The Marvel Cinematic Universe has brought a female superhero to the forefront of the Avengers—a superhero who, we hope, will save the world in the highly-anticipated Avengers: Endgame coming in April. The star, Brie Larson, said ahead of the release date that Captain Marvel has the potential to be “the biggest feminist movie of all time.” It’s no coincidence the movie was released on International Women’s Day—and the usual crowd of old, white, patriarchal conservatives might be tempted to roll their eyes and think, oh great, another push of the feminist agenda, as if Frozen and Wonder Woman didn’t already beat that horse to death. Stop. Please stop.
Okay, so I’m exaggerating just a tad, but let me introduce myself: I’m a young female AND a conservative, and a diehard Marvel fan. I saw Captain Marvel on opening night, and what I saw was a stunning new origin story—of a new hero, of Nick Fury, and of the MCU as a whole—carrying bold messages of freedom, justice, family and yes, strong women. But I didn’t see a piece of radical feminist propaganda.
~ Spoilers to follow. ~
First off, yes Captain Marvel is a woman—not the first girl hero in the MCU, but the first to take the stage in her own standalone film. Carol Danvers, a former pilot in the US Air Force, gains her superpowers (and loses her memories) after a plane crash. She is taken in by the Kree, an alien race who teach her to harness and control her powers—but really they seem intent on making her suppress her emotions. Carol visits the Supreme Intelligence, an artificial intelligence “god” that rules Kree civilization, so it can decide if she is fit to serve. “You struggle with your emotions,” says the Intelligence, “with your past which fuels them.” It frames Carol as a victim of her past, of the war that is raging, and the implication seems to be that silencing her emotions is the solution. More on that later.
Captain Marvel is bursting with undeniably American themes. Carol is driven by a relentless pursuit of justice. Early in the film, she seeks to do right by her Kree commander in the war against the shape-shifting Skrull. Carol, and Nick Fury, with whom she falls in step throughout the course of the film, are fearlessly individualistic, challenging authority in their pursuit of truth. Carol questions and eventually rejects her Kree commander as she gains new information and her memories clarify. Fury flies under SHIELD’s radar (with a little help from a very young Phil Coulson) to bypass bureaucratic sluggishness and fight for what he believes is right.
As it turns out, the Kree are in fact the bad guys of the galaxy, and on learning this Carol shifts her mission-focus to defeating them and protecting the Skrull, apparently a peaceful, family-oriented alien race and the enemy of the Kree. Carol and Fury work to free the Skrull from the tyranny of the Kree and reunite families that have been separated by war and captivity. Granted, there is more to the Kree-Skrull war in the comics, but my frame of reference is only based on the cinematic universe. Carol proves herself willing to change her mind given new, more complete information, and she adopts her altered course with renewed vigor.
On rediscovering her identity and changing missions, Carol also changes the color of her uniform, rejecting the serpentine blue and green of the Kree for a bold, Air Force-inspired red, blue, and gold—a streak of patriotism that cannot go unappreciated by devotees of Captain America.
Near the end of the film, Carol faces the Intelligence again as the Kree make a final attempt to shackle her. She sees flashbacks of several moments in her childhood when she fell to the ground. All the while her fury grows and the photonic energy coursing through her body increases. She recognizes that she had been fighting “with one hand tied behind my back”—and then her mind completes the flashbacks to reveal that every single time she fell, she got back up, not to be defeated by failure. “What happens when I’m finally set free?” She tears off the devices the Kree had used to harness her powers, gains control of her emotions and her superpowers by embracing her humanity and her feminine heart, and ultimately becomes far more powerful.
The film raises questions of what it means to be a woman, and frankly, I like it. I do not believe there is a so-called “war on women,” and I will not stand behind the modern feminist movement and its vicious emasculation of men. However, as a woman I don’t mind recognizing the strength of women—Captain Marvel is beautiful, powerful, just, and kind, and embodies aspects of womanhood that someone like Sleeping Beauty just doesn’t.
If conservatives dismiss Captain Marvel as feminist propaganda, we are missing the point. There’s more to media than meets the eye—and often, what actually hits the big screen is not what cast and producer interviews and tweets might indicate ahead of the release date. We have seen this theme before now: a hint at a liberal agenda is made, on or off set, that causes conservatives to completely lose their minds despite the fact that whatever it is never makes an impact on screen. Some Christians sought to defend their children from the “gay agenda” in the second How to Train Your Dragon movie in 2014, because of an ad-libbed line and a comment that a side character was “coming out of the closet.” Then, in 2017, many evangelical Christians completely lost their minds when Beauty and the Beast claimed to attempt to “normalize the gay lifestyle.” The villain’s sidekick is supposed to be gay, but it was never written into the script and despite the claims of the producers, it was too subtle to be noticed by children—and certainly a weak attempt if the intent was really to force the gay agenda. By blowing little things like this so far out of proportion, conservatives sabotage their mission by highlighting the very things they wish to discredit. Boycotts, snide remarks, and overreactions are not the most effective means of winning hearts and minds.
Captain Marvel has proved that complex issues may lie under the surface of a film, and deep, controversial questions may be partially answered therein. But the fact that Brie Larson may herself be a feminist, in some form or fashion, does not make the film feminist propaganda, and it does not render it incapable of also delivering messages of patriotism, justice, and other traditional American values. Movies and other media are conversation starters and can bring our culture back together—but not if we lead with assumptions and accusations and refuse to even see the movies so we can intelligently join the conversation. But at the same time, most moviegoers do not watch movies with a discerning eye, nor do they pay attention to the tweets and political standings of actors or producers; most film critics and commentators should remember that their sphere of influence is much smaller than they may want to believe.
I’ve come to dislike the term “feminism,” simply because of the myriad of definitions it holds for so many people, because of its divisiveness, and because it makes womanhood into an argument, a political cause defined by social trends.
I certainly hope that girl superheroes don’t replace princesses for good—I believe a woman’s heart yearns to be beautiful, even delicate, as much as it desires strength. While deep down a woman wants a knight in shining armor who will fight for her and rescue her from the dragon, she possesses incredible strength of her own and the power to define her identity and destiny. This is the blessedness of womanhood: this balance of fierceness and grace, gentleness and power, tenderness towards those we love and ferocity towards those who would seek to harm them.
Whatever feminism means to anyone, I believe the desire of a woman parallels the desire of an American: to chase her dreams, to play an important role in a great adventure, to care for those she loves, to fight, in her own way, for those who cannot fight for themselves, to work towards becoming whatever she feels called to be—whether that’s an astronaut, doctor, teacher or stay-at-home mom. In other words… the pursuit of happiness. Captain Marvel does a spectacular job of bringing this kind of powerful, vibrant womanhood to life, and serves as a reminder that many movies contain messages that Americans can broadly identify with, and leave us inspired to become better versions of ourselves—“higher, faster, stronger!”