Dear Fellow Female Critics,
We’re the people Captain Marvel star Brie Larson wanted to see more of at her press screenings and publicity junkets. For daring to express her desire to include more women and people of colour in the conversation, Larson was subjected to an onslaught of online vitriol, the worst of which compared her to Hitler.
The audacity to want to expand the representation of film journalism beyond the predominantly white, male standard, unleashed a fury of entitlement the likes not seen since the release of the Ghostbusters reboot, or Wonder Woman, or Black Panther, or The Last Jedi, or any film that doesn’t adhere to the narrow and shortsighted parameters set forth by a bunch of men with nothing better to do than downgrade a movie that hadn’t even opened yet. The white-hot power of this bloated ignorance was so intense that Rotten Tomatoes no longer allows users to comment ahead of a movie’s release.
But this is about us, whether we want it to be or not. Every time a highly anticipated female-fronted blockbuster is about to open all of a sudden everyone wants to know what we think. Great, right? Well, it would be better if they cared about all our film reviews all of the time but amplifying our voices for any film is a step forward. The step backwards comes with the condescending assumption that because we are women we are better equipped to review “women’s films” or we have some kind of secret coven agenda to enthusiastically praise female-lead films regardless of whether the merit is deserved or not.
Which brings me to Captain Marvel.
I liked it a lot. It’s a solid flick. There’s plenty to love even if you aren’t packing a pair of ovaries. But there’s a lot more here worth talking about.
I can’t speak for all of us, but my goal as a critic is to tell people about the films I’ve seen and illustrate what I think worked or didn’t work. Contrary to popular belief, my job is not film promotion. That said, I will always champion the films I enjoy which I think deserve a bigger audience. Typically, this does not include huge tentpole superhero franchises. They don’t need my help, and I don’t feel the need to add yet another voice to the already crowded and sadly, often negative conversation. But more frankly, I don’t feel like I’m even invited to that conversation.
I have zero emotional investment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or any cinematic universe for that matter. I’ve seen maybe three or four of the MCU films, just enough to have a passing familiarity with the characters and their motives, not so much that it could cloud my judgement either way. The beauty of Captain Marvel and her origin story is that we get to discover her as she discovers herself. When we meet Carol Danvers, she is a woman with incredible powers that she has no recollection of acquiring. The film’s non-linear structure allows Carol, and the audience, to learn about her past life in flashback, as she hunts down a shape-shifting alien race threatening her home planet, Hala. This hunt lands her in Los Angeles, in 1995.
Beyond the 90s aesthetic, Captain Marvel harkens back to an age in action cinema when not every single minute of film needed to be filled with exposition or seizure-inducing CGI spectacles to engage an audience. The chemistry between Larson and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is cracking good fun (reminiscent of Jackson’s relationship with Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight). In particular, many scenes between Carol and her best friend Maria, who were Air Force pilots together, are not designed to advance the plot. They are intended to inform character, and to help Carol build trust in the people she needs to help her achieve her goal. This illustration of female friendship – a bond between two equals motivated by love and not competition – is refreshing.
As an MCU film, Captain Marvel is a puzzle piece in an epic narrative arc that will have greater context when it ultimately connects to the other pieces to form the whole picture. Which is the point, of course, and yet the stakes here didn’t feel as high as they have in other origin stories. The tension wasn’t as drawn out, perhaps because we’re only just meeting Carol, and her story will have greater depth as she grows into her new role as a superhero. Sacrificing pacing for character development is a bold move that just barely pays off. Her internal conflicts are designed to be as important as the external, which is a tricky balance to strike, and one that might stretch the patience of fans hoping for more thrills. But in terms of establishing Carol as a leader, all the components are here.
I rarely feel like superhero films are made for me, a middle-aged, white woman. But watching Carol’s confidence grow as she understands how to harness her power while being told to keep her emotions in check but she’s all “nope” and keeps overcoming obstacles her way? Seeing her kick ass and take names in baggy jeans and a loose-fitting NIN t-shirt (take that, male gaze) to songs by Garbage and Lita Ford, while reconnecting with her best friend, and trading barbs with Annette Mother-loving Benning? If this movie isn’t for me, then I don’t know who it’s for.
MCU’s first female-lead film was never going to be all things to all people, and the idea that it even should or could is ridiculous. For some, Captain Marvel will either be too much or not enough of whatever they expected it to be. For film critics, expectations are an impediment to the pursuit of objective judgement. And as women in the field our motives are often questioned when we review these kinds of films. The idea that we need to either love or hate a film in an attempt to garner some kind of nebulous credibility, or advance an imaginary agenda isn’t just ludicrous, it’s insulting.
I often say I don’t have a horse in the race when it comes to superhero movies because regardless of what I think, people will always go see them. And being neutral in my personal feelings about this franchise, I didn’t need it to be anything. It’s perfectly fine. It’s a cup of diner coffee – it does the job. And men make movies like this all the time without it being a thing. But the reason I’m weighing in now is because the conversation around the film is something I – we – have a real stake in. Hopefully someday, being invited to participate in the discourse at the same level as our white, male counterparts - much like a female-fronted super-hero movie – won’t be a big deal but a simple matter of course, when a diversity of voices is understood to make the conversation richer for everyone. I am very much looking forward to that day.