This story contains light spoilers about Captain Marvel.
In one of several climactic fight scenes in Captain Marvel, the titular character meets, and soon enough battles, a group of powerful baddies. The skirmish they engage in is predictably familiar within pretty much any Marvel film—a long-awaited reckoning, a violent dance rendered in fists and twirls and blood—until, that is, the opening lines of the fight’s soundtrack, inspired by the film’s 1995 setting, begin to play. No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” a song that weaves anger and whimsy in a way that neatly anticipated many of the truisms of 2019, swells over the scene: Take this pink ribbon off my eyes—kick! punch! leap!—I’m exposed, and it’s no big surprise—spin! thud! flip!—Don’t you think I know exactly where I stand, this world is forcing me to hold your hand …
The scene, which finds the woman who is in the process of becoming Captain Marvel thrown against walls and tossed on the ground before she summons her power to win the battle, is played at once for camp, and for catharsis, and for political messaging. (Oh, I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite, Gwen Stefani sings, before landing her own kind of punch: So don’t let me have any rights.) It also serves a more practical purpose: The fight is an act of character development. Captain Marvel begins with a fight scene and ends with another, and finds its structure, across a complicated plot, within the several fights that come between them. Each skirmish features the eventual Captain Marvel embracing the kind of warrior she believes herself to be at the time, only to realize that she has been misled. She progresses until, by the time the climactic struggle comes, she also knows who she is—Carol Danvers, a superpowered human—and what she is capable of. And “Just a Girl” becomes less a simple soundtrack than an anthem—its ironies clarifying, its rages liberating, its lyrics celebrating a heroine who is realizing the truth that has been kept from her, for so long: the full and fearsome breadth of her power.
It’s a great scene. But it is also, in its bland predictability, a letdown. I felt about it, in the end, roughly the same way I felt about Captain Marvel itself: that it managed to be simultaneously thrilling and disappointing, at once exhilarating and exhausting. The movie, after all, is trying to do so much: to provide a compelling origin story for another character within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; to wrap up outstanding questions about that universe, before the months-away premiere of Avengers: Endgame; to entertain; to inspire; to bring in enough at the box office to reassure studio executives that women-centered movies can recoup the financial investments made in them; to pay fealty to the film’s historical status during a time when, still, the mere centering of a woman is assumed to be its own cause for celebration.
Superheroes transcend; the films about them, however, tend to bear a great deal of weight. And to watch Captain Marvel, despite its many charms, is to feel the physics of it all. It is to be reminded that this story of a woman who is both underestimated and called to save the world is its own kind of metaphor. Here is Marvel’s much-anticipated woman-led film, being asked to earn the money and do the errands and tidy the home and entertain the kids and through it all make sure that everyone feels happy and well cared for.
In many ways, it succeeds in all that. (Here is one way: Captain Marvel, globally, brought in a whopping $456 million this weekend.) That’s in large part because of the many small decisions the directors, the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, made on the film’s behalf. There’s the casting of Brie Larson as the title character, and the fact that the Oscar winner managed to imbue a woman who spends most of the film confused about her own identity with both wit and steely determination. There’s the costume Larson wears as Captain Marvel, which an internet retailer might refer to as “bodycon” but which also, given that it covers the actor’s entire body in a kind of armor, provides a notable contrast to, say, the bustier-and-flippy-miniskirt combo worn by DC’s Wonder Woman. There’s the fact that the emotional arc traditionally reserved for a romantic relationship is found, here, primarily through Carol’s relationship with her best friend and fellow fighter pilot, Maria Rambeau (the excellent Lashana Lynch). There are the jokes that attempt to give the movie a feminist currency: “Got a smile for me?” a guy asks Carol, and the glare she gives him is worth several different blasts of her photon-hands.
There’s also the film’s exploration of complicated, and contextually urgent, ideas: about identity, about colonialism, about nativism, about oppression, about loyalty, about complicity. There are attempts to complicate simplistic assumptions about the clean lines separating the good guys and the bad guys. There are efforts to explore all the reasons so many different characters, here, might have to be angry. Rage, in Captain Marvel, has a glowing, glowering righteousness: The woman who will work to save the world, in a plot point so explicit you hope Rebecca Traister got some royalties out of the deal, realizes the fullness of her power when she embraces the anger that has been building and brewing in her since she was a young girl—since she was told to slow down, to calm down, to be less of what she was.
All of this is fantastic to see on a screen. Captain Marvel is most often compared to 2017’s Wonder Woman, and that’s fitting, but an even apter comparison might be 2005’s Elektra, technically the first Marvel movie to center a woman as its hero. That the latter film is often written out of the lore is perhaps a kind of courtesy: Elektra features Jennifer Garner, clad in a midriff-baring, lipstick-red corset-and-pants combo, as a Greek-mythology-inspired, Eastern-martial-arts-practicing assassin. The film is the cinematic embodiment of what the writer Ariel Levy referred to as “raunch culture,” and today, it is deeply wince-worthy. (“LOOKS CAN KILL,” the film’s poster announces, cheekily.) To watch all three, Elektra and then Wonder Woman and then Captain Marvel, is to appreciate how much change really has come from 2005 to 2019—and to be reminded that progress has a way of coming slowly and quickly at the same time.
But Elektra makes for an extremely low bar, and Captain Marvel, a film that can sometimes scan as a the future is female T-shirt brought to life, is, on top of everything else, a reminder of how much has stayed, stubbornly, the same. There are so many references to power and empowerment, so many callouts to falling down and getting up again, so many easy insights about the benefits of being true to oneself. There’s a doubleness to the proceedings here, not just in the film’s pairing of characters and shifting of identities, but also in its broader messaging. Feminine badassery, commodified! (But also: feminine badassery, commodified.) Women being pandered to, finally! (But also: women being pandered to, finally.) Is this really the endgame before the Endgame? Is that, as another disappointed woman wondered, all there is?
Captain Marvel is set not just in the age of Blockbusters and brick cellphones and internet buffering (though the film makes cheerful fun of all those anachronisms). It is also set in the time that found Americans celebrating another instance of women coming to power. In 1992, as 47 women were sent to the (435-member) House of Representatives, pundits declared the arrival of “the year of the woman.” They did so joyfully (progress!). What they glossed over, however, was that the year of the woman had already been announced—in 1966, and in 1968, and in 1984. It would be summoned again, of course, in 2018, as more women—this time, in particular, more women of color—were elected to serve and strive on the country’s behalf. After all the do-overs, there are now 102 women in the House and 25 women in the Senate, which is a situation to be both celebrated and, at the same time, lamented. Progress, but. Victories, but.
And there is Captain Marvel, swooping and soaring and succumbing to gravity and ignoring it, and to watch her as she fights her battles is to be simultaneously giddy and tired. It is to recognize that, even when the fight seems won, there’s so much more to do. It is to hum along with weary recognition when the grown girl sings, Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh ... I’ve had it up to … here.