Live-action superhero movies are the ultimate pop culture phenomenon of the 21st century, breaking box office records and making massive strides in the film industry. The most successful superhero franchise of all the time is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) which debuted in 2008 with the blockbuster hit Iron Man. However, it wasn’t until 2012 when the MCU released the first Avengers film that comic book subculture fully integrated itself into the mainstream consciousness and became incredibly influential within entertainment media.
Following the release of The Avengers (2012), there was a huge initiative made by film producers to create more movies to share and tell decades worth of stories of iconic comic book characters; many of them being silver screen debuts for legendary superheros such as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Deadpool and Black Panther.
Diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
While MCU films are known for being the pinnacle of film production, with their use of top-of-the-line film technologies and memorable costume designs, they are beloved for their explorations of complex characters with compelling back stories that audiences feel like they can relate to. And of late, MCU is also being credited with including positive media representation of marginalised identities.
Most notably, Black Panther (2018) was directed by African-American director Ryan Coogler, featured a cast which had a staggering majority of black actors, and whose costume and set design were indebted to various African cultures. This was a first for superhero film, and Marvel’s willingness to expand its cultural horizons were rewarded with Black Panther becoming the ninth highest grossing film of all time at the US box office. The film was a huge win for aspiring black actors and film directors everywhere and was an especially important film for black Americans who do not often get to see black superheros on screen.
Fast-forward to 2019 and Marvel has made another strategic move to tackle issues concerning the lack of diversity in superhero films with the March release of Captain Marvel, directed by American filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. This time the MCU turns the spotlight away from male superheros and towards one of Marvel’s many female comic book characters who has until now have been overlooked by the film industry.·
Captain Marvel – a different kind of female superhero
As Marvel’s first female superhero lead, Carol Danvers a.k.a. Captain Marvel breaks a lot of barriers in the realm of superhero cinema. Danvers’ backstory is not centred on being the romantic love interest of the male lead or a victim of male violence who is a scorned and disgraced woman hell-bent on revenge.
Compare this with one of the most popular female comic book characters on screen to date –Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn, who is known for having a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with the Joker.
Comic book writers have tried to give the fan-favourite Harley Quinn agency in her own series, which provided her character with depth and complexities that were absent when she was simply presented as Joker’s besotted girlfriend. However, Hollywood undid all this effort with Suicide Squad, in which Harley is just as enthralled with her abusive boyfriend as she ever was. It doesn’t help either that the audiences’ main response to the film was to glorify Harley and the Joker’s relationship and to champion it as #couplegoals.
Elektra of Daredevil (2003) and Elektra (2005) faced a similar predicament in her films, serving primarily as a love interest to the male lead in Daredevilbefore being killed and then revived in Elektra where she is portrayed as struggling with trauma (canonically, in the comics Elektra is known to be a victim of sexual assault as a child).
Captain Marvel's Carol Danvers is thankfully spared these done-to-death tropes and is instead celebrated as a skilled pilot and combat soldier who is given the challenge of meditating an intergalactic war between two alien races, the Kree and the Skrull. She does not have a tragic backstory and neither does she have a male love interest, instead forming platonic friendships with the other male characters.
Danvers’ most intimate and significant relationship is in fact with another woman. When she returns to Earth to regain her memories, she reconnects with her past with the help fellow US Air Force pilot and former best friend Maria Rambeau. It is also through Rambeau that Danvers realises self-actualisation after experiencing gaslighting and emotional manipulation at the hands of her superior Yon-Rogg who is the commander of Starforce, an elite military unit that is Danvers is a part of.
Danvers’ interactions with male characters is a key way that Captain Marvel is set apart from other female-led superhero films. Danvers does not allow herself to be objectified or undermined and always demands respect from her male counterparts. This is actually an integral part of Danvers’ character development: when she realises her superior, Yon-Rogg, has been disingenuous throughout his mentorship of her, she refuses to play into his manipulation. In their final showdown, Yon-Rogg taunts Danvers by suggesting that she could only prove herself if she can beat him in combat without the use of her powers. While most superhero films would have a climatic scene where the hero finally defeats their enemy by proving them wrong, Danvers refuses to play on Yon-Rogg’s terms and decides to exercise her full potential.
Captain Marvel essentially allows a woman to fight back against an abuser who took advantage of her when she was at her most vulnerable. Yon-Rogg had attempted to control Danvers by making her feel like she needed to downplay her powers so she didn’t come across as overly emotional – something that many women can relate to and which undermines that emotional intelligence is valuable and important for decision-making.
This is in contrast with other female superheroes such as the aforementioned Elektra as well as Patience Phillips from Catwoman (2004), who are put in positions where they have to prove themselves to their enemies or the unsupportive people (often men) in their lives. For example, Patience Phillips is an unassuming and resigned woman who has to transform into a lethal femme fatale to be able to deal with her problems,
Danvers, meanwhile, is not required to transform herself. At no point in the film does she ever find herself needing special training or powers to compensate for her perceived defectiveness. Even before Danvers acquires her superhuman powers through a freak accident, she is portrayed as a self-assured, career-oriented woman who is competent at what she does (being a US airforce pilot). It is true that the stories of women like Elektra, Catwoman and Harley Quinn can also represent traumas and struggles experienced by real women – and these stories too have a right to be told and shown on cinema screens. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to see a female superhero who is not defined by tragedy or by her relationships with mene.
Wonder Woman’s progress led us to Captain Marvel, but a key difference between them remains
A woman superhero that has been missing in this discussion until now is, of course, Wonder Woman.
Though it can be said that DC’s Wonder Woman (2017) beat Marvel Studios to become the first to portray a strong and uncompromising female superhero on screen, Wonder Woman’s the costume falls short compared to Captain Marvel’s.
Carol Danvers’ superhero costume is the most practical and realistic so far. While the 2017 Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) wears a costume that is less revealing and impractical compared to previous depictions of her character, she still wears an armoured mini-skirt and it feels just a little ridiculous that a woman who is constantly thrown into hand-to-hand combat would opt to leave vital areas such as her chest and thighs exposed. Gadot's Wonder Woman costume is designed in a way where she can be sexually objectified and it ultimately caters for the male gaze.
And if Wonder Woman still leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to designing costumes for female action heroes, then Catwoman, Elektra and Harley Quinn fail spectacularly. Catwoman is pretty much dressed to look like a dominatrix who is expected to do backflips in stilettos while almost every other female superhero or supervillain has an exposed midriff, chest and thighs (all places that have vital organs, veins and arteries).
Comparatively, Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel is allowed a full bodysuit that is actually designed for battle. Here we see a female superhero who isn’t forced into an impossibly revealing outfit to appease a male audience. The minimal hair styling and make-up applied to Larson’s character throughout the film also feels a lot more realistic than Harley Quinn’sability to keep her hair colourfully dyed hair and her make-up perpetually extravagant while she is in prison, or Wonder Woman’s ability to preserve her perfectly styled hair in the middle of a World War II battlefield.
The effect of this is empowering – by downplaying Captain Marvel’s physical beauty, we are allowed to see her as a person whose focus and energy is directed to important things like saving the galaxy or rescuing a displaced alien race from genocide.
Captain Marvel’s feminism is intrinsic to the plot
But Captain Marvel is not just a feminist movie because its female lead who fights her enemies in sensible shoes. It is a feminist movie because it questions military imperialism and the enforcing of patriarchal structures to colonise or assert control. The people who are mostly affected by war and imperialistic agendas are usually woman, who experience high rates of male violence, especially sexual assault, during times of warfare.
In Captain Marvel, Danvers opposes the Kree's plans to conquer the Skrulls’ planet, a particularly pivotal plot point in the film and which can be interpreted to be inherently feminist. Upon discovering the more sinister motives of the Kree military, Danvers makes the choice to stand up to her superiors, forego her loyalty to the military and help the displaced Skrulls find their people and give them the resources they need to protect themselves from the aggressive imperialistic agenda of the Kree.
This is perhaps the most powerful moment of the film, as Captain Marvel is not just a self-serving superhero with a personal vendetta against people who have victimised her but is an actual force for the greater good. It is not every day that the audience gets to see a woman play such an influential part on an intergalactic scale, and she did not have to be a martyr or sacrificial lamb to make a difference.
The MCU have added a wealth of female representation into superhero cinema with Captain Marvel and has raised the bar substantially when it comes to portraying female characters on screen. So far Captain Marvel is the first female-led superhero film to gross over $1 billion worldwide and is the tenth highest grossing superhero film of all time. With the worldwide success of Captain Marvel, more female-led action blockbuster films will surely soon follow this trailblazing movie.