Captain Marvel’s shallow take on feminism doesn’t land

This post contains spoilers for Captain Marvel

In the pinnacle moment of Captain Marvel’s final fight sequence, Gwen Stefani’s “I’m Just a Girl” starts playing as Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers kicks everyone’s ass.

The subtext, in case you missed it, is that Carol Danvers might just be a girl. But being just a girl is pretty kick ass.

This moment — and every other one when Marvel seems to suddenly remember that Captain Marvel is its first movie with a solo female lead ever  — summons the same feelings of a modern Dove commercial. It’s a cloying sensation, the off-putting suspicion that your own crushing sense of disempowerment is being exploited to sell you soap. 

And it’s kinda working, despite you knowing better.

There is without a doubt a guttural emotional response to the movie’s overtly feminist scenes. And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with feeling empowered by Captain Marvel, which many critics and audience members have already expressed. I mean, even my own jaded heart swelled over the montage of Danvers falling again and again, from girlhood through womanhood, only to get back up as the music soared and she bests her gaslighting male superior. 

It’s almost enough to bring an unbidden tear to your eye, as you remember all the times you were like her, humiliated for your ambition and gender. A large part of you wants to believe in whatever empowerment Captain Marvel is selling because it’s such a rarity to be offered any form of empowerment, whether in a superhero movie or soap commercial.

But a larger part of you feels your eyes roll right out the back of your head, when a man in the Air Force tells Danvers, “It’s not called a cockpit for no reason!”

The only thing that feels truly retro about Captain Marvel is its shallow take on feminism.

The only thing that feels truly retro about Captain Marvel‘s ’90s setting is its shallow take on feminism that we should be moving away from, not using as a crutch. It’s not just that so many of the movie’s heavy-handed Feminist Moments come across as disingenuous. Those moments also tap into an old conceit of equality as a sort of revenge fantasy, mixed with the undertone of a battle of the sexes. 

It’s telling that, throughout the showdown between Danvers and Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, my mind kept recalling yet another commercial. This time Gatorade’s 2006 spot titled “Michael Jordan vs Mia Hamm,” where the two athletes compete to the tune of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).” 

I’ve never been able to forget that commercial after seeing it as a young girl. And it’s for the wrong reason.

The feminist-ish sentiment of “girls are just as good as boys” defines and measures women’s empowerment as it compares to men. Consequently, it devalues and trivializes feminine power in its own right. 

In the Gatorade ad, audiences are expected to think, “Wow, Mia Hamm is as good as Michael Jordan! How empowering to women!” rather than, “Wow, Michael Jordan is as good as Mia Hamm! Look how far men have come!” In a similar vein, Captain Marvel banks on its audience seeing Danvers at the height of her powers to be thinking, “Wow, isn’t it amazing that a woman is just as, if not more, powerful than the men around her?!”

Talk about a glow up!

Talk about a glow up!

Image: CHUCK ZLOTNICK ©MARVEL STUDIOS 2019

For this and so many other reasons, Captain Marvel‘s feminism feels not only like a step backwards, but reactive to the male superheroes long-since established in the MCU. 

Danvers feels like an afterthought, a deviation from the main storyline. To be fair to Captain Marvel‘s creators, they had their work cut out for them telling an origin story for a brand new character a mere month before the release of the final Avengers: Endgame.

Captain Marvel‘s feminism feels not only like a step backwards, but reactive to the male superheroes long-since established in the MCU. 

As a result, I can’t shake the sense of Captain Marvel as a retrofit, the result of an executive realizing midway through phase three, “Oh shit — we don’t have our feminist icon!”

In the movie’s last-minute scramble to justify adding Captain Marvel to the Avengers’ boys club, it fails to let Danvers’ story stand on its own two legs. The movie never rises above the level of an advertisement cashing in on #feminism because it stinks of corporate-mandated female empowerment. And also, because it feels an awful lot like Marvel’s half-hearted, long overdue apology for ignoring women’s superhero fantasies for a whopping 20 movies released since 2008.

Though I hesitated to do so, I only really started to understand why Captain Marvel’s feminist branding felt so hollow when I compared it to Wonder Woman‘s success with an equally heavy-handed and fantastical lady-power narrative. Or, to bring it back to Marvel, why Black Panther managed to feel endlessly more empowering to women than a single second of Captain Marvel

Black Panther portrays several different types of ways women’s empowerment strengthens Wakanda’s evolved, egalitarian society. Meanwhile the Wonder Woman comparison bears consideration because it taps into a similar theme of women’s superpowers not only being brute strength, but emotions and empathy. Yet Captain Marvel‘s fundamental storytelling issues make it impossible for the movie to deliver meaningfully on that. 

The foundation for Danvers’ character is built on a false backstory that makes her less relatable than an Amazon warrior princess. She spends most of the movie an amnesiac motivated by blind loyalty to some far-off alien race’s space mission in some random space war we’ve never heard of. All the while she’s bewilderingly less concerned with figuring out her own identity. 

It's not just the lime green costume that stinks up the first half of 'Captain Marvel.

It’s not just the lime green costume that stinks up the first half of ‘Captain Marvel.

Image: Film Frame ©Marvel Studios 2019

The convoluted plot setup makes it difficult to attribute any real convictions, drives, or strong personality traits to Danvers.

We’re told again and again she’s a rogue type, but we don’t actually see that in a significant way until the flashback to her failed mission with Annette Bening’s Dr. Wendy Lawson at the very end. Even her major turning point is muddled by these unclear stakes and motivations, since the empathy she develops for the Skrull is thrust upon her at gunpoint rather than a result of her own agency. 

But ultimately, the gross superficiality of Captain Marvel‘s feminism comes down to paying lip service to women’s issues — liberally using them as topical window dressing — while never actually engaging or wrestling with them. 

Its answer to that sexism is that she is just too damn cool to be affected by it.

There might’ve been a decent feminist subtext to the Kree brainwashing as a metaphor for the damaging effects of gaslighting. Certainly, that’s what the movie wants us to read into the final Yon-Rogg showdown. But again, that falls woefully flat when the solution to Danvers’ gaslighting is to remove some unexplained device from her head. 

Longterm effects of systemic sexism and having your mind warped by years of gaslighting be damned! Ladies, all we need to do is flip a switch to unleash the power that was inside us all along to kick abusive men’s asses!

Similarly, some douchebag at one point tells Danvers to smile, and you half-expect Larson to turn directly to camera and go, “Urgh men, am I right ladies?!” There’s another brief mention focusing on the fact that Air Force women aren’t allowed to fly combat planes, so testing Lawson’s experimental planes was the only way Danvers and her co-pilot Maria can do anything “important.” 

I'll talk 70 percent less space stuff and 100 percent more Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).

I’ll talk 70 percent less space stuff and 100 percent more Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).

Image: Chuck Zlotnick ©Marvel Studios 2019

Captain Marvel repeatedly and pointedly places Danvers inside the context of real-world sexism. But its answer to that sexism is that she is just too damn cool to be affected by it. It’s a nice fantasy, I guess, but as empty as it is false.

By contrast, Wonder Woman’s feminist themes are entirely organic to the main character’s origins and backstory. And the equality fantasy Wonder Woman represents is far greater than just beating men that were mean to her.

The difference lies in how Captain Marvel presents femininity as a gender-specific weakness to overcome and grow from, versus Wonder Woman‘s world where feminine traits are a universal necessity for the survival of all humankind. 

The peak of its feminism comes from just letting Danvers be a really rad superhero, who happens to be a woman. 

It makes me wonder why Marvel felt the need to shoehorn these half-assed Feminist Moments in, which read like an executive’s creative note to, “Do more lady stuff. Bitches (or rather the box office) love lady stuff.” But what Captain Marvel actually makes crystal clear is that not all female-led superhero movies need to or even should be pigeonholed into of-the-moment feminist narratives.

Captain Marvel is at its most empowering when it forgets to applaud itself for being Marvel’s first movie with a solo female lead (Ant-Man and the Wasp had a female title character). The peak of its feminism comes from just letting Danvers be a really rad superhero, who happens to be a woman. 

At times, Captain Marvel even allows Danvers to exist in Wonder Woman‘s more universal view of equality, like when the Supreme Intelligence tells her she’s weak because she’s human (and not because she’s a woman). That is, until the montage that follows drags her back down to that “I can do anything a man can do” bullshit.

I hate that I didn’t love Captain Marvel. I hate holding it up to a level of scrutiny we’d never hold other equally OK Marvel movies like Ant-Man up to. And my intention is not to pin the only two female-led superhero movies against each other like its some sort of cat fight to see who wins the spot for the One Female Superhero Allowed To Exist.

'Captain Marvel' is stuck in the 'G. I. Jane' era of feminist storytelling.

‘Captain Marvel’ is stuck in the ‘G. I. Jane’ era of feminist storytelling.

Image: Chuck Zlotnick ©Marvel Studios 2019

What I wish instead is that we’d allow female superhero stories to be dictated by who they are as characters and people, rather than their status as the only women protagonists in their cinematic universe. 

I’m glad Captain Marvel exists. And its faults largely trace back to the faults of an industry that tasks female-led superhero movies with living up to the enormous pressure of making up for so much lost time.

I’m over the moon that so many women and girls love Captain Marvel anyway. And there’s inherent value in girls getting at least one non-sexualized Avengers costume to wear on Halloween this year. I eagerly await the day when there isn’t a huge gender disparity in superhero movies, when we can appreciate and criticize female-led ones without the anxiety of what they say about an entire gender.

But we’re not there yet. And when it comes to Marvel, they haven’t done enough to earn that goodwill.

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