Captain Marvel and the Toxic Fanboys: Rejection of the Heroine’s Journey in Pop Culture

Baseball and soccer are not for everyone. Baseball went from America’s pastime to people complaining on the regular about how slow and long the game. Soccer finally seems to be gaining steam in the United States, but many Americans still view the game as boring. Incidentally, many Americans love basketball and NASCAR, which I find boring, but I think they all speak to the same thing:

Knowing the Game

I love baseball and soccer because I understand the game on a mental level. So while you see eight dudes watching one guy take forever to throw a ball and a guy who plays with himself and adjusts his batting gloves after each pitch, I see an orchestra of activity. The left and centre fielders shift to the right a bit; the right fielder takes a step back. The middle infielders tighten up on second base. Maybe they weren’t holding the runner on first, but with a 3-2 count and two outs now the first baseman is staying close so the runner doesn’t get too big a jump. He is, after all, going to take off running as soon as possible.

The hitter meanwhile is thinking about the pitcher’s repertoire and tendencies. Is it a situation where he might not care about another baserunner and willing to risk a walk by going slightly off the plate with a pitch, or does he need the out and have to come into the strike zone? Fastball or breaking ball? All the pitches so far have been outside; is he going to try and jam the hitter with this pitch or stay out there?

Growing up in southern New Jersey as a Phillies fan, I used to marvel at how professional hitters with a clubhouse full of professional coaches and professional scouts seemed so unaware of what was about the happen. One ball and two strikes – Brad Lidge is about to throw a slider so down and away it might hit the dirt before the catcher gets to it. The slider would come and the guy would swing anyway.

I think about Bill Wambsganss unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series. To the layperson watching the game, Bill got lucky. To the seasoned fan, Bill displayed textbook fundamental baseball. He made a series of minor adjustments for the situation that put him in the exact right situation to pull off the unassisted triple play. It wasn’t luck; it was planning.

Basketball and NASCAR bore me because I do not know the games. Basketball to me should be a three-minute game because with the high levels of scoring it’s either a blowout where the last three minutes don’t matter or a tight game where only the last three minutes seem to matter. That’s because I don’t know the mental game like I do with baseball and soccer.

NASCAR is men making left turns at high speeds and trying not to crash for five hours. It’s way harder and more strategic than that, but I don’t know the details so I do not care. It’s just dudes driving in a circle.

Marvel

What does this have to do with Marvel? Actually this is about a broader issue I bring up often about literature and film, but I want to focus it within the context of a Marvel example – it’s still about knowing the game. If one watches every movie or reads every book with the same general sense of plot, then one is going to find a world of disappointment.

I like the Captain Marvel example because it not only speaks to the tendency of the average filmgoer/reader to make this mistake, but also to the prejudiced nature of society.

People lament Captain Marvel as a bad film. “The pacing is bad,” “the humour is lacking,” and so on and so forth. This is true in the same sense that baseball and basketball have different pacing. While basketball fans may detest baseball’s pace in light of basketball’s back and forth action, it does not make baseball objectively wrong. It’s a different game with a different context and different approach. Both are sports, but we do not evaluate them the same way.

For example, some people hate Captain Marvel’s final confrontation with Yon-Rogg:

Captain Marvel with “nothing to prove”

Fanboys were irate that Danvers goes ahead and blasts Yon-Rogg here. After all, what is the hero thing to do? You prove that you are better by putting yourself on equal footing, right?

Captain America puts down the shield and helmet to make the fight “fair”

That’s what we want to see! High-octane action, right fellas? See how Rogers was like, “Yeah, I can kick your ass even without my shield,” Danvers? That’s what makes him awesome and you lame.

Except, and I cannot seem to stress this enough, movies and books are not documentaries. We are not relating events that actually happened as they actually happened. We are telling a story. While the story is meant to entertain, good stories are also conveying themes and the action within serves that purpose.

What people are confusing in the two scenes is the role of characterisation. Rogers is putting down the shield to show us that he is “more than just the shield.” We see similar things in the Iron Man movies where Tony Stark wins battles without his armour, just as he loses some battles with it. The entire point of the first Thor movie is that being Thor is about more than wielding Mjolnir.

The entire point of Captain Marvel is Danvers internal conflict. It’s a heroine’s journey. The point is to take a female character, pass her through the realm of the (traditionally) masculine, return her to the feminine, reconcile with the masculine, and the unite the two.

Maybe that gets a little lost in the chronology of the film, but we have a young Danvers being a traditional girl and trying to overcome the societal limitations of femininity (hence the whole montage of her falling and getting knocked down). When we meet Brie Larson’s adult Danvers, it’s already embarking on a Kree mission where she is the traditional masculine superhero. She blasts her way out of a Skrull warship and escapes to Earth in traditional action movie fashion.

By the end of the movie, when Danvers has her final encounter with gaslighting Yon-Rogg, the point of the scene is, “I don’t need to prove myself to you.” That’s the scene. “You know what, I will fight and beat you without my powers,” doesn’t make any narrative sense there. The point of the scene is also very much, “Danvers might beat Yon-Rogg without her powers.” By blasting him she is not affirming, “I’m nothing without them.” That is not a logical conclusion to draw from the scene. The point again is, “I do not need to prove to you that I can win this fight.”

It’s the characterisation necessary to the story. You know, like when this happened:

According to behind-the-scenes stories, Ford was supposed to fight that stuntman (who is, by the way, also the stunt actor who plays the Nazi mechanic and that huge guy who get crushed to death in Temple of Doom – he fight Indy a lot) but Ford was feeling ill. It was his idea that Indy, who was carrying a gun after all, would simply shoot this behemoth rather than engage in fisticuffs. They even poke fun in Temple of Doom by having Indy reach for his empty holster in a similar situation.

We love this scene. No one berates Indy for shooting this enemy rather than throwing hands even though the latter makes for a better action scene. First, it’s funny. Second, it’s Indy. While it was funny to include, it more importantly serves as a tremendous character device. We learn that Indy is smart and resourceful, just as we learn a great deal before we even see him during the opening sequence.

Danvers’ situation is both similar and different. First, we again have a humour element because she blasts Yon-Rogg to punctuate his emotional plea for her not to use her powers in a fight against him; just like Indy shoots to punctuate sword-bro’s flourish. Second, the decision is important to the narrative. The difference is that Indy does it because he’s resourceful and efficient. Danvers does it because she doesn’t have to prove herself to the opponent.

There’s a similar moment earlier in the film. While attempting to evade capture at a facility, Nick Fury uses a practical but time-consuming method to lift a valid fingerprint using Scotch tape and trigger the door lock. As they attempt to bypass a second door, Danvers blasts the door open with her fist.

Fury: You sat there and watched me play with tape when all you had to do was [mimics her blast]

Danvers: I didn’t want to steal your thunder.

Again a dose of humour, but it also serves an important thematic role. Danvers, in the presence of a man, restrains her powers to let him act. I think this is a deliberate statement about gender expectations by the filmmakers because of how it fits with the overall theme (she later says explicitly that she’s been fighting with one hand tied behind her back the whole time).

The same can be said of the stakes in the movie. People complained that Captain Marvel did not have the stakes of other Marvel films. Age of Ultron put the Avengers up against an extinction-level event. Doctor Strange saved Earth from Dormammu. The Guardians saved the entire galaxy…twice. Carol punched Jude Law in the face and helped some refugees.

This makes sense. The point of the film is Carol’s internal conflict and journey of self actualisation. The threat of the movie was to her identity and sense of self, and within that context the stakes were high. Thinking Captain Marvel had no stakes is like saying The Seventh Seal is a film with no stakes, constantly interrupted by a pointless chess game.

It’s also like saying that baseball is boring. Maybe you found it boring, but that’s only because you don’t understand the “game” well enough. Most people complaining about Captain Marvel do so from a framework of the hero’s journey, which is to be expected. Society pushed that one perspective in filmmaking for so long, it’s understandable that audiences did not immediately take to a different framework.

Similar complaints appeared with DC’s Wonder Woman films, which likewise depict a heroine’s journey. That’s the point of these films. What society did not need is another hero’s journey with Carol or Diana palette-swapped into the male character’s role. We have Iron Man (3), Captain America (3), Thor (3), Spider-Man (8), Blade (3), Ant-Man (2), Hulk (2), Ghost Rider (2), Superman (6), and Batman (8) to name just a few of the recent examples.

You will also notice that these are mostly white men. Black Panther had a strong racial component to its plot, as does Shang-Chi. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which follows Captain America’s two besties in a new adventure, took on a strong racial component because of Wilson. It’s their stories and that is an important part of their characters’ identities.

Audiences need to avoid evaluating films as a monolith and learn to evaluate the individual works critically based on what they are setting out to achieve. All of them want to entertain, but they are telling different stories with different themes and going about them in unique ways. Failing to recognise that means failing to appreciate a lot of works for what they are.

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