Captain Marvel: The rules of engagement

Happy one week anniversary of one of my favorite recent superhero movies. Let’s talk about Captain Marvel.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I’m not a reader of the Marvel comics. I’m not much of a comic book reader in general. So my introduction to all Marvel superheroes is generally the one I get with the movie. I’m not averse to that – I think that, consistency aside – some of these movies have been absolutely excellent from a storytelling perspective, and that’s what I talk about when I do reviews of them. This movie was one of those movies.

Spoilers, goes without saying.

There are a lot of things to love about Captain Marvel. First, how human she is – and I don’t mean the fact that she was a human born on earth in this movie, but the fact of her character and the solidness with which it was written. As Vers or as Carol Danvers, Brie Larson brings to life a powerful force of a woman, one who remains consistent throughout the movie. As Vers, she starts her life off already questioning, at least subconsciously, her role and her self. She doesn’t quite fit with the Kree, but she has bonded with Yon-Rogg and continues to attempt to bond with the other soldiers in her unit. Yon-Rogg’s injunctions to put away her emotion, to remain calm and cold and rational, seem, at least initially, benign. But of course we quickly realize that not all is as it seems.

Yon-Rogg’s relationship with Carol Danvers is one that is achingly familiar. Here is a man who is attractive and seems to have real affection for Carol, or at least a kind of possessiveness. She also seems to care for him. Yet he is also a liar, a person who will try to manipulate the truth and the rules of engagement constantly, who only wants parts of her, not the whole. Making him the villain of this story is a powerful choice, especially in light of who Danvers is.

In the movie, we see several flashbacks of Carol Danvers’ life, starting at the point where she is first captured by the Skrulls. In these flashbacks, one thing becomes clear. Danvers has always walked her own path. And that path has all too often been one that men have attempted to constrict, to block, and to reroute under her feet. Yon-Rogg is just the most recent in a long line of them.

Despite this powerful theme and the numerous female friendships that have been central to Danvers’ life and that continue to be central to the plot, the movie doesn’t shy away from showing what male allies look like. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is a wonderful counterpoint to Danvers, someone who chooses to believe her and trust her. In her turn, Danvers chooses to believe in Fury, going back for him when his own people would have betrayed him. Their friendship is never sexualized or romanticized – it’s just that, two people with the same cause, who are each competent in their own way, getting shit done.

Truly, the relationships and the characters are what carry this film. Danver’s relationship with Maria Rambeau is a thing of beauty, the thing that arguably pulls her back to Earth and grounds her when her heart is a mess of confusion. Monica and Maria provide a wonderful commentary on what it means to be a mother – Maria wants to make the right choice for her child, but doing so will mean she makes the wrong choice for her, and Monica clearly articulates that conflict with the innocent perceptiveness of a preteen girl. Nor are the conflicts of parenthood ignored in other areas of the film – Talos has done everything for his family, but he doesn’t want to his daughter to see what he has become. He wants to protect her innocence just as much as Maria wants to protect Monica’s, a wonderful parallel that firmly drives home that the Skrull are not the evil they have been made out to be. And Danver’s relationship with Lawson – Mar-Vell – is the heart of her choices in the film. She admires Lawson most in the world, and at last we see why clearly. Lawson is as strong as Carol herself wishes to be.

These relationships, these attachments and emotions, are what the Kree attempt to subvert. Yon-Rogg’s injunctions to abandon them, the Supreme Intelligence’s taking of Lawson’s face to inspire trust – the Kree see the connections that Danvers has made as a weakness to be exploited and manipulated, but that is their fundamental mistake. The lesson that we learn from Danvers in this film is simple – follow your gut, and get back on your feet. Lean in, push forward, do the things they tell you you can’t and do them well. Cherish yourself and cherish those who support you. To hell with the rest.

At the end of the film, Yon-Rogg attempts once more to change the playing field. He knows that he cannot best Danvers in a fight, so he changes the rules, paralleling their first conversation at the beginning of the movie. He instructs her to abandon pieces of herself in order to face off against him one last time.

Carol Danvers blasts him off the map.

It’s the most fitting way I could imagine for a move like this to end.

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