To begin with I’d like to state that this critique will not involve any discussion of any of the controversy surrounding the Captain Marvel movie or Brie Larson. I intend this to be solely an exploration of how the rather
Captain Marvel has had a troubled history for much of the last twenty years. In the comics, the character has been rebooted anywhere from 7-12 times (depending on who does the counting). Yet Marvel Comics continues to try and find a way to make this character work. The probable reason is not surprising – a strong female superhero that shares the company name is a highly desirable marketing tool. Still, the comic division of the company appears to have failed repeatedly in their attempt to ingratiate this character with the hardcore fans.
Enter Captain Marvel, the MCU version. Yet another attempt to ‘get this character right’. Wtihout going into details of the internet battles fought around this character and the movie, certain promotional choices made by Disney/Marvel suggested they never truly had confidence in this version of the character either.
They didn’t let the movie evolve organically from the characters and it shows.
After seeing the movie, I believe they were right to be concerned — at least with this entry into the MCU franchise. My take on the movie is that it probably could have been at or near the top 5 MCU movies, instead of languishing around 14th place, if the directors/producers would have realized what movie they were actually making and play to its strengths instead of attempting to force the movie into the story they thought they wanted to make. That is, they didn’t let the movie evolve organically from the characters and it shows.
Let me explain.
How to Improve The Movie
Needless to say, if you haven’t seen Captain Marvel yet…
***** SPOILER ALERT ********
Yes, really. A lot of spoilers.
But that should be obvious.
Are you sure you’re ready?
Okay then, on with the discussion.
***** SPOILERS BELOW ********
The Wrong Emotional Arc
The biggest problem with the Captain Marvel movie is that the directors/producers attempted to force the story around the wrong emotional arc. That led to too little time develop the necessary emotional aspects of the story they wanted to tell, and too much time developing the emotional aspects of the story they weren’t telling. But a bit more on the movie to help you understand what I mean.
A Brief Summary of the Movie
Captain Marvel begins on the Kree homeworld of Hala with a nightmare/flashback that ‘Veers’ doesn’t understand. to get over it, she wakes her senior officer for a sparing match where he warns her against losing emotions and that she won’t achieve her true potential until she can defeat him without her powers (yes, we see her already with powers from the start).
To make things brief, they go on a mission that is an ambush by the hated Skrulls and she is captured. As they probe her mind we begin to learn about her past on Earth, including short clips of all the times people doubted her abilities, completely devoid of emotion. She escapes, single-handedly battling through the entire ship of Skrulls (it would have been useful if they had the device that stunned her originally) and escapes, plunging to Earth where she crashlands, without a ship, in a Blockbuster store, completely fine and barely even stunned.
She meets Nick Fury and Agent Colson, and chases some Skrulls, before discovering more of her history including a scientist she used to know and the identity of her former best friend (before her amnesia). And a cat. Chased by more Skrulls, they blast off in an experimental ship and land at her old friend’s house to a heartfelt welcome and a heart-to-heart with the head Skrull. He helps reveal her true past and the betrayal of the Kree. They then discover the hidden laboratory they’re looking for is in space, they modify their ship and blast off to find… the tesseract and a ship full of Skrull refugees. Turns out Skrulls aren’t the scourge of the galaxy but relatively innocent victims of the Kree who are looking for a new homeland.
Battles ensue, Captain Marvel is captured by frees herself from the influence of the Kree superior mind after finally realizing the Kree didn’t create her, they’re inhibiting her. She can now fly, is invulnerable and doesn’t require a space suit in space, essentially becoming Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk all combined. She chases off the Kree ships and everyone is happy. Then she flies off to stop the Kree/Skrull war… cue credits.
Despite all the action and all the potential, this movie falls flat. We don’t really care about any of the characters except maybe the Skrull refugees and there’s nothing to interest us in much of the rest of the story, as cool as it sounds on paper. As a writer, I’m very interested in why this movie fell flat and, of course, I think I know or I wouldn’t be writing this article.
Dont’ Fear the Haters
The emotional arc that Disney/Marvel went for in Captain Marvel was essentially ‘don’t listen to the haters’. We eventually learn, through flashbacks, that Carol Danvers has multiple experiences where her abilities are doubted, including as a kid, during military training, and even with the Kree she is constantly doubted by her squad commander. However, not only are these shown through rapid flashbacks, but we rarely see them having any emotional effect on the character, so likewise, we’re emotionally unaffected. Once Carol Danvers learns to grow past those who have held her back (physically represented by an actual inhibitor implanted in her neck) her full power is unleashed and she becomes unstoppable.
If this was truly the character arc the writers/producers wanted to develop, they needed to show us in much greater detail how Carol was affected by the doubters. We needed to see more than just brief flashbacks of those scenes, we needed to actually be there with her for at least one, but preferably several, in some detail. In fact, I would suggest we needed to follow her through some scenes as she grows up and even through basic training.
Instead, the flashbacks all feel quite rushed and we eventually understand what has happened without truly empathizing with her, leaving us to develop no emotional attachment with her.
The Power of Friendship and the Sting of Betrayal
In truth, instead of developing Carol’s ‘insecurity’ arc, the movie spends most of its time – apparently without realizing it – developing a ‘friendship/betrayal’ arc for Carol. We spend a lot of time with Rambeau and her daughter, Carol develops a strong relationship with Fury, she was good friends with Mar-Vel the Kree scientist, and even has very strong camaraderie, laced with a hint of one-sided romantic overtones, with Yon-Rogg her Kree commanding officer and ultimate betrayer, where we also spend much of the early movie. She’s even able to make friends with the Skrull, overcoming her Kree-programmed hatred of them.
The current story structure of the movie leaves us with too little time seeing the impact of the ‘haters’ to empathize with Carol, and too much time developing friendships for us to feel she’s been wronged by the haters. The time spent on each doesn’t appear to match what seems to be the intended emotional arc, leading me to believe that Disney/Marvel didn’t realize which movie they were making and perhaps, which they should have been making.
Instead, if Disney/Marvel would have developed the ‘importance of friendships/avenging a betrayal’ arc, the scenes would have fit much better, albeit in a different order.
I suggest the story should have gone something like this:
We begin with Carol Danvers and Rambeau as friends and pilots who get involved with the strange, secretive plot of their scientist-friend Lawson (Mar-Vel). Before the spaceship chase scene, we develop the friendships fully and hint at a mystery surrounding what Mar-Vel is working on. Things go bad and Mar-Vel needs a way out, Carol offers to fly her out of there and they’re attacked and brought down. Mar-Vel is killed and Carol goes unconscious as the power-source they were carrying explodes. She only sees the attackers identity through a haze.
Next, we fast forward through a montage of ‘rebuilding’ and training years to
Frustratingly, this is such a small change to the story arc but, I believe, would have resulted in an immensely better movie with a deeper emotional arc.
An Incomplete Heroes Journey
The changes above would have made it much more apparent why this second change would be necessary. A smaller but equally important thing the movie gets wrong is forgetting to finish the heroes journey.
One very specific mistake the movie makes is near the end. Carol confronts Yon-Rogg, her Kree mentor who has constantly taunted her that she won’t truly be ready to lead until she can beat him without using her powers. It’s obvious that his taunt is in large part because he knows he can’t beat her now that she fully come into her powers and her response is to blast him mid-sentence with her pulse beams claiming that she doesn’t need to prove anything to him. I’m not sure whether this was meant to be a ‘girl power’ moment, a ‘stop mansplaining’ moment, or a hat-tip to Indiana Jones, but it fails for one big reason. The showdown with Yon-Rogg is the natural conclusion to her heroic arc. He is the person that gained her trust, lied to her, betrayed her, and then tried to kill her. She’s right that she doesn’t have anything to prove to him, but as a hero she should have a need to prove it to herself. She has to demonstrate to herself that she’s more than just fancy lights from her hands.
When push comes to shove, a hero is not the sum of the powers but the strength of their heart. If their powers are removed they still remain a hero. That’s what we see in Iron Man 1, that’s what we see in Thor 1, that’s what Steve Rogers demonstrates before becoming Captain America, that’s what T’Challa demonstrates in the challenge of Black Panther. Even
In the current form of the movie, we experience almost no heroic qualities from Carol Danvers prior to receiving her powers (except a fairly short flashback with all emotion drained from it) and the only larger-than-life deeds we see her accomplish are with her powers. And she only gets stronger and more invincible as the movie goes on. So we never see her truly challenged. The one chance for this important part of the heroic journey to be fulfilled was in the face-off with Yon-Rogg. A scene that utterly fails to fulfil its purpose.
Captain Marvel is an action-filled bore-fest that didn’t need to be that way. The lack of empathy and engagement from the audience comes from the producers failing to develop the proper emotional arc. Frustratingly, this didn’t have to be the case. All the elements were there for a strong story. For whatever reason, the producers just decided to make a different, less engaging story.