It’s a complicated feeling when something meaningful and well-intentioned is inherently flawed. Like a crispy white t-shirt on the Fourth of July with a small BBQ sauce stain. Or the calories behind a pepperoni and bacon pizza. Or religion. You know that there’s something either minute or massive holding it back from perfection even though there’s a level of satisfaction that you can walk away with. When I finished watching Captain Marvel, I was left with a good feeling because I knew something was accomplished. The Marvel Cinematic Universe finally gave us a female-lead movie that people, especially girls and women, could be proud of. As the theater emptied, I overheard a father bragging to his daughter about how Carol Danvers, our compelling protagonist, was more powerful than Thor, the God of thunder. Again, I want to emphasize, bragging. Man accepted and his daughter learned that woman could surpass the mightiest of Gods. Mission: accomplished.
But, something else started to creep in. A feeling of wanting more. It’s impossible for a movie, especially a comic book movie, to be everything to everybody and there isn’t a single from the MCU that’s perfect. However, I felt bad for believing Captain Marvel should have been more than simply enjoyable. While the movie wants to be more than a movie, it’s still bound to the constraints of scrutiny and there are areas where the film falls flat.
Captain Marvel tries to serve more than one master: it’s part origin story, action flick, 90’s nostalgia piece, and female empowerment film. While one of these is ultimately more important in the grand scheme than the others, Marvel Studios may have spread themselves too thin. As an origin story for Captain Carol Danvers, Nick Fury, the Kree-Skrull War and the original 2012 Avengers film, the film does a good job in tying in the pre-Avengers story and setting up Danver’s appearance in this summer’s Avengers: End Game. Also, the action/sci-fi scenes are explosive but pretty to look at. That, at it’s core, is easy for Marvel Studios to achieve and, to be frank, after a decade of being in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that’s the bare minimum to pull off. What MCU movie in the last five years hasn’t been visually stunning with decent backstory? Right? Right. So we can move onto more pressing matters: the 90’s nostalgia and women empowerment tropes the film hopes to pull off.
As a nostalgia film, you’d think 40 year old directors Anna Boden and Robert Fleck would’ve remembered the 90’s a bit more… slicker than they did. Any mid-to-late-90’s reference they could get in, they did but without much couth. What’s the most 90’s store an alien could crash land through? Blockbuster Video. What’s a rock band tee that Carol could pull of that people will immediately notice? Nine Inch Nails. What’s a song that we can play while Captain Marvel kicks ass? “Just A Girl,” without a doubt. If Nick Fury would’ve worn a FUBU logo tee, I would’ve died right there in the theater on that reclined leather seat.
While I did enjoy the music at times, the overall tone of the movie continually reminding the audience we were in quasi-1997 felt inessential. Movies like Dope and Mid90’s do good jobs of paying homage to the decade of my youth, but I’m not sure if another movie could achieve the seamlessness of Dazed And Confused, where nothing feels inauthentic and is balanced perfectly. Though there are a couple of gags that do deserve a hardly chuckle, Boden and Fleck’s touch could’ve used more polish. (And the movie could’ve used better wigs for it’s black actors. Samuel L. Jackson’s hairline was reminiscent of Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z. No black man should have a hairline like Vegeta.)
It’s telling that we have to compare Captain Marvel to 2017’s Wonder Woman because there aren’t enough other female-led comic book movies and it’s a tad bit unfair that CM has to aim the bar that WW set for feminism in these type of films but the comparison is unavoidable. The agency that Diana had and the world she was a part of felt more authentic than Carol’s. Though Diana is a god, she’s just a woman in a World War I era world and she has all the shortcomings that go along with that: the obstacles that she navigates are not of her own and her mere existence challenges the status-quo. Diana is literally told by men that she doesn’t belong and she continually challenges and succeeds the fallacies created by the men of her time. Carol’s struggle is similar to this but there’s a ham-handedness and timidness to Marvel Studios’ approach.
In Captain Marvel, it feels like Marvel doesn’t want to directly acknowledge the reason why Carol has limits her whole life is because she’s a woman. As a child, we see her father telling her she can’t drive a go-chart after she crashes and when she’s an adult, a drunk guy makes a crass “You know why they call it a cock pit, right?” remark. But that’s basically it. Toward the end of the film, we see a montage of all the times that Carol has fallen but she always learns to pick herself back up. It was eerily similar to a recent Nike commercial, narrated by the legendary Serena Williams, in which dozens of women and girls across different sports are shown overcoming obstacles and opposition to female strength. The difference is that Nike directly tells us that woman’s obstacle is man; Marvel only makes slight inferences to the fact and that has significance.
In one of the most baffling scenes in Captain Marvel, the Supreme Intelligence tries to belittle Danvers by saying “you’re just a human” and that’s the insult pushes her over the edge and gets her to reach her maximum power. In a way, that negates the message Boden and Fleck want to tell. The times she falls and is laughed at and is told lewd sexual jokes don’t have anything do with her being a human; the experience is had mainly because she’s a woman and man is her opposition. For the filmmakers to skirt that feels like a cheat and a step back. To directly tell your oppressor who they are is strong and courageous; Carol has strength, so why not have this woman display that to the maximum of her abilities? The women written in Black Panther, a movie that’s proving to be an anomaly in the MCU, have no problem with showing they are equals to men and it’s sad that Marvel may not know how to show this spirit in a direct way with other women characters yet.
There’s no way to know when Marvel Studios was exactly done with making Captain Marvel but it feels like they were saving it’s release date for International Women’s Day 2019. We are given Captain Danvers (a super hero), Mar Vell (a scientist) and Maria Rambo (a pilot) as examples of what women can do when they have no limits placed on them. They can develop technology that can travel beyond light speed, fly the light speed-traveling ship and have the power to destroy said ship in one swoop. And I do believe many women, regardless of age, will feel strong and inspired from the film. Seeing Danvers stand up for herself and know she doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone is important. If Danvers is the one that defeats Thanos in End Game, there are going to be a sea of hurt men across the global; I will not be one of them. For it’s shortcomings, Captain Marvel is still a good film that has worth.
Originally posted on March 12, 2019. Updated for grammatical corrections and slight revisions on August 26, 2019. I’m overall thoughts haven’t changed. Go see the movie, motherfucka.