by Zoe Harding
SPOILERS FOR CAPTAIN MARVEL
Captain Marvel is pretty good.
I mean, we all knew it was going to be, because whiny crypto-fascist internet man-babies complaining about it, which hasn’t been a bad sign about anything as far as I remember. As Cultural Marxist SJW Propaganda goes it’s not quite as good as Fury Road (because not much is) but better than Wonder Woman and Ghostbusters, and while it’s not quite the same level of cultural Event as Black Panther it’s still pretty good. I had a good time.
Technically it’s not the most polished example of Marvel filmmaking, suffering from a slightly inconsistent plot, a bit of an over-reliance on CGI space gimmickery and a bad habit of lingering for just a beat too long on call-backs and references to other films or the comics. The tone stays pretty light most of the time with some glaring exceptions – things creak at the seams somewhat when we cut from Samuel L. Jackson as a de-aged and de-cynicised Nick Fury making goo-goo noises at a cat he’s found to an embittered war refugee snarling that his hands are filthy with innocent blood – and if anything, the moments when it tries to be Uplifting and Feminist feel a little too unsubtle to land properly. This is still the Marvel Studios that gave us the glittering facade of Asgard’s throne room literally covering another, darker mural depicting their atrocities; they still don’t make ‘em subtle. A lot of it is weirdly dimly lit as well – the final battle, which has both sides flinging liberal quantities of CGI space bullshit at each other, still manages to be oddly gloomy and subdued.
Captain Marvel also doesn’t quite manage to be the first Marvel Studios film to have A Gay in it, despite straining against Disney/Marvel corporate squeamishness in that department. Its status as a Top Gun for a new generation is cemented by the very first scene between Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers and Lashana Lynch’s Marie Rambeau, two fighter pilots swaggering towards their aircraft while exchanging corny quips and generally looking about as Tom Cruise as it’s legally possible to look without actually being Tom Cruise and adeptly capturing that… erm… sweaty volleyball energy that Top Gun was marinated in. What follows is the most blatantly homoerotic ‘friendship’ between two characters since Hot Fuzz. YouTuber and friend of the Radical Rowan Ellis has more on it here:
The film doesn’t bother with a token romance to try and pretend its lead is interested in heterosexuality (a moment’s silence, please, to honour Kelly McGillis’ best efforts) – Larsen and Jackson, who spend the majority of the film together, have an entertaining but platonic chemistry. I’m reminded of Anthony Olivera’s evergreen tweet about Oscar Isaac and Laura Dern in The Last Jedi: ‘it captured the weird energy of a lesbian and a gay dude finding themselves inexplicably flirting with each other for reasons neither understands perfectly.’
Even if they are Just Friends, the film still does a good job of avoiding the male gaze that’s dogged previous Marvel films in the past. Given the film is about a character whose comic incarnation frequently dresses like this and occasionally like this, this version’s form-fitting space suit just looks practical, and for much of the film it’s shot to look deliberately out-of-place and a bit ridiculous against the film’s backdrop of 1999 Los Angeles. The only shot that focuses on her body is for a fun if reference-heavy colour changing scene with Marie Rambeau’s daughter (Akira Akbar).
the film still does a good job of avoiding the male gaze that’s dogged previous Marvel films in the past
Thematically, however, Captain Marvel is a surprisingly different beast to other Marvel films, and indeed other superhero films in general. The studio could almost have been forgiven for just making ‘Iron Man, but she’s a woman’; it’s a formula that D.C. went with for Wonder Woman and that Marvel arguably used for Black Panther. Given the US Air Force’s investment in the film I went in assuming that Captain Marvel would be the standard origin story with a forgettable CGI-heavy third act, and I was wrong.
Instead, the plot is a complex story of interplanetary warfare, one in which the origin story is in flashbacks and the heroine’s allegiances shift and alter as more details are revealed. The twist, that the shapeshifting Skrulls (perennial villains in the comics) are actually refugees fleeing the overtly fascist Kree Empire is very well handled (even if it does rely on only the screenwriter knowing if the laser guns are on Stun or Kill at any given time). The entire first act has our protagonist believing herself to be a heroic Kree warrior stopping the evil Skrull ‘terrorists’ from ‘infiltrating’ and ‘corrupting’ Kree border planets. Ben Mendelsohn’s General Talos seems like another run-of-the-mill Marvel Baddie, another Dr Who Villain of the Week brought into the big leagues to get blown up with CGI space bullshit in the finale. For the first act he and his Skrull minions dog the heroes at every step, mimicking SHIELD agents and generally getting up to shady shenanigans in pursuit of a vaguely defined macguffin of the week. Even midway through Act 2 when he forms an uneasy truce with Danvers and Fury to track down said Macguffin he seems untrustworthy – it’s only when it’s revealed that it’s an engine that will help the remains of his race escape the Kree that the film’s true stakes are revealed, and the Skrulls are humanised.
Suddenly Captain Marvel isn’t about saving the world, it’s about saving refugees. The CGI-heavy finale has the empowered superhero literally turning back Kree bombs as they try to exterminate the Skrulls from orbit, the cool space warriors we were introduced to at the start now revealed as violent thugs and then battered aside by the newly empowered heroine. The twist throws the film’s opening scenes into sharp relief – in hindsight, the dust-covered alien ruins feel more like the backdrop of a War on Terror news report than a science fiction film. In terms of coding and allegory, Captain Marvel can be read as a very different beast from a lot of its contemporaries, and it’s far from a simple black-and-white conflict.
Captain Marvel’s Kree Mentor (Jude Law being entertainingly unlikeable), spends the start of the film doing the superhero training ‘prove you can control yourself/your powers’ routine and constantly emphasises strength and heroics, building Captain Marvel into a fascist ubermensch – hell, she’s literally given Kree blood to make her one of them. By the end, however, he’s thoroughly rebutted and denied even an ur-fascist heroic death. He’s the one who gets blasted mid-monologue just a beat too many after his ‘face me like a real man’ routine runs out of steam and who’s then sent home alive in disgrace.
Honestly, if such a thing as anti-fascist dogwhistles exist, Captain Marvel is full of them.
Honestly, if such a thing as anti-fascist dogwhistles exist, Captain Marvel is full of them. Even the film’s dubious USAF funding and ties ultimately don’t come to much – the Top Gun homage is brief and distorted, and where US government and military personnel do appear, they’re obstructive and unhelpful rather than heroic. This is not 2014’s Godzilla: the heroes are acting on their own, and the vast militaristic empire with ludicrously unbalanced firepower are the baddies, not the underdog protagonists. Even though it ends on a slightly odd note with Captain Marvel flying away with the Skrulls in tow to ‘find a new home’ (they’re shapeshifters, why not settle on Earth? Pretty sure they’ll integrate just fine…), the film is otherwise another fine example of anti-authoritarian superheroics. We’ve come a long way from Iron Man’s awkward ‘The military-industrial complex is fine, actually, if I do it’, Wonder Woman’s ‘War is bad but also we must stop the nazis Kaiserreich’, Captain America’s ‘Holocaust? What holocaust?’ and of course Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s ‘Our government-funded black ops agency would be fine if the Nazis weren’t in it.’ Captain Marvel fights for refugees and outcasts, even though they look weird and are deceptive rather than strong. This is more than just a feminist film – it’s a genuinely thoughtful one.
Featured image © Disney / Marvel Studios
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