Why Captain Marvel is the feminist film we all needed
I don’t know about you, but I’m always craving a good female-led film with messages of empowerment and hope for the human race. Some people, though, are not. In fact, some people hate movies like this, and even though I’d argue that those people need to watch those films the most, that isn’t the point here. The point is that regardless of where we stand on the scale of consciously-wanting to not-wanting this movie, we all needed Captain Marvel.
So here’s a makeshift list of reasons why this movie was actually necessary. (Translation: “Lots of people are taking smack about this movie but it gave me life, so I’m defending it in writing.”) Let me tell ya: there’s no coincidence this movie came out on International Women’s Day.
“Control your emotions.” While these aren’t the first words uttered in the recent blockbuster Captain Marvel, they’re easily the first to hint at a larger theme to the film. At the start of the movie, the viewer finds the protagonist, Carol Danvers (known then as Vers), inviting her mentor to spar. Throughout their padded battle, Carol’s mentor, Yon-Rogg, reminds Carol to control her emotions. They’re what’s holding her back from being the best version of herself.
Everything is good only in moderation, including emotional displays. But even the most emotionally disciplined women have heard Yon-Rogg’s “advice” countless times, and usually from men. Carol Danvers is no exception. The viewer can see early on that Carol is a mature, composed, and clever woman; she isn’t flying off the handle or embodying society’s wack perception of “PMS” by any means. Yet sporadically throughout the film, Carol is told to “control” and stifle her emotions, and almost always for the same reasons: to earn her male mentor’s respect, and to become something better than she already is.
This isn’t the only broken-record message Carol receives throughout her debut Marvel film. In the first half of the film, Carol goes through a series of flashbacks in which she is essentially told that she isn’t enough. In one, she attempts to beat a boy at go-kart racing and flips her kart maneuvering a turn, only for an older male figure presumed to be her father to scold her for attempting to race in the first place. In another, she clings to a rope at Air Force boot camp while a handful of male recruits shout from the ground that she isn’t strong enough to complete a challenge. (Carol attempts the challenge anyway and falls to the ground while the male recruits laugh, which is important to remember for later). In one more, a male colleague physically looks down on her and tells her she’s a “decent pilot” in a condescending tone.
Any woman who views this scene will understand the kaleidoscope of feelings Carol experiences in these moments. Frustration. Confusion. The sensation of climbing a wall only for new bricks to be laid as you go. We’re too emotional, we’re fragile, we’re weak, we’re unskilled. What’s left for us?
(Warning: Spoilers ahead. And you’ll probably only “get it” if you’re a bit familiar with the movie or the comics, because I’m not a film reviewer and have no idea how to write this in a way that benefits everyone.)
After a healthy dose of turmoil caused by none other than Carol’s unexpected arrival to Earth, the viewer enjoys the sweet reuniting of Carol and her best friend. Things quickly flip upside-down again, however, when Carol is met by a high-ranking Skrull* named Talos, who pleads with Carol to reconsider her stance on the war between his planet and hers. Talos explains that the only reason the Skrulls participate in the war is to acquire a technology that will allow them to return home. Talos practically begs Carol for help.
Carol’s knee-jerk reaction is to accuse Talos and his race of being terrorists. Talos replies that his race participates in the war out of necessity, not greed. The Skrulls have been separated from one another in desperate attempts to seek refuge during a war that has torn their families apart. While it’s difficult to know whether this was a nod toward the US’s current tumultuous relationship with immigration issues (after all, the comics have been around for a while), this scene may be viewed as commentary regarding any country’s struggle to agree on that particular issue.
Carol’s empathy and willingness to check her own internal biases are what allow her to understand that the Skrulls are not terrorists after all, but simply a race of people seeking refuge and a way to reconnect with their families. Carol realizes that most of what she believes about the Skrulls is based on how badly her Kree* mentor wants to win the war at virtually any cost. Carol’s empathy is ultimately what allows her to understand that the Skrulls are not a threat to her planet’s safety and that they simply want to return to their families — a mission that Carol chooses to help them with by changing course.
At the climax of the film, Carol finds herself in hand-to-hand combat with a group of Kree, including Yon-Rogg, her mentor. The Kree are upset that Carol has discovered her planet’s true motives in the war. On top of it, Carol has been betrayed by Yon-Rogg — the details of why and how are complicated and unimportant here — who has just mentioned that the powers he’s “given” her throughout her time on planet Hala can also be taken away. However, Carol has just discovered that the powers she has were not a gift from Yon-Rogg or the Kree race at all, and were in fact the byproduct of a traumatic event she endured on Earth. In recognition of the true origin of her powers, Carol says that she’s “been fighting with one arm tied behind [her] back” the whole time, and after having discarded the chip in her neck implanted by Yon-Rogg to keep her powers in check, proceeds to kick everyone’s ass.
Marvel’s choice to use the phrase “with one arm tied” simply must have been intentional. The film has already established itself as a demonstration of female empowerment and perseverance (dare I say, as a feminist exhibition), and the phrase is one frequently used by activists who figuratively state that everything a man does, a woman does with one arm tied behind her back. Generally speaking, this scene is a metaphor for all the times a woman has been told she cannot do something, only for her to double her resourcefulness, willpower, and effort to — yes, I’m going to say it — really kick ass.
But this ass-kicking doesn’t come without a tear-filled moment of pride for the viewer. (Well, it was tear-filled for me.) Remember all of those moments from Carol’s life on earth, in which she was mocked and belittled by men who thought they were better than her? All of the times she fell down to the soundtrack of male laughter? As Carol — miss Captain freaking Marvel — gathers up her energy and resolves to persevere, a similar series of flashbacks plays. And in every one of them, Carol gets back up again. Words can’t do this scene justice, folks. She. Gets. Back. Up.
Moment of silence to truly absorb that poetic glory.
At the end of the film, Carol and Yon-Rogg approach one another in what the viewer assumes is the precursor to a good ol’-fashioned action movie fight. Instead, Yon-Rogg surprises the viewer by deactivating his weapons and telling Carol that this is the moment he’s been training her for: if Carol can defeat him in hand-to-hand combat, she’ll have proven herself to him. Yon-Rogg continues rambling until Carol cuts him off by photon-blasting him into a stone structure in the distance. After Carol saunters up to him, she tells him she doesn’t have anything to prove. Carol ultimately spares Yon-Rogg but sends him home with a mission: to tell their planet that she’s going to end, not win, their war.
Not only does this bring Captain Marvel’s character full-circle, but it proves much in the way Wonder Woman did that a hero’s empathy can be an asset rather than a setback. Not once in the movie did Carol stifle her emotions or become insensitive to accomplish a mission or save herself. Rather, it was Carol’s emotional strength that allowed her to persist when those on the other side were pushing her to quit.
Beyond the more intricate reasons this film is the feminist movie we’ve all been thirsting for, Captain Marvel gives young girls (and even starry-eyed 22-year-olds like myself) a complex superhero to relate to. I’ve seen my own personality traits in Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and others, but no superhero movie has pierced my soul in the way Captain Marvel did. I see myself in Carol Danvers. I imagine many of the other hundreds of thousands of women who have seen the film do, too.
It must be these reasons, then, that have salty trolls attempting to ruin Captain Marvel’s rating despite its killer weekend at the box office. Insecure men are often upset by strong women who maintain their emotional sensitivity while achieving their goals. What I can’t understand, though, is why someone would be threatened by a badass character like that instead of incredibly turned on.
Also, I wouldn’t be fulfilling the feminist stereotype without fangirling over the fact that a cat literally stars in this movie. So there’s that.
A lot of us were looking forward to Captain Marvel because superhero movies are fun, after-credits Marvel clips are juicy, and Stan Lee’s cameos are hilarious. (Yes, he has a cameo in this one.) But Captain Marvel is the film we knew we needed, but didn’t expect to receive. And that’s because it’s a feminist film, not despite.
*Skrull — shape-shifting alien assumed to be the enemy throughout the first half of the film.
*Kree — the race of peoples living on Hala, Carol’s second planet.