Morals and Social Justice Constructs in the Marvel Universe - Captain Marvel Reviewed

The modern age in which we live is one whose first-world nations have politicians counseling the masses on social justice. It is frequent. It feeds the media. It affects our culture. It is to be expected. With particular regards to the arena of visual entertainment, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has appeared at the forefront of this year’s media advocation for social justice and social reform. In relevance to this cultural element, two of Marvel’s 2019 films have been in the spotlight: the mediocre Captain Marvel and the galvanizing Avengers: Endgame. As with most of my reviews, a number of spoilers from both movies will be divulged along the way.

Back in March, Captain Marvel was breaking box office records on its own terms; Avengers: Endgame followed soon after, becoming the pop culture event of the year. The aspect of social justice which Captain Marvel pushes is certainly the empowerment and acceptance of women, a form of sexual equality. While half the time Nick Fury, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with a military background, displays tactical ineptitude for comic relief, Carol Danvers is perpetually portrayed as a strong, independent, and cocky warrior who isn’t a fan of superiority – even when it comes in the form of simple obedience to a military officer with higher authority such as Yon-Rogg. (Evidently, she is not keen on the virtue of obedience, nor is she an exemplar of humility.)

To be fair to the way Fury’s character is treated in Captain Marvel, it is the first time the agent has encountered alien hostiles. That would be the best excuse for his pathetic and futile attempts at countering the maneuvers of the Skrull and Kree warriors. As a result, we can come to expect the method in which Fury handles extraterrestrial confrontations in the future, such as in The Avengers (2012), which would take place approximately two decades after Fury meets Danvers.

Since Carol Davers disagrees with the superior role Yon-Rogg has over her and his views, he becomes her true nemesis by the climax of the story. However, while he does end up becoming the arch-villain of the film, Yon-Rogg has some meaningful advice to pass on to Danvers. He tells Vers, which is Danvers’ Kree title, that he wants to see her excel, to be “the best version of yourself.” Thus, just like the authentic story of life itself, this independent female warrior shall begin to seek out reason and truth in her life. She wants to simply know who she is.

That phrase, “the-best-version-of-yourself,” is not explicitly found in the dialogue of Captain Marvel’s script. (Yon-Rogg uses it at least twice.) It’s an interesting phrase to include in the secular superhero film as not only is it a noble attribute to strive for, but as it also happens to be one of the most common catchphrases employed by evangelist Matthew Kelly, the founder of Dynamic Catholic. Kelly’s approach to life, spiritual, social, and physical, can be summed up in this goal: to be “the-best-version-of-yourself” that you can be.

In Perfectly Yourself, Matthew Kelly gives a final send-off to his readers at the end of his book. In part, it reads, “God has an incredible dream for you, he wants you to become all he created you to be, the-very-best-version-of-yourself. Take God’s dream seriously and you will quickly realize another truth: Anyone or anything that doesn’t help you become the-best-version-of-yourself is too small for you.”

Inevitably, Yon-Rogg and the Kree’s manipulative “Supreme Intelligence” (which eventually gets outwitted by Danvers) are “too small” for Vers. They are withholding information of her past in its entirety from her and, come to find out, they are limiting the extent of her powers. Vers’ identity is not rooted in the Kree but is traced back before her new life with their race. She is Carol Danvers, and she has a past with the people of Earth – a past which the Kree have deliberately kept hidden from her. The majority of the movie follows her in her bold attempt at regaining the lost knowledge of her past. The pieces begin to reunite, building up the picture of her previous life on Earth as constituted through flashbacks of specific instances in her past including both her childhood and adulthood. Hers is a journey toward the discovery of self, and the movie audience gets to come along for the ride.

Captain Marvel is a difficult film to swallow in that one leaves the theatre with a first impression that he still does not know who she actually is. The movie seeks to firmly establish the new character on-screen by revealing her full identity to us, but the production falls terribly short. With a lack of character development, it is hard to feel a deeply personal relation to Danvers. This is partially because we do not receive a big dose of visible personality from her. What we do see in personability comes off as unconvincing, unrealistic, and ungenuine. For example, most of the emotion we see from Danvers, particularly overwhelming sorrow, conflict, and a sense of loss, is about as believable as the CGI in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. The crocodile tears from Brie Larson’s portrayal of Danvers does not do the character justice. This makes for perhaps the least convincing sequence of Danvers’ journey toward discovering her identity and purpose.

What may be an underlying cause for Captain Marvel’s failure of effectively establishing its lead character is the unique origin story for Carol Danvers. It’s entirely different from other MCU installments which try to introduce new heroes. In Captain America: The First Avenger or Black Panther, the main character knows who he is and very quickly realizes what he must do. Steve Rogers is called to go to war, fight for freedom, and battle against evil. Black Panther is called to be ruler over his people, bring peace, and build social bridges.

Enter Carol Danvers, and we are thrown into the middle of her story. She is part of an alien military force, and her past is shrouded in uncertainty. This is where we pick up with her character. By the end of the movie, even though she may know who she is, we still feel like we barely know her. So much of her backstory remains unbeknownst to the audience by the close of the film. As a result, Danvers’ introduction is missing some substantial personality support. A viewer can easily fall into the notion that there is no reason to be invested in this character. This is not a flaw on the part of how Carol Danvers was written but rather how the plot was written.

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It seems as though half of the cast of Captain Marvel has a shot at playing both a villain and hero. Annette Bening plays Danvers’ old comrade Wendy Lawson as well as one of the forms taken on by the malicious “Supreme Intelligence.” Jude Law tackles the role of Yon-Rogg, the character who initially acts as though he cares about her, watching out for her and caring for her, but who is the deceptive villain at his core. Clark Gregg, best known as a leading actor in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, reprises his Marvel character, while also playing the part of a Skrull skin-changer impersonating his human form.

Lastly, Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, a high-ranking Skrull who appears to be chasing after Carol Danvers after she escapes imprisonment with evil intentions. Mendelsohn was the perfect casting choice for the character, leading the audience to make the logical assumption that he is the antagonist. (Mendelsohn has been typecast as a villain in major motion pictures including Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, and The Dark Knight Rises.) As the story progresses, we learn the cause of Talos leans closer to the side of righteousness than does the Kree’s cause. Mendelsohn’s Talos then evolves from the annoying pursuer to an extremely-likable, family-oriented defender.

Carol Danvers’ life on Earth had been one filled with adventure and genuine friendship – one in which she was appreciated by her peers. She had been an F-15 jet pilot, having enjoyed the company of other female pilots such as Maria Rambeau and Dr. Wendy Lawson. As she attempts to be the MCU’s fantastical version of Amelia Earhart, Danvers would likely agree with the real-world aviatrix and feminist in her statement that “...women should do for themselves what men have already done — occasionally what men have not done — thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women toward greater independence of thought and action.” The only real danger this ideal flirts with is one of falling into the vice of pride which, unfortunately, Carol Danvers displays rather prominently.

To quote a phrase, salvation history truly is the greatest story ever told. In the tales fabricated by the human imagination and in the relations of pop culture, it usually isn’t too difficult to find Christ-figures or even Mary-figures. A few examples of Marian figures may include Shmi Skywalker in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace or Evelyn Abbott in The Quiet Place. In both virtue and Scriptural symbolism, Carol Danvers, or Captain Marvel, fails at attaining such status. Whereas the Virgin Mary’s heroism comes in humility and submission to the Will of God, Danvers’ heroism comes in the form of disavowing inferiority to military hierarchy and having a lack of faith in the stratagems of superiors. 

While Danvers’ story might exude the catchy Frank Sinatra line, “I did it my way,” Mary responds to God’s request with her resounding Magnificat of humility, directing glory and praise to her Lord: “He [God] has shown might with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly.” Danvers is no Marian archetype.

There are two primary sects of audiences which were underwhelmed by Captain Marvel: radical feminists – and sexists on the opposite end of the spectrum. There were those who found the lead role taken up by a strong female model to be too much to accept. But, contrastingly, some feminists found the movie to be lacking in its depiction of Carol Danvers and, thus, of women as a whole. The feminism played out in Captain Marvel almost seems subdued; it does not reach to extremes. Apart from her alien encounters, Danvers is genuinely human, though the lack of personality persists and can not be overlooked….

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This is just an excerpt from Culture Wars Magazine, not the full article. To continue reading, purchase the July/August, 2019 edition of Culture Wars Magazine.

Other articles in this edition:

Armageddon in the Auld Sod: The Conflict Between Neo-Paganism & Conservative Catholicism in Modern Ireland

•Geraldine Comiskey

Mass Shootings, Underage Sex Islands, and the Risk to Our Society

•Anonymous

The Inner Logic of Neo-Paganism in Sweden Why All Porno Films Get Remade as Horror Movies

•E. Michael Jones

Morals and Social Justice Constructs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame - Reviewed by John Tuttle

Straubhaar and the Fuzzy-Wuzzies

J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia - Reviewed by Blaise Thompson