Because an amnesiac Carol Danvers spends so much time during Captain Marvel trying to figure out who she is, there’s a way in which she’s never quite given a chance to deeply grapple with some of the moral issues the movie presents to her. That job largely falls on the audience, and the film’s relative straightforwardness makes it a difficult task to ignore.
There’s something odd about hearing a person describe themselves as coming from a race of “noble warrior heroes.” While nobility and heroism are relative concepts, “warrior” has a very distinct connotation that isn’t all that open to interpretation: The Kree are a warring people, and those with exceptional skill in battle are revered within their society.
Slight though Captain Marvel is on details about Kree culture, their appearances in Guardians of the Galaxy and Agents of SHIELD have established that the Kree aren’t exactly friendly with a number of people throughout the known galaxy. The Kree’s war with the Nova Empire is what led Ronan the Accuser to attempt to claim the Orb containing the Power Stone at Thanos’ behest during Guardians of the Galaxy. The aliens were also shown to be perfectly fine with the enslavement and trafficking of Inhuman living weapons during Agent of SHIELD’s fifth season.
Of course, Carol Danvers doesn’t know any of this, and apparently hasn’t caught on to the fact that the Kree aren’t the just people they’ve led her to believe they are during the six years she’s spent on Hala. Captain Marvel smartly doesn’t assume that you’ve been keeping track of the Kree’s warring ways, and makes clear just how much of a chaotic presence they are in the universe through the movie’s biggest twist involving the Skrulls.
Despite their ray guns and advanced mind-hacking technology, it’s impossible to deny that the Skrulls are refugees on the run from an invading, colonizing force seeking to destroy them. In any other movie, the all-important MacGuffin everyone’s fighting over would be a kind of weapon that could turn the tide of the battle, but in Captain Marvel, it’s the core to a light speed engine meant to help the Skrulls escape the Kree indefinitely.
When Talos is reunited with his family aboard Mar-Vell’s ship orbiting Earth, you’re presented with a very striking image of what kind of pain the Kree have caused with their extermination: the displacement of thousands of people, the tearing apart of families, and creating the uncertainty that the Skrulls will never know peace. Though the moment’s brief, it evokes the kind of strife faced by refugees, and feels, at least in part, like it’s in concert with our current conversation regarding immigrants coming to the U.S. to seek asylum.
While they were promoting Captain Marvel, I asked co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck if this was at all intentional, Fleck explained that it wasn’t initially, but over the course of the writing process, it became clear it was the right choice for the film:
It’s not like we started with that agenda at all. In fact, we were just telling the straightforward story, and then once we got to a certain point, we realized that yeah, the Skrulls really are refugees. That’s when that theme arose. For us as filmmakers, it always feels good for there to be a sort of real-world parallel to the themes we’re working with so that when you leave the theaters, you don’t just get the impression that you’re watching escapist fantasy.
And so, by the end of Captain Marvel, Carol has learned the error of her ways and reinvented herself as a cosmic liberator committed to setting right the wrongs of the people she once called her own. That makes for a lovely, heartwarming story...in a vacuum, but there’s more to Carol and the way the film has been marketed to the public than the way she rallies against blue aliens in space.
Alien jingoism aside, Carol Danvers the human is very much a walking, talking poster woman for modern military recruitment in a way that Captain America and the other Avengers who’ve served aren’t, really. The Air Force is currently running ads that roll before Captain Marvel screenings and the film itself connects all of the most important moments in Carol’s life—from her meeting Mar-Vell to her becoming imbued with cosmic power—to her time in the service. There’s a brief moment in flashback in which Carol deals with a bit of blatant sexist harassment from one of her fellow recruits in the movie, but it’s nowhere near as frank and raw a reflection of the rampant sexual assault plaguing the Air Force Academy.
Though people are sometimes quick to forget it, blockbuster pieces of pop culture like Captain Marvel and (for instance) Top Gun before it do have material impacts on the audiences who consume them. In 1986, the Navy reported seeing an uptick in recruitment rates following Top Gun’s release, which is unsurprising given how much of a heroic light the film casts the organization in.
Captain Marvel is entertainment, yes, but entertainment influences the way we perceive and interact with the world—and if we’re honest, the movie puts itself into a complicated, messy position. It’s got positive, if milquetoast, ideas about war as a general concept: war bad; protecting innocent refugees good. But its messages about, and role in promoting, a significant apparatus of actual war, on the other hand, are much more staid, and corporate-friendly.
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