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Non-Review Review: Captain Marvel

The biggest problem with Captain Marvel is one of spoiler culture.

“Spoiler culture” is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, and one that is interesting as a facet of cultural consumption that arose parallel with the internet. It is perhaps a logical extension of the manner in which information flows these days. Information travels instantly and in all directions, quickly consumed and quick disseminated. In the nineties, it was easy (or easier) to avoid spoilers to films like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. After all, there was no Twitter or Facebook to share information. If somebody had already seen the film, they had to be physically talking to somebody else to discuss it, and it was posisble to establish the ground rules for the flows of information before the conversation progressed.

In an era where simply being on the internet exposes a person to torrents of information, the advent of “spoiler culture” seems logical and rational. People want to be surprised. People don’t want to know the finer points of a story before witnessing it first hand. People do not want the easter eggs given out or the finer details dissected. This is an understandable response. Having an experience described is no match for actually having that experience first-hand. So a culture has grown up online about preserving surprise and controlling the flow of information. This is fine. This is healthy. This is good. Mostly “spoiler culture” is just common courtesy and common sense. A reviewer should not reveal anything to a reader that they themselves would not want to know.

As with any philosophy, there is a tendency to take things too far. Sometimes “spoiler culture” descends into self-parody. Reviewers were famously told not to reveal any information about the plot of Blade Runner 2049, which ironically made it very hard to sell the movie to a potential audience. Some more extreme adherents felt betrayed when Sony released a trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home before Avengers: Endgame, as if the fact that Sony was making another Spider-Man movie would give away the resolution to the cliffhanger from Avengers: Infinity War. Naturally, Infinity War came with its own massive spoiler-warning from the studio, with reviewers told that “Thanos demands [their] silence.” This despite the fact the ending was lifted directly from a comic.

Captain Marvel embodies the worst impulses of “spoiler culture” because it confuses a logical and organic narrative development for a big twist. There is a reveal that comes around the half-way mark of the two-hour film which fundamentally changes the nature of the story being told. It plays against the story that had been set up to that point, and is positioned as a game-changer. It is a “twist.” It is a “big” moment. It is the kind of development for which Thanos would demand silence. Except it’s not really. It is not an actual twist. It is a plot point. It is a story beat. It is a part of the story that makes a great deal of sense in the context of the story as it is being told. However, Captain Marvel decides to play this game-changing story beat as a revelation.

There are a couple of big issues here. Most obviously, the actual narrative development is quite literally the only way that Captain Marvel could go without becoming something completely and irredeemably monstrous, so it is entirely predictable. (The twist is only a surprise to audience members who genuinely believe that Marvel’s first female-led superhero movie is likely to play out as extreme white nationalist propaganda.) More than that, though, it creates a larger problem with the flow of the story. The decision to play this story beat as a twist means the film has to conceal its hand for the first hour and fifteen minutes. This means that Captain Marvel is almost half-way over before any member of the cast gets any real character development.

The basic set-up of Captain Marvel is straightforward enough. The Kree and the Skrulls are at war with one another. Vers is a heroic Kree soldier, a member of an elite tactical division tasked with eliminating high value targets. Vers is also human. She awake one day on Hela with no memory of her past life. She is haunted by dreams of a woman that she cannot remember, and of an act of violence created by the inhuman Skrull invaders. Vers also has unique and powerful abilities, but no idea how she got them. She is being trained by Yon-Rogg, who clearly sees great potential in the young woman, if she can just learn to control her emotions.

Much has been made of Captain Marvel as a period piece, and this creates an interesting contrast within the film. Despite the awkward structural issues with the central twist, Captain Marvel is a surprisingly astute piece of work. Although the film is set in the nineties, two of its larger elements are strongly contextualised outside of it. The Kree are perhaps the most obvious example. Captain Marvel draws on the source material to present the Kree as space!Communists like something from a questionable eighties action movie. Of course, this draws from the original characterisation of the Kree by Lee and Kirby in Fantastic Four during the sixties, treating them as a deep-space allegory for contemporaneous fears about the horrors of socialism.

The Kree are dedicated to “the Collective” rather than “the Self.” The Kree are comprised of several species (blue and pink), but one culture. Their warriors regularly commune with “the Supreme Intelligence”, which is a Lovecraftian abstraction that plucks a form from an individual’s past to work like a puppet for its own ends. “Serve the Kree, not yourself,” the Great Intelligence urges Vers early in the film. Yon-Rogg worries that Vers is “too emotional” to ever function as a Kree soldier. She can never entirely surrender her sense of self. Indeed, there is some sense that Vers is trying to reclaim the identity that was lost to her, to reject her status as a blunt instrument or tool of the established order.

It’s an interesting and effective characterisation of the Kree, in the context of the nineties setting. However, Captain Marvel also shrewdly plays them as a slightly more modern allegory as well. There are repeated assertions that Vers is “too emotional” to ever succeed in the world of the Kree soldiers, and Yon-Ragg repeatedly insists that Vers needs to learn to use her head rather than her heart. He insists that Vers fight him on his own terms, and that her actions are only valid when they conform to his expectations. There are shades of the modern alt-right to the Kree, the gendered pseudo-rationalism which defines so much of the “mens’ rights” crowd that seems so threatened by the existence of films like Captain Marvel.

This provides an interesting contrast with the Skrulls, which are set up as the nominal villains of the piece. The Skrulls are a classic and iconic alien menace. Indeed, the Chitauri as featured in The Avengers were originally conceived by writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch as stand-ins for the Skrulls during their run on The Ultimates. The Skrulls are shape-changing aliens, defined as invaders and infiltrators. They manoeuvre themselves within existing power structures, so that they might scheme and plot. Captain Marvel introduces the Skrulls as something close to monsters, like the Uruk Hai from The Lord of the Rings. Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos is allowed to articulate and stand upright, but most other Skrulls seem atavistic; they crouch, they crawl, they poke, they cower.

In the context of the film’s nineties setting, the Skrulls are another expression of the formless anxieties of the existential fears underpinning the decade between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror. The Skrulls are formless and identityless. When they take the form of a subject, they incorporate that form’s identity and short-term memories, subsuming their selves. The Skrulls tap into that recurring fear of nineties America that the greatest enemy might be one’s own self. Without a rigidly defined enemy like communism or terrorism to fight, it might be impossible to spot the enemies who seek to attack and destabilise society.

The Skrulls are of a piece with many of the great science-fiction villains of the nineties; the invasive colonists and shape-shifting bounty hunters from The X-Files, the formless changelings of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Skrulls can be everywhere and nowhere, tapping into the same uncertainties that informed so much of the decade’s paranoid popular culture. Evoking the work of Chris Carter and Oliver Stone, the Skrulls even disguise themselves as senior government officials so that they might hunt our heroes through stacks of archives and records. The Skrulls walk amongst humanity, unseen. They infiltrate, they consume, they plot. The Skrulls embody a certain nineties conspiratorial nightmare, the invader who is indistinguishable.

Of course, although Captain Marvel is set in the nineties, it is not of the nineties. This is not a piece of work produced in the vacuum that existed between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Twin Towers. These archetypes mean something very different twenty years removed from that context. There is a reason why it is occasionally hard to watch The X-Files in the twenty-first century. In the modern world, the Skrulls are not a formless representative of a cultural listlessness. Instead, the Skrulls are a horde of monstrous foreigners who have no respect for borders or cultural identity. They look alien, their customs are strange, they are no better than animals. As such, the Skrulls work differently in 2019 than they would at the point in time when the film is set.

To be fair to Captain Marvel, the movie is shrewd enough to understand this. Superhero stories (and superhero films) can be inherently reactionary; they are fantasies about power and authority produced by large corporations. There is an inherent conservatism baked into most of the larger examples of the genre. Even the otherwise radical Black Panther was an ode to hereditary monarchy that presented the Central Intelligence Agency as heroes in a story of civil unrest in an African nation. Occasionally truly radical works will sneak in, such as the radically anti-colonial politics of Thor: Ragnarok or even the rejection of Orientalist stereotypes in Iron Man III.

Often, the genre’s political underpinnings can be uncomfortable. Certainly, a film like Thor: The Dark World would never have hesitated to present a race like the Skrulls as a horde of anonymous invading monsters that needed to be destroyed. (The Dark World is a film in which Odin admits to organising genocide, with the crisis arising because he did not properly exterminate the so-called “dark elves.”) There are certainly conservative elements within Captain Marvel. As with Black Panther, this is a movie with a strong investment in the power structures of the United States government. The title character is an air force pilot, and S.H.I.E.L.D. are presented as a heroic organisation despite the fact they were being run by literal-but-also-nameless Nazis at this point.

At the same time, Captain Marvel is the product of a different time than The Dark World. In the half-decade since The Dark World, things have changed. Radical right-wing ideology has taken root in the United States. Immigrants are frequently dehumanised and treated like monsters. Refugees are presented as monstrous threats. Families are torn apart at the border. Fear of people from different cultures and different backgrounds has been harnessed in service of a truly horrific agenda. Captain Marvel understands that it cannot play the Skrulls as straightforward monsters, as science-fiction allegories for right-wing fears about immigrants and refugees. Captain Marvel is smart enough to understand that it cannot tell that story.

This creates a problem. If the film cannot tell that particular story, there is only one story that it can tell. The biggest issue with Captain Marvel is that it treats this organic narrative decision as a big twist and surprise. Despite the fact that this is the only way that Captain Marvel could develop without becoming something monstrous and grotesque, the episode treats this story beat as a revelation. The rest of the movie is structured around this twist. The story is told in such a way as to preserve the surprise. The result is a narrative jack-in-the-box, a film that spends a full hour building to a “gotcha!” moment that is obvious to any genre savvy viewer from the opening ten minutes.

The story of Captain Marvel is incredibly straightforward, despite the narrative contortions employed by the script. Amnesia is something of a hackneyed story device, and one that is often greeted with a deserved cynicism. Amnesia is often a clumsy way of concealing information from the audience as much as the character affected. Amnesia is a crutch that can be used to make a simple story more complex. There is a reason that the device is a lot less common in contemporary cinema than it would have been in the thirties and forties. Audiences understand how the story device works, and so audience members with even a basic understanding of genre can quickly determine the direction of a story that employs amnesia as a means of obscuring vital information.

Structurally, this is a decision that can only really work once. Captain Marvel is convinced that it can surprise its audience, and so works hard to that end. However, the film cheats along the way. There are a number of early plot developments and inferences that do not necessarily fit with subsequent revelations. Characters do not behave in ways that make sense according to their own internal logic, but instead act in accordance with an external logic that is designed to build tension and to preserve the surprise for the audience watching. Even watching the film, there is a sense of narrative trickery afoot; scenes begin and end in odd places, the drama cutting to and from key characters so as to avoid any real intimacy with them.

The biggest issue with all of this is that it prevents Captain Marvel from actually characterising any of its primary cast. This is a problem, given how much the Marvel movies tend to lean on the charisma of their leading actors; Robert Downey Junior as Tony Stark, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Paul Rudd as Scott Lang. In contrast, Vers is introduced as a blank slate. She has no memory. She has no background. The audience has no context for her. She has a personality, but it is the stock deadpan snarker personality that seems to come as standard with these characters. “I used to think you were funny,” Yon-Rogg laments at one point in the narrative, perhaps wearied by the barrage of wry one-liners.

Because Captain Marvel refuses to tip a hand that everybody at the table already knows that it is holding, the film has to treat Carol as a blank slate for about half the run time. To a certain extent, this could be seen as a desire to sidestep the increasingly well-worn origin story template by trying to jump into the action in media res, but the issue is that there’s no sense of what makes Vers unique. What are Vers’ flaws as a character? What makes Vers distinct from any other soldiers in her unit? What does Vers want in life? By the time that Captain Marvel begins, the character has been living as an amnesiac for six years, but there’s no indication that she has ever put any real thought into digging into her history or her past.

This is basic storytelling. It is simplistic to say that a primary character must be defined by a want, the type of “wisdom” favoured by screenwriting guides and writing seminars. However, that want does help to define a character and to help the audience understand them and invest in them. Many of the best Marvel Studios films are defined by characters who want. Thor wants to be worthy. Tony Stark wants his life to mean something. Steve Rogers wants to serve his country. Peter Quill wants a family to replace the one that he lost, even if he’ll never admit it. Erik Kilmonger wants to return home to a country that abandoned him. However, because Captain Marvel is building to a twist that is designed to pull the rug out from Vers, it never gives her that motivation.

Vers is not the only character affected. Captain Marvel has a legitimately great cast. It has a number of genuinely brilliant actors playing nominally important roles. Jude Law is cast as Yon-Ragg, Vers’ mentor and commander. Ben Mendelsohn is Talos, the “terrorist” commander of an elite Skrull unit. Annette Bening has twin roles, playing both a mysterious figure from Vers’ past and the embodiment of the Supreme Intelligence when it chooses to address her. That is a great cast, populated by great actors who are capable of doing great things with the right characters. In particular, many of those actors are capable of playing multiple facets of the same character; Law can be both charming and smug, Mendelsohn can be both conniving and vulnerable.

The issue with Captain Marvel is that its opening hour and fifteen minutes is so firmly invested in setting up the big plot reveal that none of these actors are allowed any room to work. The film cannot spend any substantial amount of time with Yon-Ragg or Talos, because doing so might give the game away and reveal information that the film has chosen to conceal with the audience. As a result, Law and Mendelsohn spend more than half the film giving very broad performances that are designed to be read in a number of different ways by the audience depending on what the audience has worked out in a given moment. There is something technically impressive in that, in how broad Law and Mendelsohn can play their roles. Unfortunately, it is far from satisfying.

There is also an issue in how the decision to treat the film’s logical plot developments as earth-shattering twists undercuts a lot of potentially interesting thematic baggage. It becomes quite clear early in the story that Vers is not entirely aware of why she has her mysterious powers. Other Kree and Skrull soldiers cannot fire energy from their hands. It is very obvious that something happened to her, something that she cannot remember. There is something very powerful in the idea that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female hero should be denied agency over her own body, particularly given the historical treatment of Carol Danvers in the comic books. (There is a reason Brian Bendis used Danvers as a supporting character in Alias, which inspired Jessica Jones.)

However, the film’s reluctance to foreground these obvious questions and themes undercuts their narrative weight. It is very clear to the audience from almost the beginning of the film that Vers has been manipulated and altered by something, her personhood and autonomy compromised so that her body might be turned into a tool to be exploited and used by men. There is something powerful and feminist in that story, in a woman trying to reassert her identity and individuality, and trying to take control of her own body from men who would try to tell her how to use it. Unfortunately, this theme gets a little muddled in the execution, lost in the narrative hijinks.

(It is also interesting how much Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to serve as an influence on Captain Marvel, particularly considering early rumours that the character was supposed to be introduced in the first Avengers sequel. The manipulation of Vers’ body and the denial of her autonomy so that she might better be used as a tool recalls the back story afforded to Natasha in Age of Ultron. More playfully, the second act of Captain Marvel involves an extended sequence in which the characters seek refuge on an idyllic farm in the middle of nowhere. This seems almost a knowing joke at the expense of Joss Whedon, who famously had to fight to keep the farmhouse scene in Age of Ultron. Nick Fury seems to have quite a fondness for hiding from threats in countryside.)

This issue with the structure of the film is compounded by the edit. Captain Marvel is ironically one of the shorter modern Marvel Studios films. Captain Marvel is shorter than Spider-Man: Homecoming, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Black Panther, and Captain America: Civil War. This is an issue when the film waits over an hour to start characterising its leads, meaning that the part of the story with any character development feels even more rushed than it might otherwise be. There is also a sense, watching the film, that Captain Marvel underwent a very heavy edit to hit a predetermined runtime. A lot of the film’s action sequences and comedy bits feel heavy-handed; landing quickly before moving on.

An early action sequence involves Vers escaping from a Skrull ship with her hands still locked in restraints. This is a high-concept action sequence; Vers cannot use her energy blasts nor her fingers, all while trying to navigate a hostile environment. This is a great set-up for a memorable and playful action sequence. Even within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are a number of similar examples that come to mind; the characters fighting over the orb on Xandar in Guardians of the Galaxy, the playful spaceship-through-the-rubble chase in Ragnarok. However, the editing of the sequence is frantic. Everything seems hyper-compressed. It’s possible to miss genuinely clever beats in the sequence, such as Vers having to use her foot to work a door console.

In this sense, it seems like Captain Marvel might have suffered slightly from its choice of directors. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are two very promising directors, responsible for the underrated and underseen Mississippi Grind. However, Boden and Fleck are perhaps better established as television directors and have no real background in action direction. Given Marvel Studios’ established history of offering to “take care of” the action sequence direction for less established directors, it is interesting to speculate whether this contributed to some of the issues with the action editing in Captain Marvel. Either way, the film has a disorienting pace, often stepping on key comedic or dramatic beats in a rush to get to the next scene.

All of this is a shame, because there is a lot to like in Captain Marvel. Most notably, the film has a strong understanding of gender dynamics in a very unshowy way. Captain Marvel is the first Marvel Studios film with a female lead, more than a decade into the shared cinematic universe and arriving two years after Wonder Woman from Warner Brothers. Captain Marvel is keenly aware of the pressure and expectations heaped upon it, and it handles itself with considerable grace. The film is never heavy-handedly about the eponymous character’s status as a woman, but it is always there in the background. The film never obscures the gender dynamics at play, understanding what it is like for the character to operate in predominantly masculine spaces.

The most overt examples of sexism are limited to very brief encounters, contextualised as the sort of ambient noise that the character has to deal with on a daily basis. Flashing back to her time in a dingy air force bar, Vers is sternly lectured by a drunken male pilot, “It’s called a cockpit for a reason.” Similarly, a surly biker teases the weary soldier, “Haven’t you got a smile for me?” Although that particularly sequence was undoubtedly written and filmed long before the trailer was cut, it takes on a particularly strong resonance given complaints that the eponymous character should have smiled more in the film’s publicity material. Although the film is not about the kind of sexism that a woman in a high-profile position faces, it is never oblivious.

More than that, the film cleverly plays with more modern expressions of sexism. Similar to Interstellar and Star Trek: Discovery, this is a piece of contemporary popular science-fiction that is absolutely fascinated with the idea of the conflict between the rational and the emotional. Traditionally, science-fiction has been seen as a genre defined by pseudo-rationalism. This is the genre that birthed Clarke’s Third Law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is something that simmers through the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, particularly the weird instance that Asgardians are not really gods but instead sufficiently advanced aliens. (Clarke’s Third Law gets an explicit shoutout in The Dark World.)

Science-fiction has long been treated as conventionally “rational” space. It has also long been coded as a conventionally masculine space, despite the incredibly influence of women in the genre; both as important figures in production and in shaping the modern concept of fandom. In recent years, science-fiction fandom has also become embroiled in the culture wars. There is a significant overlap between conventionally masculine fan spaces and the alt-right, and connection that obviously stretches back to GamerGate. In terms of science-fiction fandom, that sort of reactionary fandom found expression in the backlash to Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. The film experienced a massive sexist and racist backlash from conventional fandom.

Captain Marvel exists in this context. It is no surprise, for example, that these reactionary fandoms are already targeting the film with negative reviews before release. This is not a new phenomenon by any measure; it happened with the recent Ghostbusters reboot as well. What is interesting is in watching these films react to the anxieties of these traditional and reactionary fandoms. Ghostbusters made sure to include as much castration imagery as possible, and engaged in deliberate (and endearing) provocations like murdering a character played by Bill Murray on-screen. Captain Marvel engages with this side of fandom more abstractly.

Yon-Rogg positions himself (and the Kree) as rationalists. This is very much in keeping with the political philosophy of the alt-right, which is very adamant that its ideology is rooted in reason and rationality. This is why Jordan Peterson is such an important figure, as he confers intellectual legitimacy upon these beliefs. The modern extreme right is more likely to adopt labels like “racial realists” than to employ honest descriptors like “racists.” Everything is dressed up in the trappings of respectability. It is reasoned, it is intellectual, it is factual. Tellingly, the gendered insult most often thrown at Vers over the course of Captain Marvel is that she is “too emotional.” Yon-Rogg insists that Vers needs to let her head guide her, and to stop letting her emotions cloud her judgment.

This is a recurring motif in modern science-fiction like Interstellar and Discovery. It is implicitly gendered in both Interstellar and Captain Marvel, a male character condescendingly telling a female character that she needs to adopt a rational approach to the situation and to stop letting her emotions cloud her judgment. Tellingly, both Interstellar and Captain Marvel understand that emotions are not necessarily a source of weakness because they happen to be gendered. (Discovery is an interesting example, in which a female lead character spends most of the first season coming to understand that her emotional response to trauma is just as important as providing a logical justification for her actions.)

There is something very effective and cathartic at the climax of Captain Marvel, when the villain stumbles out of his crashed space ship and declares to Vers, “I am so proud of you.” He then insists that Vers reject the power that flows through her body and that she fight him hand-to-hand. Sure, Vers might be able to triumph when she uses the power that flows through her, but can she beat him on his terms? It is a moment with a surprising amount of resonance. It is a man talking to a woman, trying to set the terms of engagement to suit himself. He would argue that he simply wants to confront Vers on a level playing field, but the truth is that the rules of engagement that he is setting would only benefit himself.

Vers responds, simply and effectively, “I have nothing to prove to you.” It is a small and triumphant moment, but one that understands the realities that face many women and minorities in the modern world, the challenge of being asked to compete with straight white men using systems and structured that have been designed in the image of those straight white men, with all their limitations and all of their biases. The playing field in such situations can never truly be level, but only appears as such to those who get to define it. Captain Marvel soars in moments like this, firmly rejecting any attempt to set ceilings or restrictions on female empowerment or expression, and mocking the absurdity of attempting to do so in service of an obvious agenda.

It is a shame that Captain Marvel doesn’t work as well in larger terms, that the wit and insight on display in these smaller moments is not reflected in the structuring of the movie as a whole. Captain Marvel is too clumsy and too awkward to rank with the best Marvel Studios movies, which is a shame. In its strongest moments, it is truly Marvel-ous.

7 Responses

  1. **DISCLAIMER** Sorry if this comment wil be posted twice since Im not sure my first try worked**DISCLAIMER**

    Hey Darren nice review as always to your Captain Marvel, I’m just wondering in my heavy-induced-energy-drink-thesis-writing-morning if you think, me with no training whatsoever with writing, can write a film y’know? I started following your reviews way back 2014 bec I think, no I know I learned so much from your reviews on how stories work and because of you I appreciate why literature reviews matter. I don’t know, I feel like I’m really late to the party and with you I know you’re really stared early reading classic stories and dissecting/learning them but me bec of lack of access to this stories and frankly lack of support, I feel like I’m coming late. And also because of your critical dissection, I became afraid someone like you who is smarter than me can dissect what I made and reveal scary themes which I don’t consider but nonetheless are there that in turn people will judge me that my work is who I am. Maybe this is part hubris of early twenties-finding my purpose, and anxiety of not finishing my case study but I’m just lost you know, I sadly don’t have someone to talk to about this stuff. Do you have a story like a made-up novel or movie you are scared to tell but get it out on the world anyway? Or you find investigating culture really a pleasure compare to say, according to some-“reviewers are just failed artist”? Or do you find reviews as an Art discipline? Thank you if you’re going to reply and really big fan since 2014 hahaha!!

    • Thanks for the kind words. I would say that you should write what you write. I think there’s a lot to be said for Spielberg’s argument that creating art is not a critical process, but an instinctual one. Spielberg famously worried that if he ever interrogated his own films, or tried to explore why they did or didn’t work, he’d “break” his ability to tell them.

      Personally, I wrote a lot when I was younger. In some cases, just to understand the creative process; to get what it feels like to tell a story and to understand the choices that a writer makes along the way. I think that this maybe made me a better critic. I think (hope) that I’m a lot more sympathetic a critic because of that; I tend to look for the best possible reason that a writer or director might make a specific choice. I’ve written a whole bunch of novels that nobody will ever read. Mostly because they’re terrible! But writing them was fun.

  2. I’ve honestly been waiting patiently for Marvel Studios movies to begin to repeat the phenomenon from Marvel’s comic books where many heroes and villains past a certain point were given grab-bag super-powers divorced from their characters and personalities, including the always-popular “shoots energy beams from hands”.

    Marvel’s characters in all media have always been more engaging when their abilities reflect their characters, no matter which one curved toward the other in the character’s history. Iron Man’s suit runs on the device in his chest that keeps him alive; he’s a normal guy who powers his bullet-deflecting, jet-plane outer body with his own stop-gap solution to a broken heart. Captain America can do everything better than almost everyone, but not well enough to make it look like he has it easy against his foes; he’s the perpetual underdog but the inevitable winner, just as a projection of the United States’ self-image should be.

    The most approachable of Marvel’s stable of champions are even easier to pin down. Spider-Man’s abilities are based on a creepy critter instead of something usually seen as powerful and heroic, and they allow him to dodge out of harm’s way at the last second, while his strength is as proportionate to his self-confidence as it is to a spider; all of that reflects his character on a number of levels I don’t really have to describe to anyone who’s seen a Spider-Man movie, which is probably why he’s had the longest run as Marvel’s best-known icon (and I’ll leave out the way his web-shooters correspond to his perpetual-adolescent angst). The Incredible Hulk… too obvious to bother explaining it, right…?

    And then… we climb onto the banana boat full of characters from around ’67-’68 onward who can shoot energy beams out of their hands and are very strong, or are very strong and they can fly, or can shoot energy beams out of their hands and are very strong and they can fly, and maybe they can also absorb energy that their enemies shoot out of their hands and then shoot it back out of, etc. Maybe, on occasion, they can shout “ENOUGH!” in gigantic, colored letters while a hemisphere of energy knocks everyone back, and you know things are serious. You get the picture.

    Of course, DC has at least as many of these characters as Marvel, maybe more, but after Superman acquired his grab-bag of laser eyes and freezy-breath in the ’50s, you almost expect it of them, which doesn’t make them any more interesting. A DC hero with one or two super-powers will have at least one run on their main book where they acquire two to five more, at least temporarily, and it’s usually boring. But when you read back through Marvel’s old books and see “shoots energy beams from hands” start to happen more and more as you go, as you watch the writers and artists drift further and further away from the “powers = character” idea that produced most of the Marvel characters that anyone still cares about today, it stings.

    I thought the movies would reach that same point when the different studios’ franchises introduced the trio of similar-looking Big Two villains who best represent it: Apocalypse, Darkseid and Thanos have all proven to be interesting characters under certain skilled writers and artists (yes, even Apocalypse), but they all suffer from this grab-bag effect, where their super-powers serve no purpose for their characters. Instead, they say, “Hey, this guy can keep a super-team busy for a while.” They say nothing about the characters themselves, which is why they’re almost always packaged with an action-figure doo-dad to drive the story: a cube, or a gauntlet, or a deadly virus, or an entire planet in Darkseid’s case, plus an… equation…? (Darkseid worked fine for Jack Kirby; his peers in that regard I can count on one hand, and think of how many people have worked on stories about Darkseid by now.)

    Everything these characters can do, everything that makes them “super”, is the product of an arms race, and as with real-life arms races, the current product is always pretty much the same thing the other guy already has, only slightly more of it. In this case “the other guy” includes the last appearance of the same character. It’s not “power creep” per se, but rather the need to draw the eye of a readership that’s seen it all before that, to try to make them half-believe that, hey, this guy, now, this guy could be a problem. (Until he shows up and loses one too many times… unless those losers were all clones, you see…)

    I’ve never been overly enamored of Marvel Studios movies. The best of them are fun action flicks with chatty scripts, unnecessarily talented casts, scenes that leave room to let the actors play off each other and transcend the material, CG effects that are 80-90% not awful, and all of it wrapped up in a lightweight recruiting video for the U.S. Department of Defense, who approved the script. Even in the context of the action-sci-fi-fantasy-blockbuster niche these movies occupy, they’re usually fine, rarely very good, and never truly great. A few of them are just plain bad.

    But still… I kind of hope they haven’t really reached the “shoots energy beams from hands” stage quite yet. That’d be a downer. I thought it would have happened long before now, and I know it has to happen someday, but I kind of hope it’s not today. Kind of.

    • Yep. I think Captain Marvel just about gets away with the “grab bag power” as you describe it because achieving that is presented as the climax of the story. But you’re right that it’s very much a minefield going forward, and is going to be something very hard to pull off well.

      • It might still hold up a bit, I’d say, if only because of relative novelty. There isn’t yet anyone in the MCU with quite the same powerset; Vision comes closest, and he’s got the whole phasing thing to be distinctive. More importantly, having a woman as the Superman-equivalent hasn’t been done yet. I think it’s a very smart move by the MCU production team to build up Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers like this, and it’s got a decent chance of paying off in Endgame (and possibly the MCU going forward).

  3. First of all, I really did like the nineties nostalgia. I love eighties nostalgia, I’m even ready to admit that there’s probably a lot more stuff there to be mined for modern media, but after two GOTG movies and the last Thor one indulged in it, I’m happy this movie moved it to the next decade. The nineties needs more love. (Also, I actually remember the nineties).

    “In the context of the film’s nineties setting, the Skrulls are another expression of the formless anxieties of the existential fears underpinning the decade between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror. The Skrulls are formless and identityless. When they take the form of a subject, they incorporate that form’s identity and short-term memories, subsuming their selves. The Skrulls tap into that recurring fear of nineties America that the greatest enemy might be one’s own self. Without a rigidly defined enemy like communism or terrorism to fight, it might be impossible to spot the enemies who seek to attack and destabilise society.”

    See, in my case, the Skrulls and not the Kree are actually what I zeroed in on as a Red Scare reference (rather than a nineties one). The whole concept of alien infiltrators who could look like anyone, for a race invented in the sixties, looks like a pretty clear case of indulging Cold War anxieties, like a lot of the invasion/infiltration fiction from that era. That’s what makes the revelation that they’re really harmless refugees so good. The movie takes the paranoia that spawned the Skrulls and shows the harm it can do to the most vulnerable.

    If the Skrulls were just a nineties “we have no external Big Bad, maybe the enemy is us” reference, it wouldn’t work nearly as well.

    “There is something very effective and cathartic at the climax of Captain Marvel, when the villain […] insists that Vers reject the power that flows through her body and that she fight him hand-to-hand. Sure, Vers might be able to triumph when she uses the power that flows through her, but can she beat him on his terms? It is a moment with a surprising amount of resonance. It is a man talking to a woman, trying to set the terms of engagement to suit himself. He would argue that he simply wants to confront Vers on a level playing field, but the truth is that the rules of engagement that he is setting would only benefit himself. Vers responds, simply and effectively, “I have nothing to prove to you.””

    Not to diminish the obvious gender subtext, but I also loved it simply as a rejection of the “put down your gun, fight like a man!” trope. We’ve all had times when we’ve shouted at the TV screen “MY GOD JUST SHOOT THE GUY ALREADY!” so it’s always nice when the characters do, in fact, just shoot them instead of putting themselves at a disadvantage for the sake of being sporting.

    (Though my favorite subversion of the trope is still the one from Rush Hour 1. Speaking of nineties nostalgia).

    • Interesting. Nineties nostalgia largely just makes me feel old, in no small part because I remember the decade the first time around. Eighties nostalgia is at least exotic to me, like anthropology.

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