The arrival of Captain Marvel heralds a new era for the Marvel Cinematic Universe – one that finally allows me, and millions of other moviegoers, to see ourselves in MCU superheroes.
When Avengers: Endgame came out, a significant new character, Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel, joined the Avengers on their final quest, fresh off her own cinematic debut. In their first meeting, Thor takes one look at her unflinching attitude and announces: “I like this one”. It’s not just Thor who likes this one though; it’s all of us. Tough, unapologetic, and with something to prove, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is an easy role model for ambitious young women held back by oppressive systems.
In an early scene in her movie, Captain Marvel’s father tells her she shouldn’t really go to college or pursue a career bigger than becoming a secretary. This insistence on giving up ambitions due to her sex is something that is, and has been, familiar to many women to date. Indeed, it has been the subject of films and literature for centuries now. Last year’s On the Basis of Sex, based on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, dealt with these issues in the world of law, Captain Marvel confronts the same in the fantastical sci-fi world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
How does she respond to her father’s advice? Carol Danvers joins the air force, secures a pilot’s license, meets an undercover alien posing as a human (Mar-vell) and accidentally discovers a powerful identity. It is not a future her father would have been able to envision but it is one that would have made him proud.
But let’s slow down a bit and go over some things first: Why is this movie so special? I’ll be honest, I walked into the theatre expecting a good Marvel character movie. Origin story movies tend to be a bit slow moving and not typically as exciting as a conglomerate Avengers type movie featuring multiple characters. Captain Marvel ended up being better than I expected for two reasons: first, it delivered on humor, story, action, and well-developed characterization and second, because it had a feminist angle that spoke to me.
Besides Wonder Woman (WW), Captain Marvel (CM) is the sole contemporary superhero major motion movie featuring a female led. DC’s WW shares a few similarities with Marvel’s CM. Both women have an identity to prove and do it with intense focus. While WW comes across as a tad more serious than CM, most likely due to the time period in which it’s set, their abilities are undoubtedly impressive.
WW grew up in a supportive and relatively protective environment. She had all the examples of strength she needed in addition to extensive training and a clear identity. She knew her name, her family, and her home. The only thing she didn’t fully comprehend was her power, which she came to discover when she broke away from the protective barrier and navigated with her own compass. CM’s background, though not as protective, was also safe. By having her dad discourage her from pursuing her dreams of becoming a pilot, she too had to break away from the barrier his advice had created. She did this by agreeing to fly Mar-vell in a dangerous and unpredictable mission. It was when both WW and CM broke free from those protective chains that they found their power.
A theme that repeatedly shows up in CM is that of falling down and getting back up again. Indeed, perseverance is key to success in the face of impossible odds. In a scene where she is training for the Air Force, Danvers falls down the climbing rope. Jeers and taunts ensue. Danvers, however, gathers herself and stands back up. Later in the film, she falls down a few more times and recovers with similar resolve. When her and Nick Fury are in the record room, she trips and falls once again and initially decides to run from the scene but then goes back to save him. Her getting back up illustrates a refusal to stay down and let doubt win.
As a woman, I couldn’t help but identify with CM as it illustrated a universal experience most of us go through: navigating the rocky road of becoming who we are meant to be. I’ve doubted my own identity more than once in my life. When I was a junior in college, I was pursuing a degree in education because becoming a teacher seemed like a sensible choice, even though I had little interest in the field. As an introvert, I found it increasingly difficult to complete presentations and practical assignments. I had been forcing an identity that went against my nature. My education professors started to see the heart disappear from my coursework just as my English professors began to notice my passion for writing. The latter invited me to speak at a forum to present one of my essays, and while I was afraid and lacking in confidence, I made the decision that day to switch majors and pursue my true love of writing.
Carol faces a similar struggle. She fights well as a Kree agent despite that not being who she really was, proving that she was true to whatever came her way. When she discovered she had been lied to about not being an alien, she used the emotions she was feeling to her advantage, using the moment to add to her strength. In fact, her focus increased and her drive to prove who she was grew even stronger, as did her superpowers. I feel most women can identify with taking the adversities and double standards presented to us throughout the course of our lives and turning them into our own superpower. We don’t give up and neither did Carol.
What’s also worth noting is that the women in Carol’s life are the ones that built her up. Just as in WW, the women around both characters play crucial roles in helping them hone their abilities and achieve their goals of saving humanity. CM not only had support, but she gave that support right back to the women around her. For example, her best friend Maria’s daughter idolized Carol and encouraged both Carol and Maria to be bigger and braver and through her collection of pictures, literally showed them who they were meant to be. The box of pictures she had saved from years prior foreshadow Carol Danvers’ ultimate destiny of becoming a superhero. In fact, Maria’s daughter treated Carol like a superhero – she looked at her with awe and spoke to her with reverence. Carol returned the favor by including her in the design of her uniform, a nod to how she essentially becomes a hero made up of all the smaller heroes in her life.
Mar-vell also influenced Carol in her brazen attitude and comments about breaking the rules of the Air Force and breaking protocol altogether. By letting her fly the plane in the mission to retrieve the energy source, she included Carol and gave her responsibility. She pushed the limits that had been forced on her and allowed Carol to exercise her own undiscovered talents: flying in a risky mission and making quick decisions in conflict. When the plane broke down and they had to decide what to do, Carol took it upon herself to resolve the situation by shooting the energy source before it would be found, inadvertently absorbing all its power. The message is clear: When women trust one another and work together, not only are they both lifted higher, but they, quite literally, become stronger.
One of the things I find most admirable about Captain Marvel is that, while she’s easily the strongest of the Avengers, her personality is anything but conceited. Instead, she’s down to earth, sarcastic, and intensely focused. She isn’t concerned about vanity or her uniform as much as she is about completing her mission. She welcomes fashion suggestions from Agent Fury and Maria’s daughter, something that helps endear her to the people around her. CM has heralded a new chapter in the MCU: One that, finally, allows me, and millions of other moviegoers, to see ourselves in MCU superheroes. This much was clear from a particularly moving Endgame scene in which most of the Marvel women came together against Thanos, and it is this writer’s hope that this spirit continues into the next phase of the MCU.