On the surface, it’s kind of ridiculous that it’s taken Marvel 11 years to release one movie led by a woman. There are plenty of female superhero characters in the comic books they’re based on (30.9 percent of the Marvel world and 30.6 percent of DC). And yet, in the 20 movies the studio put out before Captain Marvel, it didn’t have space for a single female lead.
But on the other hand, it’s not really that surprising. Superhero movies have a formula that has worked: There’s a good guy, his supportive and usually hard-to-get girlfriend, some villain he needs to defeat, a world on the edge of chaos, and an eventual happy ending. A little tired, but it sells.
The long-awaited “Captain Marvel” attempts to simultaneously conform to the mold and get credit for being groundbreaking. It serves up a mediocre-at-best heroine with nothing new to bring to the tired realizing-you-have powers archetype than her gender. Brie Larson is painfully generic in her cookie cutter blonde bob and almost nonexistent personality. The story is jarring, the pacing is off, and the audience never gets a good reason to care about a single green CGI alien.
But that’s not really the point. The problem is that the movie has no idea why it exists, what it’s trying to be, or who its main character is. “Captain Marvel” just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and her femininity is only ever a detractor, not a contributor, to her ability to help people. Criticisms of her for being stereotypically “emotional” or physically “weak” by other characters are almost always left unanswered.
Why, then, does a woman shouldering the responsibility of saving the world, instead of a man, matter? Is she a hero just because the men are busy, or the screenwriters couldn’t think of any other way to sell movie tickets? From the first scenes, it’s established that Captain Marvel can’t actually beat her male opponents in a fair fight. When locked in a hand-to-hand fight with her male sparring partner, she loses, as he then reminds her, just like she “always” does.
In their penultimate final battle, that same opponent attempts to convince her to take him on in another hand-to-hand fight where she agrees not to use her powers. As triumphant music plays, Captain Marvel “beats” him by admitting her physical inferiority and relying on her superpowers to just blast him away instead of fighting him. That’s the opposite of an empowering message about female strength.
Are women equal to men only when they’re “given” physical dominance by some vaguely-defined extraterrestrial force? Are they worthy of narrative attention and positions of power just because they can blast photons out of their hands? Good male superheroes have their weaknesses: Iron Man is arrogant, Spiderman is clumsy, the Hulk is angry. It’s obnoxious that the directors of “Captain Marvel” think they have a moral high ground because they’re presenting women whose only attribute is artificially-induced “strength.” Or, as many critics have noted, women “without insecurity.” If these movies want to include preachy montage scenes about a woman’s strength, they should back up that claim of empowerment by showing her good ideas, her ability to lead, her interesting thoughts and opinions. But instead, Captain Marvel herself feels utterly replaceable, a bland vessel for an electromagnetic something whose only narrative tension is trying not to be “too emotional.”
You’re not fighting for equality by proving you can punch harder. It’s only by respecting the humanity in one another that we can understand the real reasons why every person — regardless of gender, physical ability, or radioactive spider bites — can save the world in their own individual way. Just substituting a woman into the existing hierarchy of physical dominance doesn’t change anything.
At the end of the day, female superhero movies attempt to upend a formula without proving why that formula doesn’t work in the first place. Putting a blonde girl in a metal skirt and spandex and telling her to save the world is not radical. If these movies want to flaunt their in-your-face messages of “female empowerment,” they had better explain why women are powerful and where that power comes from. And that answer needs to be a lot stronger than whatever the hell a Tesseract is.
—Staff writer Joy C. Ashford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.