On Captain Marvel, Politics in Art, Unrealistic Expectations, and Layered Criticisms

Ohohoho. It’s going to be hard to avoid hot takes about Captain Marvel for a while, huh? I’m so sorry for adding to the realm of Captain Marvel think-pieces, I really am. Really, nothing I write about this movie is going to break any new ground. Everyone’s already been out here shouting their thoughts from the rooftops, and just about every political take under the sun has been covered by now. Still, I’m selfish and want to spew my thoughts on it anyways, so here I am, a-spewing.

Some spoilers to follow.

I saw the movie the day it came out, and when I entered the theater I thought to myself, “let’s not think about all the politics and controversies, and just enjoy the film.” Turns out, ignoring them was very much impossible, and it was naive of me to think it could be done.

There were people who already decided they would hate Captain Marvel before they even saw it, and then there were those who decided to love it BECAUSE of the people who decided to hate it. Liberal-minded folk have clocked it as a feminist masterpiece. Get a little lefter than that, and you’ll have people pointing out that, hey, this movie might be about a kick-ass lady, but it’s also a big-ass advertisement for women joining the Air Force. The Air Force which has, traditionally, not been that great to women.

Then there are people who say, “hey, why does it all gotta be political????! Can’t we just enjoy a superhero film??!” To which I say, “hey, everything’s political whether you like it or not, bud!”

I deeply believe that it’s impossible to enjoy anything “objectively.” We all are different people, with different beliefs, and different moral compasses. Our moral compasses are intrinsically tied with our political beliefs. It is absolutely impossible to enter any movie without bringing some of your subjective experiences and interpretations to it. You just can’t! Similarly, no one can make a film or create any media without bringing some of their political beliefs to their work in the process – whether they’re aware they’re doing it or not. It’s all politics, baby. Even the act of claiming apoliticism IS a political stance.

In case you didn’t realize, I am a woman. I love when stories are about women. I tend to gravitate towards media that centers on women. Not all stories about women are good, mind you, and I’m not so dense as to think that a story is a feminist masterpiece just because it happens to have a female lead or happens to be created by a woman. Truthfully, I am often momentarily fooled by the Shiny Female Lead before I realize that, hey wait, there are still some problems with this narrative here.

Some examples: I watched Devilman Lady because I thought that it would be cool to see demon ladies, and for some reason I thought Go Nagai would give me complex female characters. No, instead, I watched demon ladies get raped a lot. Yikes! I also read The Price of Salt and watched its movie adaptation Carol because, yay, lesbians! The story treated their relationship well and had lesbians finally get a happy ending, so it seemed worth celebrating…until I learned that author Patricia Highsmith was a whole ass Nazi sympathizer. Yikes x2!

My point is that things are never as easy as, “this thing is about women, yay, it’s perfect!” Most people already know this, but it’s easy to be blinded by the shiny hope of feminist perfection. Which brings us to Captain Marvel. It was an enjoyable entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s not The Ultimate Feminist Superhero Story that some people want to believe it is.

Some things I enjoyed: Brie Larson’s acting, the “I have nothing to prove to you” line, no forced romantic interest plot-lines, Goose the “cat”, the trippy evil Annette Bening scene, and the use of No Doubt’s “I’m Just A Girl.” There is a lot of good here, there really is. The fact that there were little kids, boys and girls alike, gathering in a theater to see a female superhero photon blast her way through the film made me happy. I know some of those girls found their dreams affirmed, and hopefully, those boys saw that girls were powerful and worthy of respect.

I found myself enamored with a lot of the ~*Girl Power*~ themes, despite underlying criticisms – I found myself thinking about how many times my male co-workers had made me feel less than, talked over me, or pretended my idea was their idea. Carol Danvers succeeding reminded me that I, too, can succeed, and also reminded me that those dudes also deserve to be photon blasted across a room.

But, it wasn’t perfect. For one, some of the scenes were a little too on-the-nose for me. The “just smile” scene felt shoehorned in. It was clearly meant to be a nod to the people (mostly men) who clamored that Captain Marvel should be smiling more in the trailers. A cute moment, I guess, but it felt a little too contrived to really make any meaningful statement about sexism. It’s possible that the scene was already part of the script and wasn’t meant to be this meta-joke, but even then…eh.

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Then, of course, there’s that Big Thing I hate: that it feels like a big ad for the U.S. Air Force. Captain Marvel fails to address any of the Actual Big Issues that women in the service face. Yes, there’s the, “you know why they call it a cockpit, don’t you?” line and the men directly telling Carol that she’ll never be a pilot. They give you the extremely surface level glimpses at workplace sexism. But um, how about all the sexual assault against women that still happens in the Air Force to this day? The sexual assault against women that gets continually covered up by superior officers? Yes, it’s good to present that women are capable of kicking ass and piloting planes. And yes, it’s probably not a Marvel movie’s job to address sexual assault in the military. That doesn’t mean this isn’t still an issue.

In fact, there’s another reason why all the Air Force stuff rubs me the wrong way: it’s bad to create a story that hypes up women as an advertisement. It’s just like when banks show up at pride parades, or when car companies make ads centered on International Women’s Day. These companies don’t actually care about those communities or those issues – they crunched some numbers, looked up what was trending on Twitter, and decided that the politics involved would work in their pockets’ favor. It exploits these groups for money, under the guise of progressive politics. Do you know how much free advertising Gilette got thanks to all the people sharing that toxic masculinity ad, both because of people complaining about it and the people celebrating it? The answer is: a lot! The message doesn’t matter so much as the advertising. With all that in mind, the 2 hour long recruitment video vibe leads me to believe that at least some of the female power messages in Captain Marvel were disingenuous.

But then, of course, there’s the question of whether Captain Marvel deserves this much criticism from me. anyways. After all, I didn’t sit down to write a big thing about Iron Man and its story’s relationship with the military. I haven’t put this much thought into the implications of Captain America and what his story has to say about government surveillance and war. Is it unfair to place such high expectations on the movie because it’s the first female-led Marvel movie? Is it unfair for me to criticize it for not being feminist enough?

The answer to those questions is that I…don’t really know. Maybe I should take more time and think about other entries into the Marvel canon and their political messages. Or, maybe I should just expect better from everything. Or, maybe I need to relax and just turn my brain off?

…Nah, I’m never going to be able to do that last one.

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Brie Larson in a shiny costume blasting Jude Law across a field excited me. Seeing a female superhero delivering the same snarky lines that Tony Stark might deliver was awesome. I was enthralled with the glitz of it all, and I do fucking love seeing Women Doing The Thing, even if there are some unsavory undertones. I had fun watching the movie, I did. I think it’s worth seeing, and if you’re a fan of the Marvel movies, I think you kind of HAVE to see it since it sets up the narrative about Skrulls vs the Kree and introduces the origins of the Tesseract.

But let’s be real, it’s not a feminist revolution here, guys. Giant corporation Disney and the U.S. Air Force are not ushering in the feminist revolution. It’s certainly not worth men and self-hating women throwing a fit over, but it’s not necessarily worth worshiping, either. Things are always, always, always more nuanced than just, “hey this story has a minority lead.” I will enjoy the female-centered stories that I get, but I will still be critical of their messages and demand better in the years to come. I’m not sure if that’s the right thing do to, but it’s what I’ll be doing nonetheless.

Writing about Captain Marvel is risky business, huh?? This is one of those rare situations where I hope that Google DOESN’T pick up on any SEO stuff and makes this one hard to find – I don’t want to suffer at the hands of trolls. I’m going to turn on that sweet comment moderation for a while, just in case. 😉

Anyways, if you’ve seen the movie, let me know what you thought. Were you impressed with its message? Did you think it was a little too on-the-nose? Or, did you just enjoy the ride and not think too much about the politics of it all? (If you were the last one, I truly envy you!) Let me know! I will leave you with the one great part of the movie we should all be able to agree on: grunge Brie Larson.

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One thought on “On Captain Marvel, Politics in Art, Unrealistic Expectations, and Layered Criticisms

  1. I guess I’m not what to say or how to react to this film. I watched it with my parents and thought it was definitely above average marvel movie fare and Mom liked it a lot, but the sting of putting putting good messages into things to piss people off and do the reverse to get people to see it seemed kind of forced.

    Especially since this movie didn’t have as high quality of visuals and budget like with other filler marvel films. I did like Brie Larson a lot though

    Liked by 1 person

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