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Higher, Further, Faster: Does ‘Captain Marvel’ Deliver on the Potential of a Female Superhero?

The heightened expectations for the MCU’s first female-led film are shouldered by a character who possesses the sheer girl power to end all wars, but whose superpowers increasingly seem like they come at the expense of her individual personhood

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel surrounded by other characters in ‘Captain Marvel’ Marvel Studios/Ringer illustration

When the initial Captain Marvel posters dropped last fall, they featured the film’s eponymous protagonist, played by Brie Larson, standing alone at the entrance of a plane hangar with the words “Higher Further Faster” printed prominently above her head. The tagline is a specific reference to the title of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s 2012 revamping of the original comics series, though the phrase also captures a general ethos about the film’s unique status in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only is Captain Marvel the studio’s first female-led and female-directed (Anna Boden, alongside codirector Ryan Fleck) superhero film, it is also the penultimate installment in a series of 22 films that will finally close the story on the multiplot, multicharacter, and multibillion franchise that is the MCU. The concluding chapter—to be released April 26 in the form of Avengers: Endgame—will require the presence of Larson’s omnipotent female superhero to save the day. Given that we’ve all been waiting quite a while for Captain Marvel to come along, it’s no surprise that she’d come with a motto that bespeaks urgency.

This urgency is, of course, already built into the DNA of Marvel’s all-powerful female superhero. “Captain Marvel,” a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. “Carol Danvers,” a.k.a. “Vers,” as she is often called in the film, comes from a long line of iterations responding to Marvel’s historically sexist neglect of female characters. While Vers is technically short for Danvers, I kept thinking it should be short for Version, because that’s all this character is—a version of that amorphous entity we know as Feminist Female Superhero. (Though, if anyone wants my opinion, Vers might just as easily—and perhaps more memorably—have been called “Dan.”)

It was in 1977 that Captain Marvel finally got her own self-titled comic book series under the name of Ms. Marvel—a nod to second-wave feminism contemporaneous with Marvel’s other 1970s attempts at representational diversity. A daughter of her moment, Ms. Marvel was primarily conceived in reaction to her male counterparts. As a military officer in the U.S. Air Force, Danvers’s radicalism was rooted in her capacity to take on traditionally masculine roles, and, even after traumatic assault and kidnapping, her capacity to move past them. The initial Ms. Marvels, however, were penned by men: first Gerry Conway, and then Chris Claremont, followed by Kurt Busiek, who gives her the additional alias “Warbird” and gets her to work through her character issues by writing in an alcoholism plot (which gets her temporarily kicked out of the Avengers). By the time DeConnick arrived in 2012 to reanimate the character, Carol Danvers had already been dragged around the ideological block a few times. DeConnick did swift and admirable work by first un-gendering the title to Captain Marvel, desexualizing her costume (somewhat), and streamlining what had, by then, become a fairly confused and entangled set of plot arcs for Danvers. In DeConnick’s hands, Danvers transformed from the reactionary feminist superhero of the 1970s into the 2012 proactive feminist superhero who must overcome not just her own traumatic past, but also her own narrative baggage as a Marvel creation. The result? A Daft Punk–esque subtitle: Captain Marvel Vol. 1: Higher, Further, Faster, More.

“I think of Carol as someone who is forever running, forever chasing, always in motion,” said DeConnick in an interview with Polygon last fall. And in Boden and Fleck’s movie, Carol is constantly moving. From the film’s introduction of the character as someone who, when having trouble sleeping, rouses her mentor Yon-Rogg (played by Jude Law) to train, to Danvers learning by the end that she can fly around galaxies, Captain Marvel works overtime to show us that its female protagonist is a lean, mean, feminist fighting machine. These are often the demands of being a superhero, full stop. But they are all the more the demands of a female superhero who is coming belatedly on the heels of 20 male-led MCU superhero films.

With so few stand-alone female superhero movies, it’s hard to watch Captain Marvel without thinking about its recent DC equivalent, Wonder Woman. Released in 2017, Patty Jenkins’s film directly paves the way for Captain Marvel as well as sets its standard: Jenkins’s film vastly exceeded box office expectations, but also broke records for DC’s first female director. And while Captain Marvel in many ways builds upon the blueprint of Wonder Woman (in which one woman goes to Earth with aims to save the world), Jenkins’s is the better film—more tightly paced, emotionally coherent, even funnier. It’s difficult, moreover, to experience the political messaging implicit in Captain Marvel without thinking about Black Panther, another Marvel film whose comic book origins occurred around the same time as Ms. Marvel’s. While Wonder Woman and Black Panther have enough world and time to allow their protagonists to develop as coherent characters, Captain Marvel—whether because of its belated arrival to an MCU that Danvers must promptly rescue or because of her already baggy backstory—feels like a rushed attempt to give viewers their long overdue female superhero.

The film itself seems to know this. Captain Marvel begins with its protagonist waking up twice: the first time in a dream, when Danvers foggily comes to after crashing a fighter plane, and the second time when she’s rousing from that dream to find herself in her bed on the Kree Empire’s capital planet of Hala. The embedded awakenings hint at the content of Danvers’s story, but also at the complicated narrative infrastructure it will take to tell that story. However, because Danvers does not initially recall her past, her amnesia provides a convenient loophole through which to explain any inconsistencies in both her character and the film’s general plot construction. Vers has to do the work of multiple people at once: not just as the exemplary female superhero who will help save the rest of the MCU, but also more as a female body who represents multiple characters.

The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey has described Brie Larson as playing Vers “purposefully blank,” while Rob Harvilla warned us about Marvel’s increasingly labyrinthine films. As an emotionally underdetermined character, Vers is in many ways the perfect vehicle to carry a narratively convoluted Marvel film about two warring alien races named the Krees and the Skrulls. By being nobody, Vers can do the plot work of potentially anybody and everybody. And in most instances, I would be interested in watching how an under-affective female performance plays out in film. (This is also partly why I found Yon-Rogg’s appeal for Danvers to control her emotions so disingenuous; Larson’s performance doesn’t have that much emotion to begin with!) Because Captain Marvel is Marvel’s first female-focused superhero film—and because the film is explicitly invested in its status as such—the implications of Vers’s blankness and the film’s clunky narrative machinery are necessarily higher than all Marvel films preceding it.

Marvel films should be allowed to be mediocre and confusing, but if you are invested in how Hollywood—and superhero franchises in particular—represents female characters, then the stakes of these films shift a little. Captain Marvel begins with a female superhero who has no interiority, and when she does finally learn about her past from former best friend Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch), the emotional coherence that we’ve been waiting for never comes. Instead, Rambeau provides Danvers only the information to understand her past, without allowing her any time to come to terms with it. Danvers remains the same blank character throughout: Upon learning that she is not a Kree alien, but instead a very powerful human brainwashed by them, Danvers promptly—almost robotically—switches sides to aid the Skrull aliens. The details about the aliens here are less interesting to me than the fact that, regardless of which side Captain Marvel is on, she remains a receptacle of inhuman power. At her core, Captain Marvel has no allegiances—not even to herself. Instead, she is the hyperbolic embodiment of sheer girl power out to end all wars, and whose superpowers increasingly seem like they come at the expense of her individual personhood.

As with Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel thematizes the pressures—emotional and physical, but also characterological and ideological—we place on women. While Wonder Woman is a far more coherent story, both female superhero films explore the kind of “work” we ask female characters to do: Women need to be invincible, but loving; they need to be badass, but also deeply altruistic; they are the only ones who can save the world, but they can do it only by fusing their superhuman powers with their essentially loving natures. The flexibility that superhero films demand from women characters might seem a way of opening up the possible ways women can be, but it just seems like putting women back in the same impossible and paradoxical binds we’ve always been in. In attempting to do far too much at once, Captain Marvel does a good job of exemplifying how chaotically incoherent a film—and a female character—can get when so much is demanded of it. Yon-Rogg asks Vers to try to win without using her “emotions.” When he repeats this demand to her later in the film, she blasts him with her newly realized powers. Her response: “I don’t have anything to prove to you.” Captain Marvel seems to advocate that women can be blank slates and emotionally volatile, but it ends up with a woman who is disjointedly human and mechanical, just like her body.

It’s unfair that any single film has to be tasked with the kind of narrative and political work Captain Marvel is. But since we have so few Hollywood films starring women—no less women superheroes—then it seems fair, if not necessary, that our reading of Captain Marvel does not forgive or overlook its flaws just because “the boy movies are like this too.” Part of what made Wonder Woman and Black Panther successful acts of storytelling was not just the fact that they highlighted previously underrepresented demographics, but also because they each began by taking the time to give narrative texture and meaning to their protagonists. Both were also box office hits, sure, but what keeps me from lapsing into a cynical reading of these films is how they posit an alternate way of imagining our world. Wonder Woman’s Amazonian utopia and Black Panther’s African diaspora speculate about worlds in which the American empire does not emerge triumphant and heroic.

Black Panther thinks through the ravages of the U.S. empire at a much more explicit level, but even Wonder Woman engages in the thought experiment of making U.S. men, to use Diana’s words, “unnecessary.” Jenkins’s most inspired directorial choices in Wonder Woman include making Chris Pine’s U.S. soldier redundant and casting the final villain of Wonder Woman as an aging British man (an embodiment of a waning empire appropriate to the film’s WWI setting). In contrast, Captain Marvel has its female superhero assume Pine’s role as a U.S. jet pilot who is, as Maria puts it, “about to show these boys how to do it.” How different might this scene look, however, if a Marvel female superhero didn’t have to work within the confines of the MCU? What would a female superhero look like who doesn’t need to absorb military technology in order to become all-powerful, who doesn’t need to eclipse male superiors in order to understand her own growth, and who doesn’t require adapting the patriarchal supremacist rhetoric of U.S. imperialism in order to become a hero?

A truly radical female superhero film probably cannot exist within the current confines of the genre, and it would certainly run counter to the ameliorative potential of U.S. heroism. Because the rise of female superhero films provides a prominent window into how contemporary mass culture renders women, however, it remains important that we ask how these wildly popular films engage the still depressingly underexplored terrain that is female representation. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel both think through the ways that a “contemporary” female superhero film can strive to be progressive, while also acknowledging its generic limits by framing both films as period pieces. While Wonder Woman places Diana’s arguably naïve idealism in the context of a ragtag team of Americans in WWI (and Themyscira before that), Captain Marvel takes place rather conspicuously in the ’90s.

This is partly because Captain Marvel’s story precedes the rest of the MCU, but the general ’90s-ness of Captain Marvel also represents a kind of lag in historical consciousness in a film that is otherwise trying to be hypermodern and future-oriented. Even more than the film’s pervasive ’90s soundtrack, its bygone technologies remind viewers that the progressivism we’re asking for from the superhero film industry right now is still working through the kinks of its recent past. The overall atmosphere of nostalgia in Captain Marvel suggests a sense of belatedness in a film otherwise propelling itself into the world of its sequel. It is a small reminder that while Captain Marvel is otherwise intent on getting ahead—higher, further, faster—it might have been worth it for the film to take the time to allow the audience to catch up on who Carol Danvers is as a character, no less a U.S. female superhero. Danvers may not have anything to prove, as she tells the patriarchal figure in her film, but it seems that Marvel might still have something left to prove to its female audiences.

Jane Hu is a writer and PhD candidate living in Oakland.