Sunday, 17 March 2019

5 Things I Liked About Captain Marvel (And 2 I Didn't)

[Warning: Plot Spoilers below]

I grew up as more of a DC Comics fan than a Marvel one. However, I find that Marvel movies in general are of uniformly high quality, and better on average than their counterparts from the DC Universe. My recent favourites have been Black Panther and Ant Man and the Wasp.

This review is of the latest Marvel movie that I saw and liked - Captain Marvel.

Brie Larson in the title role of Captain Marvel (Click to expand)

I was initially nonplussed by the name "Captain Marvel", because I had never heard of this superhero before. I guess my confusion was justified, because the name has been handed from DC to Marvel, and applied to various people, from Shazam, through a male version, to the final one in the form of Carol Danvers. This page attempts to clear up the confusion.

Just who is Captain Marvel?

I'm not going to post a blow-by-blow review of the movie's plot points, whether it's the "war" between the Kree and the Skrull, the various worlds where the action takes place, such as the Kree homeworld of Hala and Planet C-53 (Earth), or even the main character's journey of self-discovery.

You can see the movie yourself to discover and enjoy these, and there's plenty to enjoy. This post is about what I liked and disliked about it.

What I liked about this movie were the messages it contained:

1. Don't make snap judgements based on appearance

It's easy to take sides with "people like us", and to demonise people "different from us". But good and evil aren't that easy to tell apart. 

The Kree - "Noble warrior heroes"

The Skrull - "Shape-shifting aliens"

When the real truth is revealed to the protagonist, it's an important lesson to the audience as well:
Don't be taken in by appearances. Examine your own prejudices.

2. Don't blindly believe justifications for war or the narratives in support of it

This point is related to the previous one. There is a well-known meme that captures how the same situation can be spun in different directions to weave completely opposite narratives. "We" are the noble ones, and the "other" is evil. It's perfectly obvious why "we" must fight and destroy "them".

How media can spin an event to push a desired narrative

One of the heroes of this story is the Kree renegade Mar-Vell, played by Annette Bening. She sees the injustice of the war she has been told to participate in, and she revolts.

Mar-Vell/Dr Lawson wants to end the war, not to win it

There's a lot of war mythology being spun in our own world as we speak, complete with evil enemies and our own noble soldiers. It's considered disloyal to even question these narratives, but question them we must.

We are all the same. Our emotions are no more authentic than those of other people. Never demonise others to the point that you cannot feel their pain. That's when you become a monster yourself.

Mar-Vell and Captain Marvel discover the truth for themselves, and strike a blow for justice within the Marvel Universe. (Meanwhile on Planet C-53, Julian Assange remains a fugitive and a virtual prisoner.)

3. In a diverse world, everyone deserves representation

I guess it's a disconcerting time for those who want to see the superhero universe continue to be dominated by white men. Half the world's population is female, and more than half is non-white. Movie studios can't afford to ignore potential new markets, and so the superhero universe has to evolve to accommodate characters with whom other people can identify.

It's the trend that made Black Panther and Wonder Woman such superhits. And that dynamic continues to work with Captain Marvel too.

Can't think of a stronger role model for young girls than a female fighter pilot

Repeat, for young girls of other ethnic groups

Whether by colour or gender, the lead characters are all non-traditional

It stands to reason. Walk down a city street in any major metropolis, and you see all kinds of people, of every race and gender. Why should superhero movies not exhibit the same diversity?

4. Superheroes are defined by their heart, and true strength is about getting up after being knocked down

It seems a little counter-intuitive to say that what makes a superhero are not superpowers, but that is actually true. A superhero movie that relies only on special effects will fail to move its viewers. To connect with the audience, the superhero has to be strongly human. Superman connects emotionally with his millions of fans, not because of his powers, but because he cannot stop helping people.

The secret to a superhero's popularity is their secret identity. That's who they really are. The mask and costume are colourful, but they hide rather than reveal.

Carol Danvers the human being is very likeable. She's a genuinely nice person who is fair, loyal and brave, and she has a sense of humour. That's the hook on which the character of her superhero persona hangs, not the photon blasts or the ability to fly.

Niceness is an underrated superpower

Is she infallible? On the contrary, she falls down whenever she attempts something, at every stage of her life. But then...

She keeps getting back up

To my mind, this was the most powerful message of the movie:

Life will keep knocking you down. Keep getting up.

5. Play to your strengths, and don't accept arbitrary limits laid down by others

Early on in the movie, there is a training scene where the protagonist's supposed mentor is trying to teach her how to fight and win. He criticises her emotionality, even her sense of humour. He tries to get her to distance herself from everything she is.

It isn't mentoring when someone tells you not to be your best self; it's a form of gaslighting designed to keep you weak. Fortunately, Captain Marvel gains the confidence to use her powers whenever she wants to, not when she is permitted to.

Mind games. Don't fall for them

Those photon blasts are pretty cool

This too struck me as a very important lesson for children:

Understand your strengths and exploit them. Recognise when other people try to limit your potential.

Having said all that, there were a couple of things I didn't like about this movie:

1. An "overpowered" superhero

Towards the end of the movie, Captain Marvel develops so many more powers that she begins to run the danger of being "overpowered". This is a criticism that used to be levelled at the Superman of the comics, at a certain stage in that character's development. If a hero becomes so powerful that nothing is a challenge anymore, their stories fail to be interesting.

What is it that Superman cannot do?

Superheroes need to have some limits to their powers. They need to struggle a bit, both to keep them human, and for their stories to be interesting.

2. An overemphasis on superpowers

This is related to the previous point, and counteracts the fourth positive I listed earlier. Superheroes are defined not by their superpowers but by who they are. They also inspire by their courage and humanity. If they can do virtually anything, then not only do their stories become less interesting, they also become less inspiring. One can aspire to be brave and kind like a superhero, but there is no point in aspiring to achieve the feats that he or she achieves through their powers. Beyond a point, one is no longer inspired; one gives up. 

An interesting allegory I read in school was about the "four weapons" that society uses to resist social reformers. The first three are apathy, derision and violence (assassination). But the fourth is the subtlest and most effective. It's homage. When people place moral leaders on too high a pedestal, they're implicitly saying, "This person is too great for me to emulate. I'm excused if I remain my flawed self and fail to improve."

Captain Marvel needs to become a little less powerful, not more, if she is to remain an effective role model.

Forget it. This is beyond me.

Other tidbits

There are echoes of "Star Trek - The Motion Picture" when the Kree version of the protagonist gets the name "Vers". That's because only the latter part of her name tag "Carol Danvers" remains after a crash. It's redolent of the Star Trek scene when "Veejur" is revealed to be "Voyager VI", with many letters obliterated by meteorites (V***ger **).

In conclusion

All in all, Captain Marvel is a great movie. It's very watchable, and its protagonist one of the most likeable in recent times.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.