‘Captain Marvel’ Is A Superhero Film That Proudly Wears Its Heart On Its Sleeve

Captain Marvel's message of empowerment doesn’t need to be subtle to be important.

Captain Marvel review

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Captain Marvel is the first solo female superhero movie from Marvel Studios — and it’s a story that doesn’t need to be subtle to still be an important narrative about what it means to be strong.

Over a decade after Marvel launched with Iron Man (and whatever other characters they hadn’t sold off to other studios to stay afloat) the success of Marvel reshaped mainstream storytelling — to the point where every second day there’s a think piece from a critic breathlessly wondering “when will the glut of superhero movies end?”

It’s in much the same way critics from generations before them breathlessly wondered “when will the teen movie trend die?” or “what will it take for the gangster movie to RIP?”.

Yet superhero movies aren’t what they once were, i.e shit. The X-Men don’t have to reject their traditional costumes to look like extras from The Matrix as they did back in 2000.

And Spider-Man doesn’t have to be played by a white fifty-something like it was when Tobey Maguire first thwicked his web (not a euphemism).

They’ve now become a vessel for telling all types of stories, including crime stories (The Dark Knight trilogy), black stories (Black Panther) and intersectional coming-of-age stories (Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse).

It has taken a while, but now we’re at women’s stories.

When I first moved to Australia, I struggled to make friends. I was a weird kid with a weird accent in a weird country and like so many other ‘weirdos’ before me, comic books filled a human absence. My granddad would pick me up from school, walk me to the library, then I would stay settled in the comic book section until they started switching the lights off around me and closing up for the night.

Comics were the first place I saw women of different ages, backgrounds, races, body shapes and beliefs taking charge as the heroes and villains of the story. It was a world where teenage girls could be vengeful vigilantes or intergalactic abilities could be bestowed on a woman because she was worthier than anyone else. Comic books in the naughties were the first place I saw the kind of representation I desperately craved in mainstream storytelling.

In 2019, we’re finally getting to see those women on the big screen.

Carol Danvers And Her Story

More specifically, Carol Danvers story.

Oscar-winner and child-actor-done-good Brie Larson plays Danvers, and the title character in Marvel’s 21st theatrical outing. Strictly of the belief that spoiling things unnecessarily for people is a dick move, let’s just say that after the events of Avengers: Infinity War and ‘the snap’, Captain Marvel enters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at a significant time.

The Marvel folks knows there’s a difference between giving audiences what they want and what they need. With Avengers: End Game rolling out in just a few months, they balance the weight of those expectations well — because Captain Marvel as a film serves a dual purpose, needing to tie in to the wider MCU but also serve as an introductory movie for both the character and audiences who might not be familiar with her.

Getting a start on the comic book page back in 1967, there have been various iterations of ‘Captain Marvel’ over the past several decades — including dudes — but it’s Kelly Sue DeConnick’s pivotal run that shapes much of the tone for Carol Danvers’ first theatrical outing.

So much so, DeConnick even makes a subtle cameo (eyes peeled for her signature bright red bangs).

What’s fascinating about Captain Marvel as an origin story is it’s not told in a linear narrative. In fact, we almost start at the end with the superhero we follow already bestowed with intergalactic abilities and mighty powerful on her own … albeit on an alien planet.

This ‘Vers’ has no memory of her past life, just flashes from a time six years earlier. Unlike the standard origin story arc that we’ve seen a thousand times before, this hero’s journey is about reclaiming humanity, rather than claiming superpowers. Vers is Carol Danvers and Carol Danvers is Captain Marvel, but she has to look back into her past — back into the life she can’t quite remember on Earth — in order to learn who she truly is.

Rather brilliantly, that setting happens to be 1994 complete with all of your nineties references from True Lies and Babe posters to dial-up internet and load-time jokes that anyone born later than ’92 isn’t gonna get. There’s a cameo of Stan Lee reading his Mallrats script (RIP),  Danvers looking like someone’s “disenfranchised niece” in a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and a soundtrack of almost entirely female-fronted 90s hits (Garbage! TLC! Hole! Salt-N-Pepa! A fight score to No Doubt!).

There’s also a de-aged Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), with the latter forming one half of an unlikely buddy-cop duo with Danvers once she’s on Earth — that in and of itself being another great nineties wink.

Feminist Sci-fi Icons

The messaging doesn’t need to be subtle to be important, and Captain Marvel wears its heart firmly on its sleeve.

For much of the story, Danvers believes the only way to be strong, to be a true hero, is to think with her head and not her heart. It’s a man — Jude Law — who tells her repeatedly that suppressing her emotions will make her stronger. Yet it’s by embracing her emotions that she’s able to reach a Super Saiyan transformation, becoming all powerful and no longer “fighting with one hand tied behind my back”.

The key to unlocking all of this is Danvers discovering who she really is — not just listening to who men tell her she is. And who Danvers is — outside of her powers — is shaped by the women in her life: her best friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), a fellow pilot who is dressed like Lt. Ellen Ripley from Aliens for a key chunk of the movie (hello feminist sci-fi icons) and Dr Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning), someone she deeply admires and respects.

Of course, having representation in front of the camera is one thing. Yet it’s just as important to have it behind the camera as well. Female fingerprints are all over Captain Marvel, from four women — Anna Boden, Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Geneva Robertson-Dworet — and one guy (Ryan Fleck) sharing the story credit, to two women — Boden, Robertson-Dworet — and one guy (Fleck again) working on the screenplay.

Boden and Fleck co-direct together and already we’ve seen Larson actively utilise her capital by pushing for diverse voices at Captain Marvel junkets globally.

The Whole “Female Superhero” Thing

As for the whole ‘female superhero thing’ … Yes, Wonder Woman did it first with the 2017 solo film.

But Wonder Woman should always be first. She’s not just a ‘female superhero’, she’s The Female Superhero. With that comes the burden of being the first kicking in the door, that added expectation of having to be all things to all women.

With a female superhero movie already having become a global phenomenon — and from a rival studio no less — Captain Marvel has the benefit of being able to exist as its own thing. Where there would usually be a shoehorned heterosexual romance, the love story is instead about an enduring female friendship.

Captain Marvel gets to be more nuanced, more complicated and more interesting now that we know even if one ‘female superhero movie’ flops, they’re not going to suddenly stop making them with a nonchalant shrug and a “welp, we tried Catwoman and Elektra — what more do you want from us?”

The floodgates are open, motherfuckers.

Right now we get to see two brilliant blockbusters about women heroes who just happen to be some of the most superpowered beings in the DC and Marvel universes respectively. Next, we’re getting a team-up movie with Birds Of Prey, where beloved female anti-heroes and vigilantes share the screen, and Cathy Yan becomes the first Asian-American woman to direct a superhero movie.

After that, there’s the long-awaited Black Widow movie with Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland in the director’s chair. Financially, it has been proven that women will not only show up to see versions of themselves as superheroes, but men will too.

Captain Marvel further proves that you can’t put the intergalactic warrior woman back in the box, so to speak. And why the hell would you want to?

Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of It Came From The Deep and the Who’s Afraid? novel series, available worldwide.