By Priscilla Hobbs
I admit that I was skeptical when I walked into the theater. In a Tarantinoesque duality, I’m a “DC Girl.” I like superheroes who are emotionally complex. Okay, really, I just like Batman. So when Captain Marvel[i], the latest installment in the ever-expanding Marvel Comics Universe (MCU for short), was announced, I guffawed at the idea. It had three strikes against it: it was a Marvel film. It was a girl superhero, a trope I’ve yet to be convinced we understand (even with 2017’s Wonder Woman). And, of course, she’s blonde and white. I haven’t read the comics, but I know that making Captain Marvel a woman was a significant factor in her reboot.
Originally conceptualized as a man, the MCU version of Captain Marvel[ii]launched in 1967. In this incarnation, Mar-Vell is a Kree who is sent to Earth to spy on humanity to see if we are a threat to the Kree civilization. Mar-Vell can’t help himself, and comes to the aid of Earth on more than one occasion. He is sentenced to treason by the Kree, but eventually finds himself aiding the Avengers in their battles against Thanos (a plot point that is relevant to the current Avengersfranchise).
So then I saw the movie. I would like to note that this film does tie into other movies in the MCU, showing us how S.H.I.E.L.D. got interested in heroes and how this connects with the Avengersseries. However, it’s not necessary to be versed in all MCU films to appreciate this one.
Vers (played by Brie Larson), a Kree “noble warrior hero” (her words), is sent on her first mission to rescue a spy. The spy turns out to be a Skrull (the sworn enemy of the Kree) imposter, who kidnaps Vers and plugs into her mind. She has an unusual gift: she can harness an energy in her hands that gives her significant power. In her escape from the Skrull, she falls from the sky to a place immediately recognizable as Earth (specifically California) in the 1990s—she lands right in the middle of a Blockbuster Video store. In her pursuit of the Skrull, she partners with Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who is investigating why she fell from the sky. Vers believes the Skrull to be after Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) and her plans to develop a light speed engine, so she wants to find her first. Vers and Fury follow a trail of information that leads to Pegasus, a top-secret NASA/military complex testing new planes for entry into space. They eventually discover that Vers is actually a human named Carol Danvers, and she absorbed the engine core developed by her mentor Dr. Lawson, who is actually Mar-Vell. Carol then adapts Mar-Vell’s name as a tribute to her mentorship, and adopts the persona of Captain Marvel.
It’s worth nothing that, like many other Marvel heroes, she gets her power by accident. The absorption of the engine core caused her amnesia. By investigating Dr. Lawson and the Skrull, Carol unlocks some very buried memories and realizes that the Kree have been focusing her weaknesses to keep her under their control because they recognize her potential as a powerful weapon against the Skrull. In an intense scene in the film, she replays many of the memories she’s been fed by the Kree, all of which show her falling down. She decides to play the memories to their next step: the moment in each case when she gets back up again. It’s only then that the full extent of her power is unleashed.
In other words, this superhero is a superhero only when she taps into her own internal strength.
The character of the Woman Warrior has always both fascinated and stumped authors. Throughout mythologies, there are plenty of examples of Women Warriors. Some of them, such as the Greek Artemis or Athena, or the Chinese legend of Fa Mulan, are women who are warriors because they play to their strengths. There are also Women Warriors, especially within modern popular culture, who are masculinized “tough girls,” such as Wonder Woman or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In each of these cases, the woman is sexualized, taught to fight “like a man,” and resonates with a near-fetishistic fantasy that likens combat to sexual desire—something emphasized by the costumes she wears that better feature her, ahem, attributes. She uses weapons external to herself, modeled after those created by a man. She’s told that she’s weak as a girl, that she doesn’t belong in a “man’s world.” Even now, on the cusp of 2020 (the year of clarity, right?), women are still terribly misunderstood and misrepresented.
You’re probably wondering about 2017’s Wonder Woman. Where this film ultimately fails is that Diana is a powerful demi-god who unleashes her power because she fell in love. Again, the story defaults to the narrative that a woman’s sexuality is the key to her inner power, as opposed to a story that allows a woman to be a strong figure regardless of her sexuality.
Captain Marvel is finally a woman who shows us what it means to have your own internal strength. Her primary weapon is her energy, and she funnels it through her body like a fire (convenient that it took partnering with a Fury to get there). She stands up for what is right (protecting home, family, and integrity) and confronts the military complex of “noble warrior heroes,” using her strength not as a power act, but as a matter of being. In another powerful scene in the film, she is asked to prove herself. Her response? “I don’t have to prove myself to you.”
She doesn’t have to prove herself once she approves of her Self. She doesn’t have to be the sexual fantasy of the men who surround her; she is her own woman guided by her own principles. This is the element that’s been missing when it comes to women and superheroes. Women, regardless of their sexuality, have an internal power that can ignite a firestorm. They don’t have to wear revealing clothes to be able to stand up to their male counterparts. They don’t even have to use external, phallic weapons. Like the ancient goddesses, they are warriors in their own right, but culturally, we have to be willing to allow women to come into their own strength. Then, and only then, can the awesome power of the Great Feminine Awakening permeate the patriarchy.
Finally, a girl… no, a WOMAN superhero we can and should be proud of.
[i]Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, starring Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson.
Priscilla Hobbs, Ph.D., is a cultural mythologist and Disney scholar. She wrote the book Walt’s Utopia: Disneyland and American Mythmaking(McFarland, 2015) and has presented several articles on the Disney mythos at popular culture conferences. She lives with her family, including her own little Rapunzel, in New Hampshire and is a professor of humanities, mythology, and film history at Southern New Hampshire University.