Walking back to my car last night after viewing Captain Marvel, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between a man and woman headed in the same direction as me. He: “There wasn’t enough action, and the part with the cat was a bit much. ” She: “I thought there was lots of action and the part with the cat was fun.” I don’t know this man so I can’t assume his response to the film was rooted in sexism, but it sounded like the kind of review-by-microaggression I’d been expecting: people who won’t say they dislike the film because it stars a woman looking for other ways to cut it down so they can claim women-led superhero movies are inferior to those led by men.
I was being a tad defensive in my thinking. Maybe it was the glow of the female empowerment messages in Captain Marvel. Truth be told, male and female critics have found fault with the film–the main character is not developed enough, the “girl power” message is heavy-handed and superficial, the pacing is bad, the film feels more like a gap-filler for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) than a legitimate origin story.
Critics are paid to nitpick. As an average moviegoer, I’m more forgiving. (Although I must say some of the songs by 90s “girl power” artists really didn’t seem to fit the scenes where they were used. And No Doubt’s Just a Girl was way too much of a cliche. I rolled my eyes hard at that one.) I am not a comic book reader, nor a purist when it comes to superhero films. I just want a film I can enjoy and a hero I can root for. While I can see some of the points critics are making, and recognized some of the flaws they identified myself, I still really liked this film. Of course, it would have had to be a total disaster for me not to like it, so strong is my desire to see female superheroes in their own films, not just as sidekicks to the guys.
It’s likely Captain Marvel will be compared to Wonder Woman, the first female superhero movie to make it to the big screen. Wonder Woman was a good film but it comes from an entirely different place than Captain Marvel. Diana (Wonder Woman) is brought up in a loving and supportive environment. She is trained from a young age to be a warrior and, like the women who raised her, she has a strong sense of herself. She leaves her home to visit the real world with complete confidence and the courage of her convictions. Her faith in the goodness of people is tested, but she knows who she is and what she stands for.
The same cannot be said for Carol (Captain Marvel). From a young age she is told primarily what she can’t do, whether it be driving a go-kart at high speed or completing military boot camp. She is repeatedly knocked down–figuratively and literally. She is gaslighted by a man who is supposed to be her mentor. She’s told she’s too emotional and will never realize her potential unless she can control herself better. She is haunted by fragments of memories from a past she has forgotten. When she tries to get answers she is shut down.
Nevertheless, she persists. That famous phrase came to mind as I watched the film. It gives nothing away to say that Carol finds the answers she is looking for. Realizing she has been fighting “with one hand behind her back,” she unleashes all her power and becomes a hero to be reckoned with. Yes, the female empowerment message is heavy-handed but the lack of subtlety did not bother me. Carol is every woman who has tried to step outside her lane, been derided as too unstable or weak, or silenced for trying to challenge the powers that be. Why tiptoe around the idea of what it means for her to finally find her power? There were “girl power” cliches in the film, but also scenes where the empowerment message was delivered very effectively, like the final montage of Carol’s past where we see what happened each time she was knocked down. Images of her getting back up, every single time, were moving, even to me, a viewer who rarely reacts with strong emotion to anything on-screen. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done in various “empowering” ads geared toward women, but it’s rare enough on the big screen and in this genre to be worthy of praise.
Cynics (and online trolls) will say that the film is tokenism, that the Disney/Marvel brass could see the monetary value of a female-led film and wanted to hop on the female empowerment bandwagon. That may be true, but I prefer not to worry about why the film was made. I’d rather focus on what it offers: representation.
Like Black Panther before it, Captain Marvel gives us a new version of a hero, in this case, a woman who is as powerful as the guys, maybe even more so. Other female characters in the MCU have been depicted as strong and smart, but largely sidelined; as competent and capable, but not central to any stories. Carol, on the other hand, appears to be positioned for a major role in the next film and maybe even beyond. I can’t wait to see where her character, poorly developed or not, goes from here.
Representation like this matters. This is just one film but it helps chip away at stereotypes that tell girls they should be passive and and quiet, and not take up too much space in the world. Watching Carol, girls will learn to persist in the face of challenges, and not hold themselves back to appease anyone else. There are lessons for boys too, about what girls and women have had to endure in an inequitable world and men’s role in it. And, like all female-led action films, this one proves that women’s stories are every bit as compelling, valid, and valuable as men’s.