Who's the Baddie? Captain Marvel in the Age of American Empire
By Aaron BadyMarch 21, 2019
And yet, despite some loosely organized chatter here and there, it’s been interesting to see how little discussion there’s actually been of the movie’s political subtext. Perhaps no one wants to touch it, or it’s gotten lost amidst other issues, like the misogynist boycott (and, secondarily, the movie’s obvious imbrication in the military industrial cultural complex). Maybe the MCU juggernaut has just gotten too exhaustingly vast to be interesting. And the parallels aren’t that exact: the Skrulls can’t be Zionists, per se, because they are not trying to return to their ancestral home (their planet was destroyed by the Kree); they aren’t persecuted Jews trying to make their way in an antisemitic world, because they literally only infiltrate, and only want to escape, not assimilate; and the Skrulls are not exactly the Palestinians, since — again — their home world was destroyed in retribution, not settled; what the Kree want is Skrull submission, not their land.
As for American allegories, well, if the Kree are comparable to the American empire in general respects — in that they are both empires — then the Skrulls are also comparable to refugees in that broadly general sense, and what we end up with are very general generalities. You can make this a Zionist movie or a pro-Palestinian movie if you cherry pick the points of comparison; you can make it pro-American or anti-American in the same way. What you can’t do is make this a pro-empire movie, or avoid the way it portrays refugees as the oppressed protagonists of history; if it’s Zionist, it’s because the Skrulls are refugees (like the Jewish diaspora) who need a home, and if it’s anti-Israel, it’s because the Zionist state denies a home to others (like Palestinians and African migrants). If it’s pro-American, it’s because you believed Donald Rumsfeld’s “we don’t do empire,” and if it’s anti-American, it’s because you know how full of shit he was.
In other words, the movie’s politics are actually constant; the variable is what reality we inhabit. Do you live in a world where the US is an empire and Israel is an oppressive, expansionist ethnostate? Or do you live in a world where the US is a helpful non-Empire that protects the weak (and Israel is a refuge for a people who have long been oppressed by empires, and now only survive with the aid of a super-power)? Reality — as mediated by very different ideological lenses — can provide you with either backdrop for this movie’s politics.
Who is Carol Danvers? For me, the basic problem with Captain Marvel is that its protagonist doesn’t have a real arc, that her superpowers drain away her character. She ably inhabits a reflexive set of knee-jerk postures — she is cocky and confident as a Kree super soldier, briefly hesitant and reflective as she learns she isn’t a Kree super soldier, and then, finally, she becomes cocky and confident again as a kind of super-powered rogue Air Force pilot. But how satisfying is this arc? I think the movie itself is too easily satisfied with “fighter pilot” as a personality and with a photo album of cliches and a falling-down-and-getting-up montage (while doing “boy” things) as a substitute for backstory. The amnesia plot could have been more interesting; in The Long Kiss Good Night or The Bourne Identity, obvious points of reference, amnesia is a device to alienate a person from themselves, to place the person she was and the person she has become into conflict. But Vers’s recovered past only confirms who she is, only negates her six years as a faux-Kree. And so, instead of of working out the dilemma of a past the character no longer wants, the memory she has lost could be summed up in an Air Force recruiting commercial — apparently has been — and she simply returns to being the person she had been before; her conflict is external, but because she is endowed with so much power, she solves it with ease.
She was a soldier before; then she became a soldier; now she is, again, a soldier.
Whether this is a problem depends on what you want from Captain Marvel. In one sense, the story of how a Kree super-soldier learns that she is really a human being and that the Kree are, to quote Mitchell and Webb, the baddies, is basic MCU stuff. As she she comes to realize that she and Jude Law are the baddies, the movie becomes the story of how she learns to be the good kind of super-soldier — the US Air Force kind, instead of the Nazi kind — and how she unlocks her powers to save refugee families instead of killing them all; in this sense, it is an MCU story, which are so often plots about how a super-soldier realizes that there is something off about American Empire and has to fight to purify it, reform it, or save it (and does). Thor’s Asgard is a little like this — with two different movies just about learning Asgard’s original sins — but the best examples are Captain America signing up to punch Nazis and discovering, in Winter Soldier, that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra, and Iron Man building weapons for the government only to realize that war begets war begets war. If this is what you want from Captain Marvel — if what you want is an MCU story — then this is what you’ll get: she learns that being human sometimes means breaking the rules, and when threatened by the army that claims to have made her — that will take away her powers and leave her “only human” — it turns out that she has even more power, alone.
In the MCU, the answer is always to privatize your power and do it yourself, and this, in Captain Marvel, is also the answer. In MCU movies, the good guys always turn out to be the baddies because there are two different realities which define American politics: in one, the US are the good guys, punching Nazis and protecting democracy and human rights, the world’s policeman that keeps the peace; in the other, we are the settler state whose reservations were a model for Hitler’s genocide, a cop who spends his day being ready to shoot non-white people and evicting the homeless.
In Captain Marvel, then, the Kree become a scapegoat, an oppressive empire that oppresses the oppressed. And while the Air Force could easily be shown to be the same kind of genocidal imperial force as the Kree, they are not; when we see Carol Danvers longing to be a fighter pilot, it’s the first Gulf War that she would have — had not events interceded — wanted to take part in, the good gulf war where bombing Iraqi cities only resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead civilians and only set the stage for the decades of suffering that have followed. If the long gulf war against Iraq isn’t considered a holocaust, after all — three decades of warfare that began, in 1991, when those bombing campaigns that Carol Danvers longed to take part in produced “near apocalyptic” conditions — it’s because Iraqi lives and deaths have never been part of the reality where the US Air Force is good.
The Kree give us an excuse to stay in that reality. Carol Danvers doesn’t become a US Air Force pilot, and doesn’t fire missiles at populations of civilians; instead, we see the Kree do those things, at the beginning and end of this movie, absorbing all of villainy that might otherwise have accrued to the movie’s other imperial slaughter machine. Carol misses the first gulf war and avoids being indoctrinated into an Islamophobic slaughter-machine because instead of being the soldier she had wanted to be, she gets kidnapped and brainwashed and enlisted into the Kree army, against her will; after the reptilian shapeshifters turn out to be families, she has an occasion to save them, flying away from Earth and the United States and never has to choose whether to take part in our never-ending forever war against Iraq and the Middle East. Because it’s the Kree Starforce she repudiates, she never has to take a position on whether the US Air Force are the baddies or not.
The space where she would have had to make a choice — were it not for those interceding events — is the space where her character’s internal conflict and growth might otherwise have been. But because this movie cannot allow us to ask or answer whether the Kree are the Nazis or whether the Skrulls are the Palestinians — can gesture towards empire being good and refugees being bad — it can’t quite allow her to have a character arc defined by that internal conflict; she remains a collection of Top Gun clichés, updated for the era when women can play those roles too, but essentially consistent in its vision of cowboy pilots fighting for the good.
What we’re left with is an “origin story.” Even the Air Force commercial before the movie — “What Will Your Origin Story Be?” — knows that what we’re really doing here is establishing the prequel to the character who will, in Avengers: Endgame, show up to save the day. But this is why this movie isn’t really about Carol Danvers, why the first female-driven MCU movie doesn’t get anything like the space and time to build a growth arc to match all the boys. Iron Man and Thor had multiple movies before the characters started to really achieve depth and complexity — which only totally pays off in the Avengers movies — while the first two Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America movies are essentially two-parters. Captain Marvel gets one movie; unlike Captain America, she doesn’t get multiple movies to learn how not to be the soldier she had always wanted to be, and unlike Thor, she doesn’t get four films to learn how to earn the inheritance she was given. Each of the boys struggles with the inadequacy of what they initially wanted, and learn to want more, but Captain Marvel is mainly a movie about the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D., filling in random details that no one really needed to have filled in — like the origin of Nick Fury’s eye patch — and answering one big character question: how did Nick Fury come to decide that Earth needed help against aliens? What made one person — and only one person — decide that a super-secret organization was needed to develop a super-powered human to defend against an armada of alien spaceships that attack, out of nowhere, for no reason? This movie explains why Nick Fury did all that, by showing him experiencing it for the first time. These questions it answers, repeating the events of The Avengers (2012) by placing that repetition in the past. But the story of Carol Danvers gets left on the cutting floor, source text for an empowerment montage, not otherwise shown.
As a result, the movie poses questions it can’t answer. When we see her show up in the present — played by the same actor who is the same age — do we ask what Captain Marvel has been doing for the last twenty-four years? What she has done and learned? How she has grown and changed? If she approves of Nick Fury’s “Avengers Initiative,” and of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Did she watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier where an American super-soldier with the name “Captain” discovered that the good guys had been secretly infiltrated by the bad guys since the beginning? There are obvious and inescapable political allegories here, but what is her position on the two-state solution, the right of return, and does she have any thoughts on Ilhan Omar? Who, precisely, are the Skrulls and the Kree meant to be?
If these are ridiculous questions, it’s because this is a Marvel movie, whose episodes always gesture at resolutions that the big team-up movies will cannibalize. Thor: Ragnarak ended with the population of Asgard become a rootless diaspora searching for a new home — an extremely resonant image — but when Avengers: Infinity War began, five minutes later, Thanos had already killed half of them, offscreen, and the MCU seemed to have completely lost interest in that story, as comprehensively as it does when Black Panther’s triumphantly concluding Afrocentrism becomes Infinity War’s “sure, we’ll sacrifice Wakanda, why not.” The ending of Captain Marvel gives us the same feeling of closure — she has stopped being a soldier who kills civilians and become the kind of soldier who saves them — but the MCU’s narrative engine will never sustain this transition; the real amnesia of this franchise is how single-character episodes discover things about their protagonists that have to be forgotten.
In a month, Carol Danvers will show up on earth again, to help the Avengers fight Thanos; as the post-credits scene indicates, she will not have aged in the interim, a nicely symbolic figure for her general character stasis. Growth is not what she’s for. She is, as a throwaway line in the movie briefly acknowledges, a weapon.
And yet, there is one thing that does seem worth saying, that this movie does clearly says: the thing Carol Danvers learns from Nick Fury is that “being human” means disobeying orders and following your conscience, specifically, in this case, disobeying the orders given by the army and command structure that claims to have made you who you are, to have given you your powers, and to have been your origin story. This is too implicit to be in open rebellion with the Air Force commercial, but it’s there: that isn’t, the movie whispers, your origin story. And so, when Jude Law tells her that without what the Kree have given her, she’d be “only human,” this is the point: to be human is to be without what they have given her. To be human is to quit the military, we might conclude; to be human is to know — and not to have to ask whose side you’re on — when you see a flesh-and-blood human being attacked by her natural enemy, the military.
After all, what makes Carol Danvers who she is, what makes her human? It’s not the Air Force, or if it is, it’s not the part of the montage where the men jeer and laugh; it’s the part of the Air Force where she and Maria Rambeau are kept out of the Air Force, and the sisterhood they form from that experience. It’s her re-connection with her friend, through two stunning monologues — about loss and pain and love — delivered by the character who grounds her as a character (and without which she wouldn’t be one).
What do we want from this movie? Carol and Maria are never going to be given an explicit love story, any more than Marvel Studios could do without the money the US Armed Forces gives them to make these movies; Captain Marvel is not explicitly queer and Captain Marvel is, explicitly, extremely pro-Military. But that’s how movies work; the good stuff lives in the little moments, the gestures, and the things that aren’t explicit enough to be nailed down. And there’s one detail that does seem important to me: Carol Danvers never gets the chance to, but it seems clear that Maria Rambeau quit the Air Force, a long time ago.
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