This column discusses the plot of “Captain Marvel” in general terms.
“Captain Marvel” is the “Lean In” of superhero movies, an anodyne girl-power story that treats one woman’s journey of self-discovery as a proxy for galaxy-level change. Though the film is precisely engineered to appeal to critics like me — feminist women who came of age in the 1990s — it’s a disappointment, from the poorly shot action sequences to a shallowly written hero’s journey. More than anything else, “Captain Marvel” is the perfect caution that giving women and people of color top billing in major franchise movies is no guarantee that those films will say anything interesting, much less daring. In fact, the very scale at which these franchises need to appeal to audiences and the nature of their corporate entanglements suggests that these sorts of movies may be a trap for people who are eager to see not merely new faces, but new ideas of heroism, on-screen.
Our titular heroine (Brie Larson) is first introduced in 1995 as Vers, a member of the elite — literally blue-blooded — race of Kree warriors. Vers is having pesky dreams of a different life, one in which her father and brother were mean to her about her desire to race go-karts, and an obnoxious pilot taunts her by saying “You do know why they call it a cockpit.” The source of these dreams becomes clear after Vers crash-lands into a Blockbuster Video back on Earth: Vers is really Air Force pilot Carol Danvers, and the dreams are memories from a former life, which ended when a 1989 plane crash left her with superpowers, and the Kree decided to rescue her and enlist her into their ranks. But their larger context never truly comes into focus.
That elision is particularly striking because the years during which the movie takes place were exceptionally fraught ones for women in the military. Carol is off-world in 1991, when the Tailhook scandal revealed that 83 women and seven men were allegedly sexually assaulted by more than 100 Marine Corps and Navy officers; in 1993, when the law that barred women from combat ships was repealed and Defense Secretary Les Aspin decided that women could fly combat missions; and in 1994, when President Bill Clinton declared the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Just this week, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who became the first woman to pilot a plane in combat after Aspin lifted the ban, said that she had been raped by a superior officer during her time in the Air Force.
But just because Carol is absent from the planet during those events doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, or that her rude comrade-in-arms is an aberration rather than an expression of a specific culture. As a result, “Captain Marvel” often feels like its period setting was picked for the soundtrack opportunities or the chance to make pay phone, Blockbuster and AltaVista jokes rather than for its events and ideas. But unlike “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which uses 1980s music as a narrow strand of nostalgia tying its protagonist to his faraway origins on Earth, there were actual developments happening in 1990s America directly relevant to the ostensible themes of “Captain Marvel.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has long depended on its partnership with the Defense Department for access to equipment, military personnel and shooting locations. Likewise, the financial success of the franchise depends on calibrating its action sequences to feel simultaneously world-threatening and weightless so as to preserve the PG-13 ratings that keep the movies accessible to the widest possible audience. The cost of those corporate considerations has never felt so high as it does in “Captain Marvel,” which functions virtually as an ad for the Air Force, at great cost to its own themes.
Because the movie fails to say much of anything about Earth, “Captain Marvel” misses an opportunity to develop a potentially powerful parallel between the two military services in which Carol serves. Early in the film, the commander of Carol’s Kree special forces squadron, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), insists that he is asking her to suppress her emotions only because he wants her to be the best version of herself as they gear up for a fight against the hated Skrulls. Ultimately, though, he’s lying to her: Yon-Rogg is really asking Carol to avoid using her powers to her full ability, and warping her sense of the causes to which she should apply that power. The glimpses of sexism we see among Carol’s male Air Force colleagues — and the fact that Carol’s best friend, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), seems to have given up on the dream of becoming a fighter pilot — could be an argument that the American military is similarly missing out on the benefits it could reap from the full expression of women’s talents.
The absence of a sharper, clearer critique of the institutions Carol serves ends up undercutting “Captain Marvel”’s portrait of her transformation from a soldier in two different armed forces into a one-woman army capable of destroying a whole armada of spaceships. Rebelling against individual meanness is cute and fundamentally nonthreatening — the kind of thing you can score to No Doubt’s 1995 hit “Just a Girl,” a lament about sexism that weirdly deflates one of the movie’s most important action sequences. A movie where Carol liberates herself from two repressive military systems, one of them alien and fictional, the other very much real and lending her corporate parent equipment for use on movie sets, would be genuinely radical. It’s also never going to happen.
Given the seeming amnesia about 1990s-era politics that defines “Captain Marvel,” and its frequently discordant use of the era’s hit music, the most period-appropriate thing about this ostensible period movie may be its bizarrely tentative treatment of the relationship between Carol and Maria. The movie is larded with details suggesting that the tie between the two women is more than mere friendship, from their long hugs and limpid glances to the declaration that Maria and her daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar), are Carol’s real family, given her distance from her own relatives. But the film lacks the courage to actually declare its intentions. Watching the movie tiptoe around Carol and Maria, I couldn’t help but think of the charming romantic comedy “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls In Love,” which was released in 1995 and showed substantially more guts and heat than “Captain Marvel” does. Legally, politically and culturally, the United States may be a very different place than it was 24 years ago, but corporate entertainment conglomerates are still playing by decades-old rules.
When Hole’s lacerating song “Celebrity Skin” rolled up over the credits, I actively slumped in my seat despite the fact that it’s one of my favorite songs. I’d love to watch a superhero movie starring a woman who proudly declares that “I’m all I want to be / A walking study / In demonology.”
“Captain Marvel” isn’t it.