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(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.  

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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.

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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.

Lashana Lynch captain marvel

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.

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