The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “Captain Marvel,” click here.
“Captain Marvel,” as a movie, is pretty good. It’s also great.
The latest planet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Captain Marvel” introduces us to Vers, née Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a member of the Kree, a race of aliens who are basically interplanetary cops. She’s often at odds with her crew leader, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is constantly reminding her that she needs to fight with her intellect, not with her emotions. (She also fights with her flame-shooting hands, a trait that should make the action figures interesting. “Captain Marvel: Now with arson action!”) The Kree are at war with the Skrulls, a race that can take the shape of any life form; after a Kree-Skrull run-in, Vers ends up on Earth in the mid-1990s, whereupon she must stop a Skrull invasion.
The screenplay, by co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck plus Geneva Robertson-Dworet, is a solid take on an origin story. We go back and forth in time, so it’s not the typical “guy gets bitten by spider/builds expensive suit/takes super-serum” deal, but it does have its share of lazy tropes and clunky dialogue. Still, it has a sense of fun, some lovely moments with old friends, and Samuel L. Jackson (pre-reprising his role as Agent Nick Fury) playing with a kitty. There’s also a soundtrack as enjoyable as the one in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” only this one will be particularly meaningful to those of us who sported flannel shirts around our waists while pulling dotted strips off the edges of our high school English papers.
Now on to the great part: Carol’s story (as in 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” she’s never referred to by her superhero name) is the same as so many other women’s, minus the flaming hands. She’s told she’s too emotional. She’s told she thinks too independently. When she arrives on Earth, she’s even told that her clothes are wrong and that she needs to smile more.
What Carol hears most of all, from all sides (except, to his great credit, from Nick Fury, who is too busy playing with the kitty), is that she needs to control her power — which is a not-very-subtle code meaning her emotions. And I assure you, up there with hearing that our clothes — or our bodies — are wrong and that we need to smile, women hear quite frequently that we need to control our emotions. After all, if we get really upset in public we’ll never get a Supreme Court seat.
Watching Carol learn that her feelings aren’t getting in the way of her power — that they, in fact, ARE her power — is tremendously moving. That’s not to say that Carol starts out unsure of herself; her very walk signifies confidence. (At one point, she’s striding down a crowded sidewalk and doesn’t step aside for anyone approaching her. Go outside and see how many women you spot who don’t swerve around someone who’s walking toward them.) However, her limitations are not, contrary to what she’s been told, her fault. It’s the world’s perception of her and her strengths that has been keeping her from reaching her full potential.
Earthbound, non-super-power-having women experience this all the time. Some don’t speak up in meetings, but it might be because there’s a culture in the room that says we’re shrill if we do. Some give fake phone numbers to guys we’re not interested in, but it might be because the world makes us feel compelled to give a kind-of yes instead of a straight-out no. Some stay in abusive relationships, but it might be because entertainment targeted at women often tells us that passion looks like violence and love like obsession (helllooooo, “Twilight”). “Captain Marvel” is a reminder that women are limited not because of what we are or are not doing, but because we’re taught that it’s us — not society — that needs to change.
It’s too bad that “Captain Marvel” is only pretty good. But for women who almost never get to see our experiences told through the lens of a hero, getting our own pretty good movie is pretty great.