Captain Marvel and the Evolution of Justice in the MCU
Captain Marvel is taking the world by storm. The first Marvel film with a female lead made an estimated $455 million worldwide during opening weekend, making its release the sixth-highest global film debut ever and the highest of a film with a female lead.
Online trolls orchestrated a concerted campaign to tank Captain Marvel’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes and elsewhere prior to its release in the hopes of discouraging moviegoers from seeing it at all. Clearly, that effort failed. Instead, moviegoers around the world demonstrated their eagerness to watch a film about a female superhero.
While Captain Marvel wasn’t marketed as an explicitly political film, several distinct factors converged to draw attention to its politics (spoiler alert):
- A Female-Led Superhero Film. Captain Marvel was the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe featuring a female superhero lead — and its remarkable performance at the box office serves to underscore the significance of that fact. Whether fans were actively seeking out a feminist superhero icon, or just wanted to see another good superhero flick, they turned out by the millions on opening weekend to see Captain Marvel.
- Trolls. The film was also attacked by trolls as some sort of “feminist propaganda” that was bringing “politics” into a previously apolitical Marvel universe. This claim is, of course, absurd even at a glance. Marvel has always been at least marginally political, and often highly political; other MCU films have made heavy-handed political statements; and there’s nothing new about the “progressive” or “social justice” tendency of MCU politics. Any fans who object to such politics can take it up with a young Stan Lee!
- Feminist Themes. The trailers and marketing materials for Captain Marvel actually gave little indication of any feminist themes prior to the release of the film. The fact that a small but vocal segment of the Marvel fandom considered the mere thought of a female-led superhero film to be a radical feminist statement says more about those fans than it does about the film. Once the film actually hit theatres, it did feature some feminist themes that are worthy of further discussion and reflection. However, these themes were not nearly as heavy-handed as some critics made them out to be. Iron Man’s critique of the arms industry, and Captain America’s Nazi-fighting and government-evading adventures, both seem more overtly political than Carol Danvers overcoming a variety of obstacles which mostly had nothing to do with her gender. The most political plot twist by far actually had nothing to do with gender — but I’ll get to that in a moment.
All of this scrutiny on the politics of Captain Marvel led me to ask an important question about these complex, fascinating, and endlessly entertaining films that have been captivating the imaginations of millions of fans for over a decade now.
What is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s concept of justice?
Superhero narratives are usually directly or indirectly centered around some concept of justice. The superhero is driven by a proactive desire to uphold justice, or a reactive response to stop injustice, or both. They may be a more altruistic character, like Captain America, or a more egoistic character, like Iron Man. They may have chosen their larger-than-life role, or they may have had it thrust upon them by birth or circumstance. Either way, their story ultimately tells us something about justice.
Each entry in the MCU has its own take on justice that could be the subject of its own extensive analysis. Iron Man, for example, is critical of the injustice of the arms industry and its collusion with terrorists, and presents a reluctant and flawed hero with a decidedly technocratic and individualist approach to implementing justice. Captain America, on the other hand, is a more straightforward tale of an iconically good and wholesome hero fighting a courageous battle against blatantly sinister foes in the service of justice.
One of the most interesting aspects of the MCU is the ways in which all of these characters, their plot arcs, and their concepts of justice intersect. Most of the individual films are already strong as stand-along stories, but they gain added depth and significance when they lead the audience to compare and contrast these different explorations of heroism and justice.
What new takes on justice does Captain Marvel bring to the MCU?
The feminism of Captain Marvel is surely one of its most vital contributions to the MCU’s concept of justice. Black Panther was the first Marvel movie that really started giving prominent and empowering roles to women. Captain Marvel continued and expanded on that trend by giving us a strong female lead and supportive female characters. It also presented male antagonists who served as examples of toxic masculinity, and supporting male characters who served as examples of healthier masculinity. The characterization of Nick Fury was particularly important in this regard, lending a healthy dose of humanity and complexity to a character who has at times seemed one-dimensional in his macho militant service to his own vision of justice.
The presence of these feminist themes was plainly visible to people who were specifically looking for them. However, the feminism of Captain Marvel was almost understated in its delivery, especially given the fact that this is the first movie in the MCU with a female superhero lead. The heaviest-handed feminist moments included two inconsequential male characters who momentarily objectified the main character and were summarily dismissed, having no impact whatsoever on the plot. There was also arguably a rewarding feminist angle to Carol Danvers’ defeat of her male mentor, but the scene didn’t seem to emphasize gender per se. The most liberating aspect of that specific victory, and her victorious plot arc generally, may very well be that it had nothing to do with gender. Carol Danvers faced many challenges — some gendered, some not — and emerged victorious due to the strength of her character and her ability to get back up after falling down. The film did an excellent job of conveying her courage and tenacity without seeming like a heavy-handed feminist treatise. She’s just that good at what she does, without being defined primarily by gender — and that itself is a feminist statement. Portraying strong female characters without constantly framing everything they do in terms of their gender is important if we are ever to transcend some of the negative stereotypes and tropes surrounding women in film and other media.
Oddly enough, the most political aspect of the film seemed to be its treatment of the Skrull rather than anything to do with gender. The feminist themes were expected, welcome, and handled well. However, the revelation that the Skrull were in fact persecuted refugees was a somewhat surprising, powerful, and skillfully implemented political statement about the humanity of refugees, the horrors and moral complexity of war, and the importance of rejecting imperial narratives and doing what we can to help those displaced by the violence of empires.
By the end of the film, Captain Marvel is ultimately the story of a woman who rejects her imperial privilege and uses her considerable power to support refugees in their efforts to relocate to a safe haven and end the war that displaced them in the first place. This is a powerful anti-imperialist statement, especially for what is a profoundly mainstream film.
On the other hand, another political aspect of Captain Marvel is its close association with the U.S. Air Force. The plot and marketing materials prominently emphasize the role of Carol Danvers as a fighter pilot in a secret government program, and in a certain sense the entire movie serves as a nerdy commercial for the U.S. Air Force. The woman who may well be the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date has her origin story as essentially an Air Force pilot. This promotion of the U.S. Air Force in Captain Marvel is especially ironic given the role of the U.S. Air Force in enforcing U.S. imperialism in the real world.
And yet, there is a tension between two themes. Carol Danvers is a fighter pilot — and yet, she ended up in a secret government program rather than the “normal” Air Force because the real-life Air Force didn’t allow fighter pilots back in the 90s. Carol Danvers served in the U.S. military without any apparent qualms about what that military was doing overseas — and yet, she is very much concerned about the plight of the Skrulls, alien refugees who seem to be a stand-in for many of the real-life refugees created by U.S. imperial foreign policy.
I feel strongly both ways about this tension in Captain Marvel around Kree imperialism versus U.S. imperialism.
The film does, in many ways, seem to be an extended commercial for the U.S. Air Force. And that concerns me given my understanding of how the U.S. government tends to deploy the military in wars of aggression that are very much contrary to my concept of justice.
And yet, Captain Marvel also makes a bold statement about the humanity of refugees, ultimately placing the most powerful superhero in the MCU in the service of said refugees. There’s a lot of moral complexity to a film which simultaneously celebrates the U.S. Air Force while also calling into question imperialism. Something about that complexity seems jarring and discordant in retrospect. But if the creators of Captain Marvel have managed to create a film that’s highly appealing to a pro-military audience, yet deals with questions of refugees and imperialism in a very thought-provoking and critical way, then maybe that’s a good thing. If Captain Marvel’s concept of justice includes care and concern for refugees, then maybe our real-life understanding of justice can too.
Now that Captain Marvel is out there, what does the future hold in store for the MCU’s concept of justice? That remains to be seen. Given the runaway success of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, I would expect future films to continue exploring the intersectional concerns and identities of their fan base in some form, or at least not regress into the false “white male nerd fan service” that a small community of online trolls seem to keep demanding.
Unfortunately, though, I suspect that even a progressive and intersectional MCU will never adequately addresss the concept of climate justice, which I consider to be the most pressing and underappreciated dimension of justice in our day and age. The current primary antagonist of the entire MCU is Thanos, who is basically an insane Malthusian who kills half of all life in the cosmos in order to prove himself right about avoiding the ravages of overpopulation. (See: Thanos Was Wrong.) This profoundly villainous role of a quasi-environmentalist doesn’t bode well for the MCU’s openness to the concept of climate justice.
Maybe once Thanos is defeated, there will be room in the MCU for a film or two that includes the concept of climate justice. In the meantime, we can be thankful that Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and other Marvel films have explored other dimensions of justice that are highly relevent in the world today.