A Marvel of strength

How ‘Captain Marvel’ successfully captures some key questions of our times – and isn’t any less exciting for it.

Brie Larson in "Captain Marvel." (photo credit: Courtesy)
Brie Larson in "Captain Marvel."
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fantasy is a much older genre than science fiction, the late Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in Chatting Science Fiction during an interview with Jim Freund. While some stories are told on other planets, with the help of other races, these stories do not speculate on the wider implications of technology and science in our lives. Instead, they tell a fantastical story about heroism and evil – and maybe even a princess in need of rescue.
Seen in this way, 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) – with a superb performance by John Goodman – is a horror film in which aliens threaten to devour and enslave the heroine (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Alien (1979) is a role-reversal unique for its time in which a strong woman, played by Sigourney Weaver, defeats the alien monster and saves a young girl, with little help from male characters. The 1997 film The Fifth Element is a space fantasy in which Milla Jovovich, wearing a bandage costume designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, is both a powerful heroine and an object of desire.
The latest Marvel Studios film, Captain Marvel, is a lot more Weaver than it is Jovovich, meaning it’s heavy on female heroism and strength and very light on desire. This is not a bad thing. There is no reason to believe that men stand, or should be placed, at the focus of women-based narratives. The film features powerful friendships between women. Extended families are created by women without a male presence, as well as friendships between men and women – if the man is Samuel L. Jackson.
Captain Marvel is played by Brie Larson, who not only embraced the demanding physical training required to act – and fight – like a super hero; she also acts alongside a cat despite suffering from allergies. The role of the Flerken alien, which only looks like an Earth cat, is performed by three different ginger cats.
Negative examples of male behavior are plentiful throughout the film. As fathers, they chastise girls for wanting to drive fast and compete with their brothers. As co-workers, they tell demeaning jokes and belittle women. As mentors, they are toxic, nurturing in women a false sense of security while only being interested in what they can make the women do.
The all-powerful bad guy that Captain Marvel eventually confronts is not a guy, but a female character with God-like powers played by Annette Benning. Marvel is presented, over and over, as a female who had to find inner strength to get up as many times as it takes to compete in an unjust system. If the 2017 film Wonder Woman blasted the way forward for female super-heroes who can carry an entire film on their shoulders, Marvel is meant to be an object lesson in grit for young girls everywhere. You may never be an Amazonian princess like Gal Gadot, but you can always pick yourself up and compete again.
The mentor-turned-foe character played by Jude Law provides one of the key scenes that make the film original. We are used to scenes in which the hero or heroine confronts a major villain and overpowers it. Weaver, using a massive robot, was able to punch an alien queen to outer space. The fictional boxer Rocky, created by Sylvester Stallone, is famous for finding inner strength at critical moments during a final battle with an opponent. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck chose a different, highly original way to solve that confrontation between Marvel and her former mentor.
In his 1977 book Illusions, Richard Bach has a character point out that “the president of the US cannot fly a jet,” meaning that to effectively carry out a nuclear strike, leaders require the willing cooperation of men and women to comply with such orders.
Serving as a pilot in the US Air Force before becoming a superhero, the creators of Marvel’s character carefully skirted the issue of having a heroine that carried out carpet bombings and surgical strikes, by making her a test pilot. Not only that, her commitment to end wars, not merely being a proficient fighter in one, is emphasized throughout the film.
In that sense, she is unlike two other heroes in the Marvel universe: Captain America, who is basically a highly ethical super-soldier, and the Punisher, a vigilante who kills criminals. Marvel is a super-soldier who refuses to kill on command – a good choice in a fantastical tale of strength.