I should state up front that I’m a big fan of nearly all of the Marvel movies, largely because I grew up reading the comics and have a fondness for the characters. So, needless to say, I bought tickets for my whole family to see Captain Marvel a month ago and I’ll be seeing it opening night. I’ve been pretty careful not to read any spoilers for the film. All I know is what I’ve seen in the trailers and what I know about the character in general. The important point is that I was really looking forward to this. But I’m starting to get a sinking feeling from some of the reviews.
Today I started looking at some of the reviews and the tone I’m getting is making me wonder if it’s going to be an enjoyable experience or if everything now is just about checking the right socio-political boxes. From National Review:
Captain Marvel might be the first blockbuster movie whose animating idea is fear. Every page of the script betrays terror of what people might say about the film on social media. Give Carol Danvers a love interest? Eek! No, women can’t be defined by the men in their lives! Make her vulnerable? OMG, no, that’s crazy. Feminine? What century are you from if you think females should be feminine? Toward the end of the movie, when a villain preparing for an epic confrontation with Carol, the fighter pilot turned Superwoman, chides her that she will fail because she can’t control her emotions, there is no tension whatsoever. We’ve just spent two hours watching her be utterly unfazed by anything. Giving Carol actual emotions would, of course, lead to at least 27 people calling the film misogynist on Twitter, and the directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are petrified of that.
Just to be completely, unerringly, let’s-bubble-wrap-the-universe safe, Boden and Fleck decided to make Danvers stronger than strong, fiercer than fierce, braver than brave. Larson spends the entire movie being insouciant, kicking butt, delivering her lines in an I-got-this monotone and staring down everything with a Blue Steel gaze of supreme confidence.
Okay, but that’s coming from a conservative site (and is written by a man). Surely it’s just biased? Here’s Time’s Stephanie Zacharek:
Is anyone else getting tired of role models? I don’t mean real-life people who are doing estimable work every day, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg (although even her recent commodification, through no fault of her own, threatens to flatten some of her dimensions), but virtuous fictional women who are put up before us as a jaunty reminder that “Girls can do anything!” Girls can do anything and, like all children, young girls can have moments of self-doubt, times when they need reassurance. And there’s no reason we shouldn’t be seeing women superheroes on-screen; Lord knows there are enough guys. But the delivery system matters, too. And while we know that little girls (or boys, for that matter) might not rush out to see an earnest biopic of, say, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt or Margaret Sanger, does our sense of the power and capability of women always have to be filtered through a highly fictionalized superhero universe—as if that were the only way we could possibly bring ourselves to register the value of what women can bring to the table? Words like badass and kick-ass, used to describe women, have been trotted out so often that they’ve come to mean nothing. They tell us little about whether a woman has any sense of judgment or style or true intelligence. The idea is that it’s best just to bash your way through everything, just as so many guys do. That way, no one will ever think of you as weak.
I feel like they’re getting at the same thing from very different political perspectives. And as if trying to prove NRO’s point about today’s critics, Nerdist suggests the film might have been better if Captain Marvel had been black:
The film struggles to truly break any new ground when it comes to representation. The film falls into the trope of introducing diversity through villainy, failing to build on some of the great cast. It’s also hard to ignore that the first woman to hold the mantle of Captain Marvel was a black woman named Monica Rambeau and though they pay homage and introduce the character played by the wonderful Akira Akbar—far too briefly—narratively there’s no reason that Monica couldn’t have been at the center of this story.
Even the reviewers that liked the movie are writing stuff like this that makes you wonder if they felt allowed to say it wasn’t really that good. From Orlando Weekly:
Even if it didn’t change my life, as a [full disclosure] straight cis Caucasian with a Y chromosome, I enjoyed the film as a satisfying pro-empowerment romp. With a balance of Winter Soldier-style paranoid thrills and Guardians of the Galaxy-esque sci-fi goofiness – plus a splash of anti-patriarchal subversion to boot – Captain Marvel lives up to her billing as the heroine we need right now, even if she’s not one fragile fanboys deserve.
I swear I read the same review about the Ghostbusters remake. “I enjoyed the film as a satisfying pro-empowerment romp,” just gives me a sinking feeling. How about enjoying it as a movie, not as a social statement you find satisfying. Does that even matter anymore? I feel like we’re doing to movies what we’ve already done to comedy. Funny comes second now. What really matters is expressing the correct progressive opinions so everyone can clap.
The culture battle over Captain Marvel seems to have started with something actress Brie Larson said months ago about equal representation among film critics. What she meant was having more minority critics so that the pool of critics matches the demographic breakdown of America. She summed it up this way: “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work about A Wrinkle In Time. It wasn’t made for him! I want to know what that film meant to women of color, to biracial women, to teen women of color, to teens that are biracial.” She added, “And for the third time, I don’t hate white dudes.” (Video below)
That didn’t go over well with a lot of Marvel fanboys and some people began trashing the movie on Rotten Tomatoes before it was even released. The situation led Rotten Tomatoes to make a change such that it’s no longer possible to submit a review/comment about a film before it has been released.
Captain Marvel hasn’t hit theaters, yet it garnered a dismal audience score of 54 percent—far below the totals for other recent Marvel movies. The poor grade is the result of “review bombing,” a practice that’s also widespread in the highly charged world of video gaming. Different groups organize campaigns to drag down the audience rating for a film (or a game) in response to a particular controversy, sometimes for sexist or racist reasons. Many culture writers noted that Captain Marvel, in particular, was likely being targeted for featuring a female hero. It’s become common to see online backlashes to female-led blockbusters—most notoriously with the 2016 iteration of Ghostbusters, but also with films such as Ocean’s 8 and even projects that never exited development. In the case of Captain Marvel, many online commenters seemed upset by Larson’s forthright remarks in interviews about how she hopes to increase diversity in the blockbuster world.
I actually think this change makes sense. Why should anyone be able to review a film they haven’t seen?
But the larger question is about the way films are now seen as champions for representation of certain social groups. Black Panther is an obvious example. Black Panther was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I always thought he was cool, long before I understood any of the social context surrounding the character. Personally, I really don’t care if the director is black or if the 2nd AD was a person of color. That’s fine so long as they deliver a good movie. And in the case of Black Panther they did. It’s not in my top 3 Marvel films, but it’s solid and fun and I’m glad it made a bazillion dollars and that there will be sequels.
But sometimes the representation thing seems to be all a movie has going for it. I think that was really the case with the Ghostbusters reboot. It was not a good film. It wasn’t funny or clever. The CGI was bad, the characters were derivative (obviously) and there was not much to enjoy about it. The fact that it bombed at the box office tells me I was not alone in thinking it was a bad film. And yet, what it’s best known for is being hated on by misogynist fans. But I think the truth is closer to the idea that the fans didn’t like being told they should like the movie because representation. It’s sort of like being told you should enjoy brussel sprouts because they’re good for you, or society…or something. No one likes being told that, even when it’s true.
I just wanted to see a fun superhero film. But I’m not promising to say I enjoyed it because of women’s empowerment angle. Either it’s good or it’s not. I still hope it’s good but I’m getting a bad vibe of desperation from the woke critics.
Here’s Brie Larson’s speech about critic representation. It’s clearly meant to be a progressive stemwinder but it seems to me a lot of it falls flat.
Update: From the Mary Sue, a defensive reaction (not really a review):
Look, I get it. It isn’t for everyone, but it is telling that every negative review of the movie was written by a man. Is it my favorite MCU movie? No, that still goes to Captain America: Civil War, but the film does a great job of introducing us to Carol Danvers and setting up her storyline.
Except that’s not true, as I demonstrated above. Several of the negative reviews are written by women, which suggests this is not all a plot by the patriarchy. But some people can’t seem to get beyond the idea this is a pro-women statement film and therefore only card-carrying members of the he-man-women-haters club can dislike it.