. She also comes to understand the reality of the war between her own people, the Kree, and their enemies the Skrulls. She is forced to reconsider the justice of the position she has fought to defend, in an apt but slightly heavy-handed parallel to American current events. It is at this point that the promised message of female empowerment comes across. Supported by friends on Earth, Vers resolves to follow her own principles rather than the unquestioned common purpose she has been taught to value, and to draw strength from her emotions rather than repress them. Browbeaten by her former commander, she draws on her newly recovered memories, recalling in a flip-book style flashback years of repeated failure and injustice, being blocked from activities or endeavours that were, at the time restricted to men; being jeered at for physical weakness; being urged to mistrust her own instincts. Endlessly recovering from these setbacks provides her with the necessary determination to draw on her full range of powers, and she becomes a virtually unbeatable champion. The distinctly feminine approach, although ponderous and as subtle as a stoplight, is unusual enough in a film of this kind to be quite refreshing.
The battle scenes which follow are highly dependent on CGI, as in most Marvel productions, and are predictable but action-packed and technically skilful. The injustice Vers has discovered is eradicated, and the war brought to a happy conclusion. We are left with both a new superhero and conspicuous hints of her presence in upcoming Marvel action films.
All in all, Captain Marvel provides everything it should as a superhero action movie. It’s fun for the kids and the comic book fans of all ages, and includes more than enough Marvel Comics references to keep the serious fans busy; but also provides entertainment to those outside the Marvel fandom. Following the social and political subtext is engaging in itself; and the film is also funny, finding ongoing humour in the Vers/Nick Fury relationship; in the quirks of 1990s America; in the various subplots, including Fury’s peculiar friendship with a cat who may not be merely a cat; in between-the-lines movie references; and at one point, in a purposely ironic discussion of the name “Marvel”. There is also, it goes without saying, the usual cameo by the late Stan Lee, in an appearance cute enough to make up for the resulting momentary break in the action.