Captain Marvel Is a Message Movie Without a Message
Marvel's first female-fronted superhero film is a woke superhero fantasy scared to take any risks.
Captain Marvel, the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a female superhero in the lead role, isn't exactly a bad movie. In a way it's something worse: a disappointing, instantly unmemorable mediocrity—a by-the-numbers superhero movie that could, and should, have been so much better.
To understand why Captain Marvel represents such a missed opportunity, consider last year's best superhero movie: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Built around an alternate-universe, mixed-race Spider-Man named Miles Morales who encounters a slew of other Spider-Men and Spider-Women, the movie cleverly reimagined the Spider-Man mythos as a parable of power, identity, and heroic responsibility.
While accepting the Oscar for Best Animated Feature last month, the filmmakers were blunt about their goals: The movie was intended "to make people feel powerful and seen," said one. "When we hear that somebody's kid was watching the movie and turned to them, and said, he looks like me, or he speaks Spanish like us, we feel like we already won," said another. Spider-Verse, in other words, was an unabashed product of woke Hollywood, a message movie pitched explicitly to the concerns of the YA-diversity crowd—and it was better for it.
Like Spider-Verse, Captain Marvel is a woke superhero power fantasy. Unlike Spider-Verse, it has nothing of substance to say. It's a message movie without a message.
The central trouble is Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) herself. When we first meet her, she's going by the name Vers, fighting off shape-shifting Skrulls as part of a squad of elite alien warriors led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). But Vers, we eventually learn, is actually Carol Danvers, an American fighter pilot who has lost her memory after an accident that granted her extraordinary power. The movie is structured as an identity quest, in which Vers learns about her past and reclaims her human—and superhuman—identity. In the movie's finale, she glows with cosmic power and exclaims that she has finally found herself: This is who I am.
Yet after spending a little more than two hours with Danvers, I still have no idea who she is or what she's like. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also co-wrote the script, give her no personality traits beyond bland, low-key confidence. It's not just that she isn't fazed by anything. It's that she's not interested in anything, not excited or upset or angry or overwhelmed or enthusiastic. You can't imagine how she might react to, say, a puppy, or food that smelled bad, or what she'd be like at a birthday party, because she simply doesn't react.
Superhero movies aren't necessarily the place to look for deep psychological insight. But the best examples of the genre offer characters with quirks and flaws, interests and ideas. They're people you can imagine yourself being, or at least hanging out with, in the moments when they're not being superheroes. Think of Tony Stark's self-aggrandizing wit, or Captain America's list of things to do in the future; these characters are fun, funny, and distinct. Captain Marvel's version of Danvers is wooden and forgetable; she has all the personality of a life-size cardboard standup.
Danvers' flatness doesn't just make for a boring character. It completely undermines the movie's thematic frame. Early on, Law's character warns her that to master her power, she must learn to control her emotions, a notion that returns in a climactic moment. One senses that this is supposed to be Danvers' big test, the way she defines and discovers herself. But there's no payoff, no resolution, because the movie never once gives the impression that she has had even one single recognizable emotion of any kind, much less several of them strong enough to require control.
Instead of a fully developed character, the movie treats viewers to a regular stream of gendered winks and nods. A jerk male pilot sneers, "You do know why the call it a cockpit"; an obnoxious biker tells her to smile more (she steals his bike); a major fight sequence is set to the distractingly on-the-nose No Doubt anthem "Just a Girl," and so on and so forth, as if to remind viewers that, yes, this is not just a superhero movie, but a superhero movie about a woman. You don't say.
Captain Marvel is not the first mega-budget movie of the modern era to be built around a female superhero—that award went to 2017's far superior Wonder Woman—but it is the first such film in the ever-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the movie often seems to want to celebrate its status. But its feminist tics feel forced, like exercises in social-justice box-checking intended strictly to ensure that the character meets all the expectations of the sort of viewers who want their social-justice boxes checked. Its feminism is thus an empty, timid pose, a stream of predictable, meme-able moments that has nothing to say about what might make this woman different, or better, or important, or interesting at all.
The blankness comes across as an intentional omission, a studied way of avoiding letting Danvers be anything potentially controversial or problematic, which turns out to mean avoiding letting her be anything at all. Captain Marvel is movie built entirely around cultural risk aversion. Plenty of half-baked blockbusters lack ideas and personality because the filmmakers were lazy. This one appears to have been carefully, intentionally picked clean of anything resembling an idea beyond the tautological notion that powerful women are powerful. It's a girl-power movie that can only bring itself to say one thing: Here is a girl, with powers.
The movie doesn't even demonstrate her powers all that well. Although the imagery is sporadically effective, the movie's action scenes are clumsy and rhythmless. There's plenty of the usual kicking and punching and photon blasting, plus some big explosions during a climactic planetary attack sequence, but there's no big moment that truly sells her powers. For a mega-budget movie from a studio with a reputation for spectacle, Captain Marvel's action setpieces consistently feel rote and small—just more box-checking exercises in meeting expectations. It's a movie that aims to never surprise, and wildly succeeds.
The issue here isn't the source material. Danvers hasn't always been a feminist icon in the comics, but she has been a reliable, increasingly powerful presence in Marvel's print universe for decades. In recent years, her powers have been taken on by a new character, Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager from New Jersey, who, like the diverse cast of Into the Spider-Verse, has helped expand the idea of who the character is and what she represents.
Khan is a spectacularly powerful figure, but she is also, notably, someone with specific, relatable challenges and struggles to overcome, from what to wear to how to deal with the complex expectations of her family, friends, and community. She is, in other words, a person who occasionally finds life difficult and has to make choices. As with the many iterations of Spider-Man, her appeal as a fictional character comes from the relatability of these struggles, and the way they help readers better understand both themselves and others. The movie version of Captain Marvel offers viewers almost nothing of the sort. It's a cold, closed-off film, indifferent to both its audience and its central character.
At the Oscars, one Spider-Verse filmmaker spoke directly to fans, thanking them for their support by saying, "We see you. You are powerful," succinctly capturing the idea that Spider-Man isn't just a single fictional character, but an idea, a community, and an identity both specific and universal. It was a movie about welcoming difference, not suppressing the qualities that made its characters unique.
Captain Marvel, in contrast, seems only to say, "You see me. I am powerful." That, it turns out, is who Carol Danvers is. The problem is that this movie declines to make her anything more.