Road To Endgame: 'Captain Marvel' Is A Return To One Of Marvel's Messiest Problems

(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, "How did we get here?" In Part 2 of Captain Marvel: forgotten stakes, and the narrative fallout of blatant propaganda.)

[Read part one of our Captain Marvel piece here.]

Marvel movies tend to be littered with in-jokes. Cameos, sequel setups and obscure comic trivia reward the loyalty of certain audiences, and while Captain Marvel speaks this not-so-secret dialect (in addition to an avalanche of '90s references), it's also fluent in winking allusions to the U.S. military. For instance, the Kree designation for Earth is C-53, after the World War II fighter plane. The film even combines the worlds of comic book and military Easter eggs; the Avengers are retroactively named after an Air Force callsign, as if to conflate the function of these fictional and real-world entities.

In recent Marvel films like Black Panther, whose ruthless villain was dubbed "Killmonger" by his black ops peers, U.S. militarism was finally framed in a questionable light, albeit with caveats. After military-funded entries like Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it seemed, for a moment, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had left its propaganda behind. However, the studio took a considerable step back with the production of Captain Marvel.

What little goodwill Marvel earned on this front seems to have been squandered. Like so much of the MCU, Captain Marvel is nominally critical of war, yet implicitly supports it in a western context. The film is practically a recruitment dog-whistle and its story suffers in the process.  

The Propaganda Problem

In July 2017, recently-hired Captain Marvel directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (and several Marvel producers) were among dozens of Hollywood creatives at the Air Force's Industry Leader Tour. The mission of the tour, according to official Air Force records (obtained via Spy Culture) was to "project and protect the image of the United States Air Force within the global entertainment environment."

When speaking to U.S. veteran news website Task & Purpose, Todd Fleming, Chief of Partnership and Engagement at Air Force Public Affairs, said that while he didn't consider Captain Marvel an explicit recruitment tool, he expected a positive reception to "audiences seeing a strong Air Force heroine, whose story is in line with the story of many of our Airmen." Fleming also confirmed that the U.S. Air Force reviewed the film's script to make sure it was "in the service's interest to partner on the project," not unlike Marvel's other Pentagon-funded entries, whose screenplays had to be military-approved.

Of course, this is hardly a bombshell revelation. The film features near-fetishistic shots of F-16s at sunset; its marketing borders on recruitment ads, (the Air Force even has its own "Higher. Further. Faster." tie-in campaign), and the premiere was practically a celebration of the U.S. military. Whatever one's feeling about such blatant propaganda — though one would at least hope for skepticism, given the thousands of civilians killed by U.S. forces since 2014 alone — this creative partnership calls into question the very stories being told. The Marvel heroes claim to speak truth to military power, yet they so often embody it.

Iron Man, for instance, frames war as the result of private industry and foreign terror, without so much as a passing mention of American forces. Tony Stark ceases weapons manufacture, but only upon learning that his missiles have been used to kill American soldiers, rather than being used to kill at all (he subsequently launches his own unsanctioned foreign interventions).

The series' handshake with the Pentagon exacerbates its key narrative problem: for the most part, the Avengers constantly defend the status quo, rather than seeking to improve it. And while Captain Marvel is an exception in an alien context, its real-world implications are entirely wrong-headed, perhaps more so than any other Marvel film.

Captain Carol “Avenger” Danvers

Carol Danvers' (Brie Larson) rebellion against the Kree military helps facilitate the plot. However, it never feels like a significant change for who she is at her core; she's defiant from the get-go, even in a story about evolving perspectives. This paradox doesn't merely contribute to her stagnation, it also has bizarre implications for the kind of authority she rebels against — and more importantly, the kind she doesn't.

Her desire to help reformed Kree spy Mar-Vell (Annette Bening) stems from women still being barred from Air Force combat in 1989. Testing Mar-Vell's lightspeed engine is, according to Danvers' fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), a way to "make a difference," as if the aforementioned combat missions would be the greater difference-making alternative, were women allowed to serve.

This '89 setting is just months removed from U.S. military operations that shot down an Iranian passenger plane, among so many other civilian casualties (in Panama and elsewhere), not to mention civilian deaths both well before and after. But regardless of specific real-world ops, Danvers' questioning of authority is limited only to her alien overlords. It never extends to the military structures she belonged to on Earth, even once her memories seem to return.

The Skrulls may be a metaphor for refugees displaced by war and imperialism, but to make Danvers' change feel truly consequential, the film would need draw attention to the Kree's real-world equivalent: Danvers' allegiance to the U.S. Air Force. However, she neither doubts nor reconsiders her Earth-bound loyalties. Once again, Marvel's use of sci-fi metaphor is rendered limp; the real-world problems alluded to exist on-screen, yet remain unconfronted.

A Cosmetic Change

Danvers decides she can no longer wear the Kree colours, owing to the lies she's been told, and the innocent lives she was complicit in destroying. She searches for an alternative, and eventually lands on the comics' signature red and blue.

This palette was originally an homage to her comic book mentor, but Mar-Vell has no costume in the film. Danvers, therefore, decides on these new colours by taking inspiration from an Air Force t-shirt worn by Monica Rambeau (Akira Akbar), an aspiring pilot herself. "We're on the same team," Danvers tells her.

In the process of shedding her allegiance to the brutal and corrupt Kree, Danvers positions the U.S. Air Force as an honest, virtuous alternative to military imperialism. This is perhaps the film's most appalling implication, and the most overt instance of the series' propaganda till date; Danvers practically adorns herself in an American flag, without once questioning the symbolism the way Captain America often does in the comics (Even Mar-Vell, upon learning that she's been fighting a "shameful war" against the Skrulls, atones by working for the U.S. military).

The result is a film that not only falls short of its intended arc — Danvers confronting the dishonest and violent military structures she supports — but one that actively subverts it, by making its characters fawn instead at the foot of real-world military power.

Incomplete Stories

Danvers and Rambeau don't bat an eye at their real-world military leanings. In addition, Danvers' actual confrontation — of the Kree's military empire — lacks any challenging follow-through. The film ends on the suggestion that she'll take actual steps toward change in the sequel; she sends Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) back to Hala to warn the Kree that there may be consequences at a later date.

What, then, does Danvers substantially confront, beyond the physical battles she fights in the moment?

All these lingering gaps in Danvers' story stem from who she is, a question largely unanswered. How she even feels about her brainwashed Kree allegiance is a problem wrapped up within seconds of its introduction. She listens to the black box tape of her crash, and learns the truth of whom she's aligned with. But after a minute of screen time, Rambeau simply hugs a disconcerted Danvers, as if to flip a switch, leaving no semblance of doubt for her to overcome; does Danvers even remember being kidnapped by the Kree? Or does she rely on an audio recording?

The film's mal-formed expression of memory — How much of it returns? How does it inform her character? — dilutes Danvers' key relationships. While Rambeau helps ground the specifics of her story, there's no real sense of their dynamic evolving (or having to grow back into what it once was) after Danvers' arrival at Rambeau's home. This is despite their scenes being geared entirely toward Danvers re-discovering her past. Rambeau's daughter Monica even walks Danvers through her own childhood photographs, but this formative information seems to spark no change within her.

More pertinently, the film's most overt visualization of Danvers' internal conflict remains unaddressed: the dueling versions of Mar-Vell.

The Two Mar-Vells

Danvers' relationship to Mar-Vell, a.k.a. Dr. Lawson, is practically non-existent, even though Mar-Vell is the person Danvers "most admires"— and thus, the person she sees when visiting the Supreme Intelligence (the Kree's A.I. leader).

In the comics, Mar-Vell was Walter Lawson. The gender-swap here to Wendy Lawson is a welcome change, however Mar-Vell's original dynamic with Danvers was sexual and romantic, and overt queerness in Marvel movies is still an apparent no-go (see also: the buried subtext of Danvers' relationship with Maria Rambeau). Instead, the movie's Mar-Vell fulfills a vaguely mentor-like role — not unlike Danver's ill-defined dynamic with Yon-Rogg — with no emotional substitute for their comic book romance.  

Danvers has almost no on-screen interaction with Mar-Vell, outside of a dramatized black box recording of their crash, and the Skrulls' memory playback machine. The latter device, while a nifty bit of sci-fi tech, makes it impossible for Danvers to have an emotional response to Mar-Vell in this moment. Danvers' reaction shots here are all meant to convey confusion about her memories repeating and rewinding. She experiences this specific memory of Marv-Vell at a remove — from the perspective of her present, amnesiac self — rather than the film expressing what she thought or felt about Mar-Vell in the past.

Similarly, it's unclear whether the black box recording triggers actual memories of Mar-Vell, or if Danvers simply reacts to an audio recording of Yon-Rogg's lies. All we get between Mar-Vell and Danvers is an expository exchange about an Infinity Stone, conveying little about their kinship.  

Yon-Rogg and the Supreme Intelligence mention Danvers' unchecked emotions on multiple occasions; these assertions are in response to her Mar-Vell flashbacks. The two opposing Mar-Vells — the real woman, who supposedly stirs uncontrollable admiration in Danvers, and the soulless, emotionless Kree A.I. who bastardizes Mar-Vell's form — represent the two halves of Danvers' warring psyche, like the two shards of her dog-tags marked Carol and "Vers."

She's torn between allegiances: to a past she hopes to rediscover, and to a present that constantly tries to detach her from her history. But these two parts of Danvers never seem to come into conflict, and so the Supreme Intelligence taking Mar-Vell's form (while telling Danvers to control her emotions, no less) has little bearing on Danvers' story, despite this duality being fertile dramatic ground.

Unleashing Payoff With No Setup

The idea that Danvers' powers are shackled is introduced mere moments before she fully unleashes them. The device on her neck shows up early in the film, but there's never a sense that she's prevented from achieving her full potential until the plot necessitates it. And while the film is able to tie Danvers' childhood to this apparent muzzling — male authority figures on Earth keep telling her she isn't capable — these moments only come back to haunt her in the final Act, and the expression of this dynamic is tangled in a confused narrative crisscross.

Yon-Rogg, who continually brings up Danvers' supposed emotional conflict, doesn't impede her emotionally. This half-hearted idea of psychological stifling overlaps with another random complication: nearly two hours in, the Supreme Intelligence brings up a sudden disdain for humanity. Danvers subverts this just as suddenly, with her acceptance that she's "only human," but she's answering a question Captain Marvel hadn't asked until this point. In contrast, Peter Quill/Star-Lord comes to this same conclusion in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ("You'll be just like everybody else!" / "What's so wrong with that?"), though he does so after wrestling with Godhood and human imperfection for the entire film.

As Danvers' flashbacks crescendo, collapsing all the times she fell down and got back up into a singular moment, there's no sense of what she's actually confronting here, while she claims her given name on behalf of the human species. What acceptance does this moment express? That she's fallible? That she feels? That she get knocked down, but she get up again, you're never gonna keep her down? Tubthumping was a '90s song, why not throw it in there too? It would make about as much narrative sense as Danvers' other last-minute assertions set to Nirvana's Come As You Are, none of which ever seemed in doubt during the preceding runtime.  

It's too much thrown together at once, and yet none of it fully supports Danvers' apparent culmination. She signals her release of energy by claiming her human identity, even though little about her has changed. Even Danvers learning her own name in the film — Rambeau's daughter Monica calls her "Auntie Carol" — is swiftly brushed aside, when it ought to be a significant moment. In the process, Danvers' declaration of "My name is Carol!" feels less like the conclusion of a character arc, and more like a parody of one.

Dissolving Tension

Once Danvers lets loose, the film becomes lethargic and sidesteps all its conflict. She effortlessly fights the Kree (to an upbeat needle drop that feels both musically and thematically out of step), and as soon as problems present themselves from here on out, they're done away with almost instantly.

In The Avengers, the rousing shot of the team assembling for the first time was soon followed by them being beaten. They had to claw their way back and earn their eventual victory; in Captain Marvel, drama and action are presented at odds, rather than complimentary forces battling over peaks and valleys.

When Rambeau and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) are confronted by Kree guards en route to an escape ship, their pet alien "Goose" swiftly devours these guards and empties their path. When the alien feline suddenly refuses to attack a Kree soldier (who threatens to blast our heroes out into space!), the soldier promptly reveals himself to be their ally Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) in disguise, without letting the tension simmer.

Yon-Rogg's plane is in pursuit of Danvers for mere moments before she punches it out of the sky. The Kree "Accusers" led by Ronan (Lee Pace) subsequently fire missiles at her, but she takes them out with ease. They then deploy dozens of ships to attack her, but she destroys them without breaking a sweat, cheering herself on as the film loses all sense of dramatic investment.

The entire third act features a revolving door of challenges, which the characters resolve immediately. The result is a scattershot climax, where no obstacle lasts long enough to matter. Ships are destroyed as soon as they're deployed; villains are knocked down as soon as they attack; Talos is shot, but mere seconds later he reveals he's actually fine.

Almost every beat in the film's finale feels incomplete.

Saying Goodbye

Like its climactic action, the film's resolution also falls victim to dramatic incoherency. Danvers' departure from Earth is rooted in pure intentions, though her decision comes far too easily. She decides to ferry the Skrulls to safety, but there seem to be no consequences for doing so; there's no sense of sacrifice, despite Danvers only just having regained her memories and the pieces of her life.

Even Danvers' brief goodbye to Rambeau comes two whole scenes after she decides to leave. She never once wrestles with a choice so monumental, one that forces her to forego one past, her life on Earth, in order to atone for another, her life on Hala. As if discovering who she was meant nothing at all.

Coming out of Avengers: Infinity War, the heroes have lost their ability to meaningfully sacrifice, which had defined them throughout the series. Captain Marvel however, in circumventing this element of Marvel's heroism, fails to clarify what aspect of Carol Danvers makes her an Avenger — apart from the fact that she punches people.

Despite having supposedly changed her views on militarism, Danvers flies off into space wearing her U.S. Air Force jacket, toward an incomplete story she might someday conclude. As usual, change in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is merely an idea, off in the distance, rather than something real or resonant. One hopes this trend won't carry over into its culminating entry.

We're in the endgame now.