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Why the future of Captain Marvel is more exciting than its present

The character of Monica Rambeau hints at a potential feminist future for the Marvel franchise.

Brie Larson (right) as Carol Danvers and Lashana Lynch (left) as Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel.
Brie Larson (right) as Carol Danvers and Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel.
Marvel Studios
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

About halfway through Captain Marvel, I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about.

The latest film addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe stars Brie Larson as (spoilers follow!) Vers, an alien fighter who crash-lands on Earth in 1995 and learns about her previous life as human pilot Carol Danvers while fighting a variety of bad guys. It has been controversial since before it opened, largely because Larson said in an interview last month that she wanted to make her press days more inclusive of nonwhite, non-male journalists. This caused a furor among men’s rights activists, “incels,” and other internet misogynists, who claimed that Larson hated men and was ruining Marvel.

But when I sat down to watch Captain Marvel on Thursday night, I soon found that the film in the midst of all this controversy was far from a feminist manifesto. While it does center on powerful female characters (who routinely talk to one another about subjects other than men), the film’s feminism is nothing you can’t find on a T-shirt in 2019.

The writers missed some opportunities to show the misogyny Carol and her friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) would have faced as female pilots in the 1980s, and most of Carol’s struggles against sexism are rendered in quick, unremarkable flashbacks. Ultimately, Captain Marvel is a perfectly serviceable superhero movie with some light gender politics thrown in for good measure.

As an ongoing franchise, though, the Captain Marvel story has the potential to be more. Larson has shown that she’s willing to use her power as a star to shake up the way the media covers superhero movies, and with Marvel behind her, she’s likely to keep using that influence in the future. Meanwhile, the addition of Captain Marvel into the Marvel filmic universe creates a wealth of new opportunities, from the potential for a lesbian love story to the possibility of a new generation of female heroes, perhaps more boundary-breaking than the first. In the end, Captain Marvel is less interesting on its own than for what it sets up: the potential for a blockbuster franchise with women at its core.

Captain Marvel has been controversial, but it’s pretty standard superhero fare

Much of the controversy around Captain Marvel stems from a February Marie Claire interview with Larson conducted by journalist Keah Brown. Brown is a frequent commentator on disability issues who created the hashtag #DisabledAndCute in 2017; she is also a woman of color. She and Larson began following each other on Twitter in 2017, she writes, and Larson specifically requested her for the Marie Claire interview.

“About a year ago,” Larson explained, “I started paying attention to what my press days looked like and the critics reviewing movies, and noticed it appeared to be overwhelmingly white male.”

Larson said she mentioned the issue to Stacy Smith, founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a think tank that studies diversity and inclusion in entertainment. Research by the initiative confirmed that the majority of film critics were white men. “Moving forward, I decided to make sure my press days were more inclusive,” Larson told Brown.

What might sound to most like a relatively small example of a star using her influence to improve representation in media apparently read as a crisis to a certain subset of men on the internet. As Melissa Leon reports at the Daily Beast, men’s rights activists began posting YouTube videos calling Larson a “loudmouth blonde-haired narcissist” and accusing her of “ruining Marvel.” Some pledged to boycott Captain Marvel and see the film Alita: Battle Angel instead. Actor James Woods also got in on the action, for some reason:

It’s not the first time a film has faced backlash for casting women or people of color in starring roles — both The Last Jedi and the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot inspired angry responses from fans of earlier movies who didn’t like the idea of their faves diversifying.

In addition to pushback, Captain Marvel is also getting praise — Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins tweeted support for the film, and there’s at least one crowdfunding campaign to help young girls see it.

Given all the controversy, the movie itself is a relatively quiet affair. Vers, a fighter for the alien Kree race who is learning to use her superpowers under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), finds herself on Earth. There, she discovers she was born a human, used to fly fighter planes under the mentorship of the mysterious Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), and was best friends with fellow pilot Maria, before losing her memory and starting a new life among the Kree.

As Vers/Carol, Larson is somewhat blank — perhaps purposely so, as Sean Fennessey notes at the Ringer, since she has no memory of her past. But as a result, it can be hard to invest much in the character — a woman at the center of a big-budget superhero movie is an exciting prospect, but my excitement waned a bit when the woman herself couldn’t hold my attention.

The film also does less than it might with Carol’s backstory. We learn via flashback that Carol has experienced sexism in the past, both from her father during her childhood and, later, from her fellow recruits as a pilot in training at boot camp. But the scenes are brief and their emotional impact muted. We don’t see much of what it was like for Carol and Maria trying to become fighter pilots in the male-dominated Air Force of the 1980s. And though it’s a treat to see Bening as Dr. Lawson — a role that, without giving too much away, is more than meets the eye — she isn’t actually given very much to do.

There’s one cheer-worthy moment in Captain Marvel, when Yon-Rogg (who, spoiler, is actually bad) tries to mansplain Carol’s powers to her and she proclaims, “I have nothing to prove to you.” But overall, Captain Marvel is a reasonably fun superhero movie whose feminist clout and emotional impact are blunted by its dull approach to its main character.

The franchise has the potential to be more than business as usual

But while the present of Captain Marvel might be underwhelming, its future is potentially bright. Part of the reason is Larson herself. She may not quite have been able to accomplish the difficult feat of making an amnesiac character compelling, but her interview with Brown and her larger commitment to inclusivity in press appearances shows she’s willing to use her position at the head of a franchise to advocate for change. Insisting on a representative sample of journalists at interview opportunities may be a relatively small step, but it matters — especially since, given the fevered backlash, some Marvel fans obviously have a long way to go when it comes to accepting the voices of women and people of color.

It wasn’t the first time Larson had been willing to take a public stand — in 2017, after presenting an Oscar to Casey Affleck, who has been the subject of sexual harassment allegations, Larson stood aside and refrained from clapping for him. Larson later confirmed that she meant her lack of applause as an intentional statement, telling Vanity Fair, “I think that whatever it was that I did onstage kind of spoke for itself.”

As Leon notes at the Daily Beast, Larson, who was 26 when she was cast, was initially criticized as too young to play the role of Captain Marvel, who in her 2012 comic book series appeared to be in her 30s. But as a young actress, she has a long career ahead of her, and we can expect her to continue speaking up — or, sometimes, keeping pointedly silent — through the promotional cycles of many more movies to come, starting with Avengers: Endgame later this year.

Meanwhile, the story of Captain Marvel and her friends offers intriguing future possibilities. As many have mentioned, there’s no romance in Captain Marvel — it’s actually one of the more groundbreaking things about the movie.

But as Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos points out, Carol’s relationship with Maria is “full of lesbian subtext.” In the comics, Captain Marvel has a relationship with a man, James “War Machine” Rhodes. But director Anna Boden has hinted that Carol could have a female love interest in the future, telling USA Today that “one day, I hope Captain Marvel finds somebody that is a good support for her, be that male or female.”

Marvel production chief Victoria Alonso told Variety at the Los Angeles premiere of the film that “the world is ready” for a gay Marvel superhero. To be clear, she was addressing rumors that the lead superhero in the upcoming Eternals film might be gay, marking the first gay lead character in a Marvel movie. But the possibility certainly seems open for the Captain Marvel franchise too.

The movie also shows the budding friendship between Carol and Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), who helps Carol reconstruct some of her memories and even designs her Captain Marvel costume. Eleven-year-old Monica, raised by single mother Maria, is portrayed as a brave little girl — when her mother hesitates over joining Carol on a dangerous mission, she insists that Maria go rather than sitting on the couch with her, “watching Fresh Prince.”

“I just think you should consider what kind of example you’re setting for your daughter,” she says cheekily.

Monica is an important character we’re likely to see again — in the comic books, she becomes a superhero in her own right who at one point takes the title Captain Marvel herself. By giving us a glimpse of her childhood, Captain Marvel shows us the potential future not just of the franchise but of female superheroes more generally — raised by and among powerful women, Monica is not burdened by the kind of sexism Maria and Carol have to deal with. Her story has the potential to be not a response to men’s treatment in the way that Carol’s sometimes is, but something profoundly unique and her own.

One of the strengths of Wonder Woman was its vision of an all-female society with its own values, structure, and norms of peace and war. Captain Marvel offers nothing that groundbreaking — this time around. But in Monica and her family, it offers the promise of something like it in the future — a female hero who, thanks to the women who have gone before her, has the freedom to live not in reaction to men but on her own terms.

It’s become commonplace today to complain about the seemingly never-ending parade of franchise superhero films. But such franchises do give characters and actors something a single movie can’t always offer — room to grow. Captain Marvel looks poised to make good use of it.