CAPTAIN MARVEL – An Empty (Super) Suit

CM PosterMuch hay has been made about the new Marvel Studios film, Captain Marvel. “Finally,” they say, “A Marvel Studios film has a female lead.” It’s an “important” film, you must understand. As it will finally give women and girls someone to look up to and root for in the pop culture sphere. Never mind that there have been many other heroines over the decades.

The culture at large is giving this film and its star so much press and love simply because of what Captain Marvel supposedly represents. Whether the film is actually good or not appears to be a secondary concern.

Captain Marvel is not good. In fact, it is probably the worst film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. The film boasted impressive production value and honestly surprised me by containing very little openly feminist propaganda (though there are some eye-rolling zingers). However, the movie failed on a fundamental storytelling level and undermined the rock-solid footing of the MCU – a franchise that allegedly now rests on the shoulders of this thoroughly drab and unlikeable hero.

And so many women and girls will now see Captain Marvel as a halcyon of female empowerment, which, given how the character behaved in the film, is really sad. The film version of Wonder Woman is a much better candidate for that honor.

Still, as unlikeable as the title character was, Captain Marvel does delve into an interesting concept in Christian thought that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Good: Production, Villains, and Expectations

There is something to be said about an excellent subversion of expectations. It can really make or break a story (see Star Wars: The Last Jedi for the latter). Captain Marvel contained one of the better subversions I’ve seen lately: the villain status of the Skrulls. Known in the Marvel comics for half a century as one of the most malignant of adversaries, the shapeshifting monsters instead were innocents fleeing genocide at the hands of the bloodthirsty Kree.

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This idea expertly subverted the audience expectation of the Skrulls as one-note Marvel movie villains. This also extended into the casting of the Skrulls. Playing the leader Talos was Ben Mendelsohn, whose typecasting as a feckless villain in recent years (see Rogue One, Ready Player One, Robin Hood, and others) only added to the deception.

The Skrulls themselves were brilliantly realized. The makeup, designed by Shane Hahan and the crew at Legacy Effects, was truly amazing and very accurate to their comic likeness. It didn’t seem like an obvious mask with separate, jigsaw-like appliances, but a cohesive unit. The makeup looked warm with lived-in imperfections that one sees in actual skin. This only added to the creature’s sympathetic turn, as it took a tremendous amount of effort to look past their monstrous exteriors.

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While it’s not exactly makeup, the computer-aided de-aging effects have only improved from the already amazing work done in previous Marvel Studios films like Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War. Nick Fury and Phil Coulson (played again by Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg, respectively) made appearances in this film at 25 years younger and it was very convincing with no real computer residue visible. Jackson especially looked almost exactly as he did in 1995 when he appeared in a favorite film of mine, Die Hard with a Vengeance.

The Bad: Her Royal Smugness

Even though the film contained some impressive visual and makeup effects, Captain Marvel ran into big trouble with the titular character – which is never a good thing for a story. I genuinely didn’t like her and, in turn, wasn’t invested in her story – not because she was a woman, but because she was a dull, overly-confident, overpowered, and uninteresting character.

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Brie Larson continuously gave me the feeling that she was completely miscast for this role. She seemed to have all of the stances and looks of superherodom, but she was completely flat emotionally. She had no personality, no presence, no charm.

There were neither highs nor lows with Carol Danvers – even when presumably life-changing revelations were taking place. Found out she was actually from earth? Found out that her Starforce team and her mentor/teacher were actually the bad guys? She remained just as unflinchingly stoic as she ever had, only it was now aimed at the real villains.

There were flashes of personality, like making faces at the Skrulls during a fight scene, but the totality of her character was devoid of personality. How can one sympathize with our heroine when she’s about as human as a robot and completely unlikeable? In fact, I had more sympathy for the Skrulls, who had more personality than our supposed heroine.

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A better example of this story approach can be found in the brilliant and underrated 2013 sci-fi film, Oblivion. Like Danvers, Jack Harper’s world was turned upside-down when he realized that the people he thought were the enemy were actually the good guys and he was working for the villain all along. This caused genuine emotional trauma to Harper, who was visibly shaken by the revelations – feeling guilt and remorse for all the pain he had caused and was willing to sacrifice himself to make it right. It was also a much more intriguing mystery and engendered more sympathy to the character.

Covering up Danvers’ non-personality was a heaping helping of unearned Tony Stark-style snark and condescension. Her smugness and self-assurance were never challenged or questioned and never did Carol have an existential moment of humility. She was just as snarky and sassy at the beginning of the story as she was at the end.

Tony Stark may be an arrogant, smarmy jerk, but we have seen him continuously struggle with his ego over a decade, he has a degree of charm underneath the smarm, and he has the tech and skills to back up his claims (“genius billionaire playboy philanthropist”) – skills that we actually see him develop and hone over time. Carol Danvers had none of those hang-ups, and it made her snark annoying and petty.

Particularly annoying were her condescending talks with Nick Fury. While these dialogue scenes were intended to delve into the personalities of both Fury and Danvers, they ended up only adding to her unfunny dismissive attitude. It was part of a larger problem with the film: there were very few “slow” moments and the ones that did happen were very brief – some of them just a montage.

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It would have been more satisfying and the smarm somewhat earned if we saw Carol actually do things to back up her self-confident attitude. In a too-fast montage, we saw a flurry of examples of cartoonish male detractors from her past (which was a cringey, Hallmark film-style feminist fantasy in and of itself, but I digress). But we never got the satisfaction of seeing Carol fly past the oafish bro-pilot, complete the ropes course in front of the bro-recruits, or finish the race in the go-kart to show up her father. There was no payoff, so the montage was useless in the supposed emotional arc of the film. We didn’t go through her trials with her like we did with Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, so we don’t have a connection to her struggle (to the extent that she had one).

The audience got the impression that Danvers was a great pilot, what with her “let’s teach these boys how it’s done” talk with Maria Rambeau on the tarmac. But the only time we see her inside a jet was over in a matter of seconds, which said next to nothing about her skills. Never mind that she had never seen a quadjet before and happened to know how to fly it and fly it well.

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The other unfortunate side-effect of most of today’s “strong female characters” is the prevalence of Mary Sues – characters who begin the story relatively perfect, seldom change drastically in motivation or demeanor, and are ridiculously overpowered with little training or experience (like Rey in the Star Wars sequel trilogy).

When Danvers finally unleashed her full Captain Marvel powers by removing the inhibitor chip on her neck (ugh – eyeroll), she was able to tear through Kree battleships like butter, phase through walls, and breathe in space because…reasons. And she appeared to master everything in her wheelhouse in very short order with little explanation or training. If this isn’t a Mary Sue situation, it’s very close.

That whole scene reminded me of a comment made by legendary comics writer Denny O’Neal a few years ago. He remembered seeing a Superman story in which the Man of Steel had become so powerful that he could literally fly to a star and blow it out like a candle. What can you do with a hero who has that kind of power and still have a conflict with an antagonist? When a story has a protagonist who is ridiculously overpowered, there is no conflict. Captain Marvel’s “awakening” made her unstoppable, which makes for a pretty boring finale.

The lack of genuinely feminine qualities also plagues the modern “strong female character” trope. Apparently, women think the only way to show strength is to essentially act like men. There is very little about Carol Danvers that is actually feminine (aside from the physical) and the character could have just as easily been played by a man with few changes to the dialogue or situation. This was a problem similar to that of the character played by Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. There was no femininity or feminine perspective; only a kick-ass chick taking down dudes three times her size.

The titular character in Wonder Woman was a character who had genuine female attributes and also possessed considerable strength – because she actually acted like a woman. Ellen Ripley from the Alien series is another real female character – especially in Aliens when she overcame her own fears to protect a child from the alien queen.

There was no genuinely feminine meat to Captain Marvel – only empty feminist platitudes that demand, instead of command, respect.

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The other character not served very well by Captain Marvel was Nick Fury. Playing second banana to the joyless Carol Danvers, Fury was relegated to the role of a bumbling goofball. One of the most badass characters in the MCU was petting and making baby talk with a kitty-cat. It was embarrassing and unnecessary. And then at the end of the story, his usual demeanor and cadence of speech came in. I cannot believe that Fury’s entire personality would change that drastically over the course of just a few days.

I understand that the character was a low-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent at this point in his career, but he was also a soldier before S.H.I.E.L.D. It made no sense to have his personality change so drastically. It could be said, ironically, that Fury had more of a character arc than Captain Marvel herself.

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The worst thing done to Fury was the reveal of how he lost his eye: a result of Goose the cat/flerken clawing him. It made that tense scene between Fury and Steve Rogers in the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier (“Last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye”) lose some of its meaning and intensity. He now seems like less of a serious character.

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Fury’s reaction to being clawed by an alien cat was akin to the absurdity of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – only it wasn’t funny and completely incongruous with the tone of the film and the character.

A more cynical person would say that Fury was taken down a couple of notches in order to make the bland and forgettable Carol Danvers look good. But I’m not that cynical.

And another thing…it was beyond absurd that Fury named the Avengers Initiative after Carol Danvers. It completely undermined Captain America’s place as “The First Avenger” – as in the character who exemplified the valor and heroism that set the bar for what an “Avenger” is. Carol Danvers was not a good exemplar of Avenger-type behavior in this film, nor did she take the time to learn it.

Both Tony Stark and Thor had to learn how to be heroes and meet the expectations set by Steve Rogers – and Rogers’ shadow loomed long over Stark in particular (which bubbled over in Captain America: Civil War). Danvers just swooped in, having not earned any of this recognition or respect by the audience.

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All of these creative choices marked Captain Marvel with a serious tonal inconsistency. It appeared that directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck couldn’t decide what kind of movie they were making and were trying all of the Marvel styles that had been attempted before to see what would stick. Their hero was an awkward Tony Stark wannabe whose personality changed to stoic Captain America-type with the vacillating tone of the film. It was Avengers serious and Guardians of the Galaxy comedic when it needed to be with virtually no balance – leading to awkward comedy that doesn’t stick the landing.

The final big fight scene on the Skrull ship, besides being an incoherently staged fight (the folks who prattle on about Michael Bay’s Transformers battle scenes should have a field day with this), it was trying to be serious and comedic at the same time and ended up being neither. The song “Just a Girl” was so on-the-nose that it bordered on parody. It seemed like Boden and Fleck were trying to channel Guardians, but lacked the comedic timing and talent to pull it off.

Getting Back Up

Though it failed in its execution, Captain Marvel attempted to convey a strong core truth about Christian life. Carol Danvers was depicted as a person whose inner strength is her greatest attribute. The film depicts several instances in Carol’s life in which she falls down – sometimes literally. She then finds the strength within herself to endure and try again.

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We’ve all had instances in our lives in which we have failed or not measured up. They may have been large and small, but we remember them. These negative episodes stick with us and have the capability to haunt us – hindering our ability to try again. However, we must not be discouraged or consumed by our failures. We must dust ourselves off, rise to the challenge, and try again.

“In this life, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

The Christian life is fraught with opposition – chief among them our spiritual adversary, Satan. Jesus explained as such in the Book of John. But we are to be encouraged in knowing that our Lord is stronger than any adversary on this earth and He will give us the strength to get through our trials and failures. When we stumble, Jesus picks us back up.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7

The apostle Paul kept the faith despite severe hardships as one of Christianity’s greatest missionaries. Throughout his travels, Paul endured trials like shipwrecks, imprisonment, beatings, threats, and others. They tested him and came close to breaking him. But Paul relentlessly clung to Jesus and garnered strength from Him. And with the Lord’s help, he endured all he faced. With Jesus’ help, Paul was able to dust himself off and get back up to do the Lord’s work. And when the time came for his execution, Paul was content that he had done all the Lord had asked.

We must learn to endure the hardships and failures of this life and not have them consume us. We will be told by people, time and time again, that we’re not good enough, that God couldn’t possibly love us, that we can’t accomplish what the Lord has asked of us. But we must cling to Christ in those instances and ask Him for strength. He will pick us back up until our work is done, and then forever after.

The Last Word

Captain Marvel is the worst film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though it thankfully contained only a smattering of feminist bromides, it was just a lazy film with a vacillating tone and an uninteresting lead character. If the MCU is banking its decade-old clout on Carol Danvers, there are some definite rough seas ahead. Hopefully, the Russo Brothers, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely will know how to utilize her better in Avengers: Endgame. Otherwise, she’s looking to be the weakest part of that film already.

Life is tough and there will be times when we stumble and fall – both literally and spiritually. But we must not dwell on our failures, listen to the naysayers, and have our feelings consume us. But we shouldn’t look to ourselves for redemption. We must look to Christ, whose opinion of us is the only one that really matters, and lean on His strength to pull ourselves up. If we walk by faith, we will have the strength necessary to endure any trials this world can offer. We just need to get back up again.

CM Score

Captain Marvel
Marvel Studios
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn,
Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, and Jude Law
Written by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and Jac Schaeffer
Based on a story by Nicole Perlman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse
and characters appearing in Marvel Comics
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

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6 thoughts on “CAPTAIN MARVEL – An Empty (Super) Suit

  1. Aw, always sad to hear that one disliked a movie so much. You and I certainly disagree on this one (not surprising), but I do have a counterpoint to offer on one of your gripes…

    “But we never got the satisfaction of seeing Carol fly past the oafish bro-pilot, complete the ropes course in front of the bro-recruits, or finish the race in the go-kart to show up her father. There was no payoff, so the montage was useless in the supposed emotional arc of the film.”

    I think the payoff is there, just not as you seem to have hoped for. After Carol takes her finishing shot at a verbally-challenging Yon-Rogg at the end of the movie, she tells him, “I have nothing to prove to you.” She could have destroyed him pretty easily in that moment, but she realized that she didn’t have to. The younger versions of Carol probably would have loved to have proved themselves against their belittlement, but by the end of the movie, Carol has seen what she can be and to “prove” herself any further would be petty. The only reason she has these extra powers, to begin with, is because she made a sacrificial move to destroy the engine by blowing it up as she stood right next to it. Her strength of character comes from standing up again and again, as you speak to at the end of the post, and I think that’s her entire point. The payoff is there, but it’s quiet instead of filled with bravado; now that she can finally prove herself in all of the ways that perhaps she couldn’t as she grew up, Carol realizes that she doesn’t have to.

    • I think you’re making excuses for lazy storytelling. Her character betrays that scenario for the entire film, and never changes as a result of her confrontation with Yon-Rogg. The arc failed to pay off what was set up. Again, if we actually took the time to see her go through trials, like Captain America, and actually be emotionally impacted by something that happened in the story, I would be more sympathetic.

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