In the final battle scene of “Captain Marvel,” two aliens aboard a spaceship watch in shock as their fleet, hurtling toward earth for an attack, is suddenly obstructed and destroyed in a tremendous midair explosion. They back away, and the leader remarks that they must return to capture that powerful thing.
“The weapon?” asks his companion. “The woman,” the leader responds.
He’s referring to the figure rocketing through the air, with glowing eyes and flaming fists, who has foiled their attack. A threatening glare and pound from one fist into her palm is enough to send the remaining alien ships back into the far galaxy. It is a tremendous display of power, and it is all centered on one individual: the woman.
This mighty moment follows an entire storyline dedicated to portraying an emblem of female strength. And while the mixture of special effects, decent acting, and plenty of combat scenes make for an overall entertaining show, the central mission of the Marvel Studios’ first female-led superhero film — to make the protagonist a truly memorable heroine — falls short of its goal.
We first meet Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) as Vers, a Starforce soldier living on the planet Hala, who struggles with recurring nightmares about an older woman and an aircraft crash. In the midst of an ongoing war, she is to be sent on a team mission to rescue a lost agent.
Along the way, Vers finds her way to planet C-53 (known to its natives as “earth”) and discovers that her nightmares are actually flashbacks to her life there. She encounters friends she had forgotten since the crash and learns her true name, Carol Danvers.
In an instant, our heroine’s entire understanding of her world and mission turn inside out. Once proud to proclaim that she hailed from a race of “heroes — warrior heroes,” she realizes that she must step up as a singular hero. She must become Captain Marvel.
From the beginning, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck make clear what they think the basic framework is for a show-stopping heroine: an attractive, snarky woman who knows a thing or two about throwing a punch. And Brie Larson pulls it off quite well.
From the scene in which she asks her mentor with a cool glance, “Wanna fight?”, to when she single-handedly knocks out a team of aliens and then stands over their bodies with mild amusement at her own skill, Larson’s performance proclaims loud and clear, Don’t mess with me.
But is that enough to be a truly heroic woman?
The film’s most redeeming moment is when, at least ostensibly, it admits that no, it’s not. When Marvel reconnects with Maria Lambeau, her former fellow pilot laments the fact that she has forgotten her sense of human connection.
“What’s hard is that I’ve lost my best friend,” says Lambeau. This is the case not just because Marvel has forgotten Lambeau since the crash, but also because she has defined herself by her superpowers; she sees them as what makes her “fierce.”
Moreover, it is another exchange with Lambeau that helps Marvel grapple with her sense of true identity. It is only through her friend, who knows and loves her deeply, that Marvel can learn that her greatest strengths have always been her loyalty and willingness to risk her life for justice.
Such conversations marked the high points of the film’s portrayal of female strength, because they acknowledged the most fundamental aspect of that idea: personal relationship.
But while that crucial aspect was acknowledged, it didn’t truly impact the development of Marvel’s character.
Marvel clearly values her friends, and she shows some compassion for the people who need her help. But ultimately, the bonds of love and friendship never become the bedrock of her strength and her mission.
This central message comes through in the climactic battle scene between Marvel and her greatest enemy. Knocked to the ground, she has flashbacks to all the times she has fallen down in life. Then comes the crucial turning point: Marvel regains her strength by remembering how after each fall, she herself picked herself back up.
The moment offers some healthy affirmation that perseverance leads to victory, but it also reinforces the questionable notion that Marvel can win the battle alone. What helps her unleash her full power as a superhero is not interpersonal love but solitary independence.
Because that is the foundation of her heroism, the movie lacks moments of true self-gift. Once Marvel has made her flashiest display as a strong and independent woman, she wins the battle with ease.
Her powerful fists save the day, and by the end of the movie, our heroine has hardly developed beyond the sassy, kick-butt captain she was when we first met her. She gave a cordial nod to companionship and affection, but it neither transformed nor defined her.
Admittedly, such an impersonal model of female heroism is hardly surprising. Hollywood, riding the tide of pop culture, hesitates to highlight compassion, tenderness, and self-sacrifice as heroic traits.
Why? The answer is simple: Those are the signature qualities of motherhood, which today is far more often equated with weakness than heroism. To be considered “strong,” women are expected to suppress their emotions — as Marvel is instructed to do throughout the film — and cultivate an ambition for self-promotion and public accomplishment.
To be taken seriously, they are encouraged to match masculine strength, rather than embrace their unique capacity as women to give, nurture, and protect life.
Indeed, that standard of emotionless prowess is the model of “strength” that Captain Marvel embodies. The most emotional vulnerability we see from her is a single tear that trickles down her face right in the middle of her most intense battle.
The challenge of the female superhero movie is both to present an action-packed plot with impressive stunts from the protagonist and to distinguish that protagonist from any other male superhero who could have pulled off the same physical feats.
The only way to do that is to celebrate the woman’s signature qualities as woman. And those qualities stem from her biological and psychological knack for forging personal, life-giving, and life-saving bonds.
It’s a tricky feat, but not impossible. We’ve seen it before in a handful of dazzling performances, from Miranda Otto’s Éowyn in “The Lord of the Rings” to Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince in “Wonder Woman.”
Those characters had to learn that their feminine genius was actually their greatest asset to their heroism, not a hindrance. Their ability to serve others through both combative skill and tender compassion made them stand out as not just heroes who happened to be women but as heroic women.
“Captain Marvel” is certainly an example of flashy female toughness, but if you’re looking for a model of actual girl power, look elsewhere.
Sophia Buono is a writer living in Arlington, Virginia.
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