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‘Captain Marvel’ and the Challenge of Rooting for Progressive Superhero Movies

Plus some other random thoughts about the latest MCU blockbuster

In Captain Marvel, Brie Larson plays a superhero who has to battle evil shape-shifting aliens while grappling with troubling, mysterious memories and a nasty bout of amnesia. That’s all rather daunting, but her greatest challenge is something far more insidious: audience expectations. All Marvel movies — all comic-book films — are forced to live up to massive commercial projections. But a movie like Captain Marvel is different than, say, Venom or Avengers: Infinity War, in that it doesn’t just have to hit a certain box-office number — the culture wants it to succeed on a harder-to-define metric.

Because it’s the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be a fully female-driven superhero story — last year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp relegated Evangeline Lilly’s Hope to a supporting role — a lot of viewers are rooting for it to help open the door for a more diverse, inclusive Hollywood. The good news is that the film is an entertaining ride. The bad news is that Captain Marvel is not quite great enough to be a triumph for those progressive ambitions. Does that mean the movie’s a failure?

When I reviewed Captain Marvel, I was as mixed as most critics are, calling it “fun and breezy but also a tad familiar,” while noting that the movie “has a charming modesty without necessarily standing apart from other entries in the [Marvel] franchise.” But although it’s clearly just anecdotal, I get the sense from talking to friends and colleagues that there’s a general disappointment around Captain Marvel. People like the movie, but they wanted to love it — and they’re bummed that they don’t.

This good-not-great disappointment is a common occurrence with movies: You’re excited for some much-anticipated film, and then you’re letdown when it doesn’t quite reach the heights you’d hoped for. But a film like Captain Marvel has to deal with a whole other set of expectations. With the exception of trolls, bigots, misogynists and other cretins, most of us would prefer a world where we see different types of characters from lots of different walks of life as the heroes in movies. And in recent years, we’ve been relatively lucky, as “risky” projects such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther — which featured, respectively, a female superhero and a black superhero — were critically acclaimed monster hits. (Black Panther even won three Oscars, the most a comic-book film has ever garnered.) Those successes stuck a dagger into the outdated belief that women and people of color weren’t commercially viable as superhero characters. When a Wonder Woman or Black Panther (or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) conquers, it’s better than when just an ordinary film makes tons of cash — it feels like a signal that the world is changing for the better, if only just a little.

That uplifting feeling isn’t as present around Captain Marvel, no matter how many tickets it sells. (And it’s off to a great start, netting an estimated $153 million this weekend. In fact, its global debut is one of the highest in history.) Unlike those other films, creatively it doesn’t feel particularly inspired — or that it’s capitalizing on the cultural significance of the moment. For the most part, Captain Marvel is really just an average superhero movie, as Larson’s Carol Danvers teams up with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in the 1990s to fight bad guys. If you’ve seen any four Marvel movies, you basically know what you’re gonna get out of Captain Marvel — and while that lukewarm reaction is basically the same as the one I had about Dr. Strange or Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s worth mentioning that critics and commentators didn’t spend a lot of time anguishing over what those films’ quality would “mean” to society at large. They were permitted to just be MCU movies.

Captain Marvel’s aspirations are higher, particularly in our #MeToo/Time’s Up moment, and Larson (who has been an outspoken activist for years) hasn’t shied away from those societal expectations. As she recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “The very nature of this film means that I’m having conversations that I’d like to have about what it means to be a woman. What strength looks like, the complexities of the female experience, female representation. It’s surprising and cool that my first giant movie I get to be having those kinds of conversations. But that’s also why I’ve waited and been particular about what jobs I do.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Captain Marvel’s core relationships are female-centric: Carol reunites with her pilot friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) and her precocious daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), forming a de facto family of sorts. The villains, including Ben Mendelsohn, are all men, and the film largely focuses on how Carol learns to believe in herself and discover her inner power. The film boasts an inspirational message that tells young women in the audience that they can be heroes.

But despite its noble intentions, Captain Marvel mostly pushes familiar buttons — it’s “inspirational” rather than being truly inspiring. Worse, its message isn’t particularly nuanced. As Time’s Stephanie Zacharek points out, superhero movies still peddle only one kind of female empowerment:

“Words like badass and kick-ass, used to describe women, have been trotted out so often that they’ve come to mean nothing. They tell us little about whether a woman has any sense of judgment or style or true intelligence. The idea is that it’s best just to bash your way through everything, just as so many guys do. That way, no one will ever think of you as weak. … This brings us to the central problem of presenting superhero role models for girls on such a loud, booming canvas: These women are powerful (great!), but they’re rarely shown just being good at the ordinary things — like listening, or rendering thoughtful advice or admitting they made a mistake — which are the things that make the real-life humans around us truly great.”

By comparison, think of a truly terrible superhero movie like Batman v Superman — or a mediocrity like the first Ant-Man. The culture was free to mock (or shrug off) those films, but there was little pressure on them to speak to something larger in our society. All they had to be were action movies that presented a certain amount of thrills and made a certain amount of money. That’s not the climate around Captain Marvel — far more is riding on its success. And as a result, the film encourages those of us who care about these issues to root for it to be great — because for Captain Marvel to be merely so-so feels like a setback, a disappointment, even a step backward.

That’s a terrible position to be in — both for the filmmakers and the audience. And it’s also fundamentally unrealistic regarding the mechanics behind why studio movies are made. To be sure, simply by producing more movies that feature women and people of color in front of and behind the camera, the film industry is starting to make small but important progress. (Whole sections of the audience that have long been underrepresented are finally being acknowledged.) But while viewers can want a more diverse, inclusive society — and want Hollywood to lead and reflect that change — at the end of the day, Captain Marvel is created chiefly to make money. A lot of money. If critics like Captain Marvel — and if activists feel like it furthers the cause of progressive values and advocates for gender equality — hey, Marvel won’t complain. But the studio is in the business to reap profits. That coldblooded arrangement leaves us essentially rooting for intellectual property and company spreadsheets.

Plus, it leaves people who care about these issues feeling like traitors if they don’t love Captain Marvel. Over at Thrillist, Emma Stefansky discussed this weird phenomenon:

“One could certainly argue that it’s not fair to put the burden of our hopes and dreams on these movies, that just doing so is sexist in and of itself, considering that holding women to an impossibly high standard is just as troublesome as considering them less than human. But the fact remains that, because of decades of male-led stories being the norm, these female-fronted films are the first in their class, and are going to be scrutinized to an unrealistic degree. And when they fail to deliver, fans and haters are forced into unfair conclusions about just how popular a female-led film could ever be. They have the misfortune to shoulder the full weight of our expectations, and they should.”

What an impossible set of circumstances, and while one needn’t shed a tear for Larson or the filmmakers — they’re being well-compensated, and their movie is already a commercial smash — it’s a reminder how hard it is to appreciate Captain Marvel as simply just another Marvel movie. Because, really, Captain Marvel was never going to be just another Marvel movie. Those raised expectations made it special, which in a perfect world it wouldn’t have needed. Asking a studio blockbuster to change society is probably asking too much. But the other problem of our superhero era is that we’ve become conditioned to believe that these characters can do the impossible all the time.

Here are three other takeaways from Captain Marvel.

#1. Stan Lee is dead, but he’s going to live on in the MCU for a while to come.

Stan Lee, one of the chief architects of Marvel Comics, died in November at the age of 95. For fans of Marvel films, Lee was a constant presence, providing cheeky cameos in each:

Because of Lee’s death, I wasn’t sure if we’d get a cameo in Captain Marvel, but he’s in the new movie as well. And then I learned that, actually, we’ll be seeing more of Lee in forthcoming MCU efforts.

Back in November, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told Variety that additional Lee spots had been filmed prior to his passing. “I’m not going to tell you what specifically, but Stan always appreciated a good surprise,” Feige said then.

Beyond the logistical questions that Lee’s Captain Marvel cameo creates, it’s a little weird to think that a dead man will keep popping up in new Marvel films to amuse and delight comic-book fans. A few years ago, viewers were torn over seeing Grand Moff Tarkin show up in Rogue One — namely, because the actor who played him, Peter Cushing, died in 1994.

The future Stan Lee appearances will provide more macabre opportunities for audiences to pretend that beloved cultural figures aren’t really dead. Seeing him in Captain Marvel was a poignant reminder of his recent passing. I’m not sure how we’ll feel if in, say, five years, he keeps showing up in these films.

#2. Let’s fondly recall the Thomas Guide.

Among the other 1990s references in Captain Marvel is a scene in which a Thomas Guide is used. Seeing the movie in L.A., where the film is set, I let out an appreciative chuckle, as did lots of folks in the audience. For those of us of a certain age who lived in L.A. back then, the Thomas Guide feels like an ancient relic — but one with which we have a passionate association.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the Thomas Guide was a sprawling map of L.A. roads, in book form, used religiously by people driving around the city. Obviously, this was long before GPS and Google Maps (or even MapQuest), and as such, it was an indispensable item for your car.

In 2015, Meghan Daum wrote a loving remembrance for the Thomas Guide in The New York Times, while LAist gave a rundown of the map’s century-long history in 2018. But seeing the Thomas Guide in Captain Marvel elicited a strange mixture of reactions for me. On one hand, there’s the Pavlovian nostalgia: Oh, I remember those. However, I also experienced this weird wave of anxiety because I remember having to rely on my Thomas Guide to get me around town — which could be especially fraught when I was traveling to a part of the city I didn’t know, or if I was going someplace important (like, for instance, a job interview) and had to be on time.

L.A. was a completely different city to navigate before GPS — it was much more treacherous because you had to rely on yourself and a paper map that didn’t talk to you while you were driving. As silly as this might sound, people had real relationships with their Thomas Guide — it was the only thing ensuring you got to where you were going. When friends moved to L.A., a Thomas Guide was the first gift I’d give them.

One other thing about the Thomas Guide: It existed at a time when you didn’t actually know when you’d arrive at your destination. This is impossible to comprehend in 2019, but one of the weirdest things about living in L.A. was that you’d leave your home and just sorta guess at your arrival time. It wasn’t uncommon for me to get places an hour early in the old days, just because I had no idea how long it would take to get somewhere deep in the Valley or way down in Orange County. Driving was a total crapshoot, but at least you had your Thomas Guide to help you along the way.

No wonder my wife still holds onto hers, even though she hasn’t used it in years. The two of them have been through a lot together.

#3. Here’s the Anna Boden/Ryan Fleck movie you need to see next.

Captain Marvel was directed by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously made low-budget indie dramas. Their filmography includes the acclaimed Half Nelson and Sugar, which are both superb movies. But I’d like to draw your attention to another of their films because it stars Ben Mendelsohn, who’s Captain Marvel’s villain.

He plays a very different role in 2015’s Mississippi Grind, where he’s Gerry, a gambling addict who travels from Iowa to New Orleans, alongside his new buddy Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), to compete in a legendary card game. An homage to the rollicking, idiosyncratic American films of the 1970s — in particular, California Split Mississippi Grind is a study of two men who are chasing after something they probably can’t catch. And what is it, exactly? For Gerry, it’s the rush of a winning streak at the tables — a rush that rarely lasts. As for Curtis, his dream is a little more opaque. A charmer, a cynic and a restless soul, he just seems to want to find something that makes life worth living.

The film was always a bit under the radar, which is funny considering it costars someone who would go on to be Deadpool. (And, of course, Mendelsohn has subsequently done bigger movies like Rogue One and Ready Player One.) But this is the type of low-key buddy comedy we rarely get — it’s smart about men who are basically losers but keep trying to fight their way out of their situation. Mississippi Grind remains Reynolds’ best performance, and Mendelsohn breaks the heart as a fuck-up who’s slowly drowning in quicksand. Gerry gambles to feel better, but he never really feels better because he gambles too much. But both actors make you care about these guys — even if they’re going nowhere fast.