The Feminism of Captain Marvel 4

Surprising no one, I fucking loved Captain Marvel. I’m tentatively saying it’s my third favorite MCU movie after Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, but I’ll need to see it a few times to be sure. It’s kind of arm wrestling with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Which it honestly has a lot in common with, in the sense that it has an incredibly strong emotional arc for the main character, and in Captain Marvel’s case, it’s not your typical someone struggling with becoming a hero and the responsibilities of their newfound power thing that happens in most first movies for a superhero character.

This is because when we first see her, Carol Danvers is already a hero. She’s already powerful. And she knows it. It’s not about her trying to slot newfound power into an identity she already has, but rather her fighting bare-fisted to establish her own identity around what everyone else wants her to be.

I’m not here to talk about the cinematography of the film or the fight scenes or the rest of it. If you’ve seen an MCU film before, you already know what you’re getting in that regard. What I want to talk about is how feminist the movie is. And I mean REALLY feminist, and not in the superficial way we’re used to seeing “feminism” and female “strength” depicted in action properties that more often than not involves a male director and a male writer deciding that the best way for a woman to be strong is to put on leather pants and commit a lot of violence, unsubtly rejecting femininity as a whole.

This is not to say that Carol Danvers is particularly girly as a character. In fact, she’s depicted as being quite a tomboy. But the point in Captain Marvel is that her being a tomboy who grew up with dirt in her hair isn’t what makes her powerful. It’s just part of who she is, and there’s no judgment on it either way, from the character or through the lens of the film. Her ability to commit violence and the raw power she has access to, while useful, is also very much not the point.

But what I really want to dig into means SPOILERS. So continue at your own risk. Or go see the movie and come back, I’ll still be here.

There’s a lot of really great little moments in Captain Marvel, from Carol Danvers ignoring the asshole male soldiers she has to deal with to her also pointedly ignoring the asshole who tells her she’d be prettier if she smiled, right before she steals his motorcycle. Those are great little moments, and I think the motorcycle theft is actually a better reaction to that asshole guy, instead of her just punching his face in, which would have been more satisfying in a surficial way. But the point the movie makes again and again in its own way is that strength isn’t about punching people.

One of the first scenes in the movie has Carol going to Yon-Rogg, who is played by Jude Law, and sparring with him, and him giving her a line of bullshit about how her emotions basically make her weak (sound familiar, ladies and people who have been socialized as ladies?) and how she won’t be ready until she’s able to beat him on his terms. I think it was a very good choice for Yon-Rogg to be one of the few Kree we see that looks human; he’s just Jude Law hot with some really intense contact lenses. So the image we get is of a [human] man telling Carol this.

As the movie continues, he becomes more and more proprietary of her, even bringing up the point–in a way that to me indicates he’s done it before–about how it was his blood that was transfused into her to save her life. He’s the one who gets to decide when she’s ready. He knows who she is and she shouldn’t doubt that. He has ownership of her.

In that way, Yon-Rogg becomes a stand in for the glimpses we see of Carol’s past. Of the father telling her she had no business in the go-karts. Of the boys mocking her for biffing a jump on her bike. For the male soldiers telling her that she’ll never make it in the air force. We only see it in glimpses, but the point is well-made: Carol’s life has been one, long series of men telling her she can’t do things.

And then she does them. Because she’s Carol Fucking Danvers, that’s why.

So her hunt for her own identity in the movie, necessary because she’s lost her memories, is about her understanding that part of her personality that’s already baked in. It’s about her saying that she gets to decide who she is and what she can do, and no one else.

Her relationship with Maria Rambeau highlights this as well. And yes, I know a lot of people want to read it as queer, but subtext is for cowards and I’m not letting Marvel off the hook for anything not actually text. Also, have we lost sight of just how fucking glorious it is to see two women being best friends on screen, so close that Carol is the auntie of Maria’s daughter? This is a kind of relationship that exists in the real world and gets depicted so very rarely. And let me just bask for a moment in the swathes of time in Captain Marvel where Maria and Carol or Carol and Mar-Vell got to talk and it had not one damn thing to do with a man. The movie felt like it had an absolutely stunning amount of women in it, and that’s fucking sad in a way because there were still far more male characters.

But I digress.

One really key thing about Carol finding Maria and slipping back into that friendship is we get a solid look at how they interacted. The movie isn’t coy that while it’s always men telling Carol what she can’t be, Maria’s the one who tells her the glory of what she was, and what she can be. And yes, I know, #notallmen, but if you’ve spent much time being socially female, you’re likely nodding. So many films make hay of women being bitches to each other and tearing each other down (over men, barf) when I daresay that’s not the general experience at all.

And what’s the conclusion of the film? Carol realizes that the Kree have been holding her back. They’ve basically put a governor on her so they can control her while they try to shape her into who they think she should be. But she real emotional conclusion is her last interaction with Yon-Rogg. He tells her he’s impressed (he’s scared) by her powers. He claims he’s proud. In his moment of unquestionable defeat, he attempts one final, desperate move of the goalposts: he tells her to fight him, fist against fist, to show she’s ready.

She swats him away and delivers the line that is everything: “I have nothing to prove to you.”

Because that’s the fucking point. She doesn’t have to play his game. She doesn’t need his permission to be herself. His approval is laughably unnecessary.

That’s the message of the film. Carol Danvers was a hero long before she could shoot fire out of her fists. She wasn’t strong because she could climb a rope or punch someone. She was already a fucking hero because every time she got knocked down, she stood back up, wiped the blood off her face, and kept going. Her superpower was and is knowing who the hell she is and turning it into a cosmic fuck you aimed at anyone foolish enough to get in her way.

Thanos is fucked.

4 thoughts on “The Feminism of Captain Marvel

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  3. Reply Susan York Mar 18,2019 13:11

    I am so glad that you focused on “being human=standing up again=female strngth.” Bc A) women are never the default *human* – that, as we all know, is a cishetero man – and, B) to me, that’s the underrated strength of humanity itself. We just don’t know when to fucking quit. And yeah it’s created so many problems! But it’s also solved most of the ones we needed it to solve. (Note that by “not quitting” I include people who refuse to stop search for scientific answers, or people who continue to be kind when it would be easier to hate, etc, not just physical strength.) Thank you!

  4. Reply Eugene Myers Mar 19,2019 08:07

    I love this entire essay—but especially the last line.

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