Captain Marvel: Diversity in the Marvel Universe

Captain Marvel: Diversity in the Marvel Universe

This weekend my family I watched the latest iteration in the Marvel universe, Captain Marvel. I was curious to see how my eleven-year-old daughter felt about this new female lead. I hadn’t let her watch Wonder Woman because I felt Wonder Woman was a character written more for the pleasure of men rather than the empowerment of women. You can read my full discussion of that film here in relation to Black Panther.

I was hoping for something more from Captain Marvel.

I have been following with interest the chatter around this film from both sides of the divide. On one side naysayers of the film and its depiction of women as powerful and independent have, like the reboot of Ghostbusters before it, tried to harpoon this film because of its female lead. Ridiculous, I know. To the point that the movie site Rotten Tomatoes has had to take action against trolling and negative reviews before the film was even released. (Link to article here.)

On the other side, the star of Captain Marvel, Brie Larson has proudly spruiked the films feminist credentials. An article on womenintheworld.com outlines Larson’s discussion around the film as a “meditation on intersectional feminism.” This one really interested me. The Cliff note version is that intersectional feminism explores the way that different combinations—or intersections—of power act upon people’s lives. In other words, an individual’s level of acceptance or discrimination, their access to education or opportunities in career and social status are shaped by a complex intersection of gender, class, sexuality, race, education, age, political affiliations and language. Therefore, examining feminism through intersectionality accounts for not just gender, but other mechanisms through which people are discriminated or oppressed.

In particular, intersectional feminism is a back-lash against white feminism, whereby educated and wealthy white feminists are unable to see themselves as more privileged than other groups of women.

So, when I read that Brie Larson had called this film a meditation on intersectional feminism, I was skeptical.

Okay, context provided.

This is a lot of baggage to take into a film, let alone a Marvel film about superheroes that—let’s face it—is escapism at its best. I tried hard to enjoy the experience of the film for its visual aspects, its humour and its role in the larger Marvel landscape. Also, as a child of the 90’s I was excited about reminiscing over the soundtrack (A Guardian’s of the Galaxy for the grunge brigade.) More than anything I wanted to see something different in terms of how a female superhero is represented on-screen.

The first third of the film was slow. Larson barely spoke. She stomped around, almost robotically, looking puzzled and lost as she followed her mission and tried to piece together her past. To my delight, however, she stomped around in flat shoes and the same suit as the men from her planet. Win number one.

The soundtrack was heavily skewed to iconic female songs of the 90’s. Win number two.

The digitally youthified (is that a word?) Samuel L. Jackson provided excellent comic relief as the sidekick to Larson’s endearing hero. Win number three. (*note: the mouthy, African-American sidekick is an insidious stereotype = intersectional fail.)

Where the film really took off is the unveiling of the backstory. Yes, there was a montage. Yes, she fell down and got back up again. But this montage showed the young Captain Marvel, not fighting against her own willpower, or her own doubts, but against a society and culture that tells little girls that they are “too emotional”, too delicate and too weak. Win number four.

At times the pro-feminist rhetoric was like a sledgehammer, but I felt my daughter physically respond to the power and positivity that this film engendered, almost as though she were seeing something novel. Perhaps we need a sledgehammer until the message becomes as natural for girls as it is for boys.

Win number five? No love story. This was a film in which the female protagonist (unlike Wonder Woman) was compassionate, caring, ethical, supportive of other women AND had agency without romance being a major plot line. She didn’t have to sacrifice herself for love. She didn’t need to fall in love to find her power. She owned it all on her own.

Was this the best movie I’ve ever seen? Not by a long way. It was pretty, it was funny, Ben Mendelsohn was awesome, it was fun. Was it intersectional? Maybe. The film addressed refugees, sexism, discrimination and social/cultural expectations. Was it a step in the right direction? Absolutely. My daughter walked out beaming and I, for once, wasn’t cringing at the subliminal messages she was being sent. This added to what Black Panther started and I’m excited to see what the women of Marvel do in the upcoming Avenger’s film.