A student asked me what made Captain Marvel compelling beyond its “SJW” (social justice warrior*) message, and I was first inclined to try to provide an answer. There is, of course, an implied accusation in that question. I don’t think it was asked in malice, but I do think it reflects an unfortunate double-standard when it comes to films centered around women. I love Captain Marvel precisely for its “message.” The fact that there is a clear message is not a deviation from the conventions of the genre — Captain Marvel is the embodiment of everything superheroes are meant to be.
Superheroes have always been vehicles for social justice. Superman was the brainchild of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the sons of Jewish immigrants. Superman is an alien who becomes the savior of his adopted nation and all of humanity. Captain America was a poster boy of American values intended to inspire patriotism during World War II. Every age has had its heroes fighting the fears of their context.
The specific mission to promote a perspective on conflict or ideology exists beyond superhero films, of course. What more is James Bond but a paragon of British values (and capitalism) fighting the lurking menace of communism and the Soviet Union? Sylvester Stallone has slurred propaganda for decades as both Rocky and Rambo. My personal favorite is Rambo III (1988), which was first dedicated to “The Brave Mujahideen Fighters of Afghanistan,” which was changed to “The Gallant People of Afghanistan” after 9/11. The lengthy campfire scene in which Rambo learns that Afghanis are really no different than Americans was precisely the purpose of the film: to understand and empathize with a foreign people.
Captain Marvel is the hero of our time. In the wake of Gamergate and the rise of Incels and “Red Pill” misogynists and all the relentless abuse women face online and in public, Carol Danvers stands up. Her script is the script nearly every woman and feminist watches scroll by on their screens every day in every article and in every comment thread. What does Yon-Rogg and the Intelligence continually demand of her? That she master her emotions. They demand that she refuse to listen to her heart and embrace cold logic and reason.
Academia and more general intellectual discourse remain wedded to a false dichotomy of emotion and reason. Perhaps it is Descartes fault with his conceptualization of duality, in which the masculine is paired with and superior to the feminine, and the mind (which is of course masculine) is similarly superior to the body (which is feminine), and by extension reason is separate from emotion. Aisling McCrea recently a published an exhaustive dismantling of this misunderstanding of Rationalism, but it shouldn’t be necessary to understand the history of philosophical movements to see the flaws in our veneration of unfeeling reason.
By glorifying calm logic, we are devaluing the perspectives of the people most affected by issues and simultaneously privileging the opinions of those who are the furthest removed. We call this distance “objectivity,” but it could just as easily be called apathy or ignorance. When victims cry hysterically and call for justice in the aftermath of a tragedy, politicians and commentators express sympathy for their pain, but also call for level heads to make reasonable decisions. With the confluence of power and race, most often it is old white men in suits dismissing the experiences of victims, who are predominantly women and people of color.
It is the manifestation of sexist double-standards, and it benefits men in every way it limits women. If a man does break down and expresses emotion, it is assumed that he feels so strongly about his views that his passion has overwhelmed his impressive capacity for cool reasoning. His words are given more weight rather than less. Recall the tears of the ironically-titled Justice Kavanaugh, who wept in his testimony and still joined the Supreme Court. For women to be taken seriously, they have to repress their emotions and pain, and for all their efforts, their views are still met with suspicion and dismissal.
This is not just a public concern. It is a fight fought in private, too. So often I see friends on Facebook post about their experiences with sexism and harassment stoically try to respond to demands for “data” to support their views. It is always in the guise of “logic,” and the queries are almost exclusively posed by white men: “I need to see the data before I can believe you,” or “we need to consider this issue more objectively,” and my personal favorite, “I’m a scientist, so I need to see proper evidence.” And my friends try. Dear God, they try. I don’t know why they do or how they have the patience.
Enter Carol Danvers.
She stops trying to suppress her feelings and embraces their power. When she burns through the inhibitor chip on her neck, she realizes that she has been “fighting with one arm tied behind her back” all this time. Even more satisfyingly, when Yon-Rogg tries to goad her into one last fight (this time without her powers which he now knows give her an overwhelming advantage), he demands that she “prove” to him that she’s better. She blasts him and coolly looks down on him and says, “I have nothing to prove to you.”
That’s the message of the film, and that’s why I love Captain Marvel. Marginalized voices have nothing to prove to the institutions that act as gatekeepers for power and success. The Intelligence and Yon-Rogg repeatedly warn Carol that “what was given can be taken away,” and I’m sure interns, PhD candidates, and exploited employees felt that line resonant. The validation when Carol realizes “you didn’t give me these powers” is thrilling.
Do the merits of the film exist beyond this message? I’m not the right person to ask. I’m a 90s boy, and I miss flannel and baggy jeans. The Gwen Stefani of No Doubt was my first celebrity crush. I loved Garbage. I loved Hole and Nirvana (though admittedly only the hits on the radio. I did buy a few cassettes though).
I’ve seen Captain Marvel twice now in theaters. I may go again. Brie Larson’s performance was a joy to behold. Unlike her tortured male peers, she delights in her powers. Even before she realizes her full potential, she still has fun. She laughs with Fury. She howls in mockery in the face of bellowing foe. She smirks. She whoops with joy. When she does become Captain Marvel, she punches through Kree spaceships and even smashes through one body-first, arms and legs extended in a star-shaped invitation of embrace. I loved it. That joy is potent, too, particularly for the community so often maligned as “feminist killjoys.” You had nothing to prove, Carol Danvers, but all the same — you did.