Captain Marvel, Personal Power, and Going Further, Faster, and Higher
A few weeks after Captain Marvel has been released I find myself wondering, what am I going to say? Op-eds have been penned from the most glowing, to the most critical, from feminist takes on the film, to articles that just present the facts. Let’s start there.
It is a fact that this movie is one of the best-selling movies of all time. Literally, Captain Marvel has landed in the top 5 of almost any film category, (Superhero, Opening Day, etc.) and is currently sitting at the highest-grossing film led by a woman. Although this is impressive on its own, it’s no surprise that the Disney-Marvel marketing machine - bolstered by a strange sense of revamped Top Gun nostalgia - has created some real hype around the film. What we need to look at is the scope and the implications of this overwhelming success. We have had black superheroes, women superheroes, and Marvel (with a little help from Wonder Woman) has proven that “diversity” is not just a selling point, but a best-seller.
Diversity is never the real issue when it comes to women, black people, or queer people in lead roles, instead the problem always boils down to gatekeeping in Hollywood. Diversity just... is. It is. It is in the spaces we live in, our neighborhoods, our friends. To have a diverse movie is to have a movie that reflects the realities of our world and the incredible variety of people. To have Carol Danvers lead this film allows different perspectives to be seen, and different people to feel welcome into this universe. It was important and necessary that Marvel include a woman, especially after white men named Chris have taken more lead roles across the Marvel Cinematic Universe than women and people of color combined.
Full disclosure: I loved this movie. I fell in love when a Skrull screamed at Carol and she screamed right back. I was done. I was in love. The plot points were clear; uncomplicated but nuanced, and the first thirty minutes gave us the primer on who Carol was without going into detail. There’s still some mystery around her story - large swaths of her childhood are hinted at, but never fully explored - her life in the Air Force was related second hand; her time with the Kree was likewise shown, but never dug into. This air of mystery and not-knowing played well into the themes of the movie, in the ways that Captain Marvel explored the idea of a woman coming to know herself and her own power.
The importance of this film is not necessarily in the success of its marketing, sales, or casting (although all three are important). The emotional arc of Carol Danvers is exceptionally important, but it is also not the key to Captain Marvel. Carol’s development was one of personal discovery but she - fundamentally, as a person and a character - did not change from the beginning of the film to the end.
For a movie like this, shoehorned into a strange 10-year, 20-film long timeline, we knew that Captain Marvel had to show something more to the audience than just another superhero on the screen. For Marvel, this film and Carol Danvers in particular, had to represent a brand of feminism and women superheroes in a way they had never attempted before. They didn’t hold back with Carol’s character. She was strong, smart, confident, and above all, playful. Carol had banter for days, and her fast-talking, quippy, devil-may-care attitude was a refreshing change from our other Marvel heroes. She didn’t have to fight to get her powers, she had them from the jump, and she wasn’t afraid to use them. In this film, she wasn’t overshadowed or impacted by Steve Roger’s regret, or Iron Man’s grandstanding, or Ant-Man’s kitsch. Carol worked on screen because she was fun without the backstory strings attached.
The power of Carol’s story was not in the nuances of her character, or how sassy she was, but in the way that women and those who have had a female experience were allowed to empathize with Carol - with her struggles, with her anger, with her emotions, with her joy, and ultimately, with her sheer, absolute power. The strength of Carol was her versatility, the way that every woman in the audience knew her, the way that we could imprint on her, and color our own experiences over what we were seeing on screen. Her power was our power, and while Marvel was heavy-handed with the girl power moments, they were not explicitly rooted in sexism.
While it is obvious that these girl power moments were coded within sexist frames - a young girl driving a go-cart too fast, an Air Force recruit making a jump as people jeered - ultimately, they were not focused on the idea that people didn’t believe she could do it because she was a woman. It was never a test of Carol versus a man, or Carol versus another woman. It was always Carol testing herself, pushing herself further. It makes sense then, that at the end of the film when a man challenges Carol on his terms, she fights on hers, and then informs him in the most Girl Power moment of the movie, “I don’t need to prove anything to you.”
The framing of these scenes did not seek to imply that Carol was powerful because she was a woman, but instead because she was a strong person. This movie - overlaid with moments like a man on a motorbike telling Carol to smile and the recognition of the restrictions placed on women in the Air Force during the 80s - provides a generalized female experience that then helped color the moments throughout the film when Carol fights back. People who doubt her are proven wrong, over, and over, and over. To show that in a film, where many of the people doubting her are men, is incredibly cathartic.
Captain Marvel does not ignore what women face, and in this movie, Marvel could not afford to ignore it. This movie shows that women are people and it does not try to dress Carol up as a fantasy, despite the fantastic power she wields. Carol is never made weak, and if she is restrained, it’s not for long. She is strong and powerful, and she is a woman. She could have been anyone, but they made her strong.
Carol Danvers is the hero we needed to see because of the fact that women see ourselves in her. Her story has a new iteration every time someone views it. Every woman knows what it’s like to hear men tell them not to try, every woman knows what it’s like to be told to smile. We have been socialized since we were ten years old to be careful, because we are never assumed to be powerful, and we are assumed to be in danger. Women are not comfortable in this world, because we live in a world that has told us we are not safe.
When Carol Danvers stands up after being knocked down - because she always stands up - it’s not just Carol standing up. It’s not just her. It’s every woman standing up after being knocked down. She is every girl who stood up. Every one of us who wants the power to yell, scream, and punch our way out of the problems and humiliations of society’s effect on women. Captain Marvel is not only allowed to do this on screen, but she gets to be happy about it. She gets to have fun. She fucks with it. And watching that happen is seriously, just amazing.
Women are rarely, if ever, allowed to delight in their own power. They are rarely allowed to revel in it. Even in Wonder Woman, Diana didn’t get to bask in her own spotlight; she was so focused on her duty that she didn’t get a chance to have fun. Carol, however, was having a riot. She smiled as she flew, she smirked as she punched Yon-Rogg during their first sparring match, she giggled with Monica as she got a new costume skin. Carol laughed as she slammed into Kree ships, and she grinned as she flew into space to give Ronan the biggest, brightest, mightiest 'fuck off' of his entire life.
Ultimately, this show of power is the perfect way to end the movie. Earth’s mightiest hero shows that she’s not only powerful, but empathetic and caring. She’s kind, and she will do whatever she can to end suffering in her universe. She’s not afraid to throw a punch, but you really have to deserve it.
Captain Marvel proved that when women are allowed to write their experiences over cosmic battles, when we are in front of and behind the camera, when we are allowed power and freedom within our stories, women are just as powerful as men. And you know what? In Carol’s case, we’re sometimes a little bit better.
Linda H. Codega
Linda is a twenty-something millennial living and working in the Hudson Valley who loves fandom, pop culture, sailing, tarot cards, and crying in movie theaters. If you want to listen to them talk about pop culture, the repeating cycles of media, and those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, you can listen to their podcast, Retronym, on iTunes.