‘Captain Marvel’ and the Power of Women’s Emotions
Captain Marvel serves as reminder that emotional, compassionate, angry, resilient, brave, loud girls and women are dangerous to oppressive structures.
This article contains spoilers for the Marvel film, “Captain Marvel”
One of the most enduring and damaging messages I learned as a child was that I needed to control my emotions and that if they expanded beyond a size others were comfortable with, I would become undesirable, unemployable, unreasonable. Loud girls become loud women if they aren’t controlled early on. Loud women are dangerous, we are disruptive, we refuse to absorb pain in silence—a silence which only upholds oppressive structures and its beneficiaries. Marvel’s latest film, “Captain Marvel” starring Brie Larson, reminded me of the message so many of us are raised hearing and affirmed the power of breaking free of the silence we are bound by.
Co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, “Captain Marvel” managed to pull-off an often difficult task: creating a story with feminist elements that felt sincere rather than just opportunistic. Caught in an intergalactic war between the Kree and the Skrulls in 1995, Vers (Larson) lives on Hala, the Kree empire’s capital. Trained by her commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) as a Kree Starforce member, Vers struggles to keep her emotions at bay in order to become “the best version of herself” and has recurring nightmares of a life she doesn’t remember as being her own. During a mission meant to extract a Kree undercover operative infiltrating a faction of Skrulls, Vers is captured and subjected to a memory probe which she manages to escape from in a pod and leads her to crash-land on Earth, in Los Angeles. Vers’ presence brings S.H.I.E.L.D agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) to the scene, launching an investigation into why the Skrulls wanted access to Vers’ memories. This leads her and Fury to search for the mysterious tech the Skrulls were searching for. Vers begins to unravel the tangled web of her past life, discovering her identity as Carol Danvers, a U.S. Air Force pilot who was presumed dead following a plane crash with her mentor Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening). The investigation leads her to Danvers’ best friend, former Air Force Pilot, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) in Louisiana. It is there that they are interrupted by Skrull commander, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) who reveals that the Kree have led a rule of oppression against the Skrulls and other life-forms. They discover that Dr. Lawson was a Kree named Mar-Vell who had turned against the Kree empire and was working to help the Skrulls gain access to technology (later revealed as the Tesseract which gave Danvers her powers) to establish a new home far from Kree reach. Yon-Rogg was sent to kill Mar-Vell for her work and the crash was used as a cover-up and Danvers was taken to Kree, memory gone. Danvers, Rambeau and Fury join the Skrulls’ resistance and are ambushed by Yon-Rogg and his fighters on Mar-Vell’s lab outside of Earth’s orbit. After being captured by the Kree, Danvers taps into the full capacity of her powers, leaning into the depth of her human emotions and empathy, successfully defeating the Kree team and freeing herself of Yon-Rogg and his control.
Much of what “Captain Marvel” was able to show us so effortlessly was how men control women through condescension, harassment, dismissal, infantilization and gaslighting. Yon-Rogg’s role embodies one that many of us are familiar with. His demands that Danvers quell her emotions is one that almost every woman has heard. He is the authority which deems Danvers humanity as a flaw that has to be stomped out because her emotion, her compassion, and instincts would ultimately be a danger to the oppression led by the Kree—he is well aware of how dangerous Danvers would be if she were able to fight back at full capacity, so his control is the only way for him to remain in a position of strength. Yon-Rogg has Danvers convinced that her powers would be amplified if she kept her emotions at a distance, reminding her that “what was given can be taken away” if she refuses to submit. His multi-part suppression of Danvers includes a hefty dose of gaslighting—demanding that she not follow her instincts, lying to her about her memories and pushing her to question who she is and whether her emotions are valid at all. It isn’t until she finally reaches Maria Rambeau that she begins to understand the depth of his deception.
Danvers’ relationship to Rambeau and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) is vital to the storyline, it is thanks to their friendship that she is able connect to more than just her memories, but also her humanity and compassion. Carol and Maria’s bond as two women who are each other’s family and support system is what allows Danvers to recognize the power of using her emotions and empathy as a lens through which to understand the plight of the Skrulls. Rambeau’s presence and her words to Danvers subverts Yon-Rogg’s drilled-in message that in order to be her best self, Danvers must rid herself of her emotional reactions. Maria is able to help Carol realize how her emotions and her humanity are actually her greatest strength and the foundation of her resilience—no matter how hard she gets knocked down, she always gets back up. The suppression of humanity and empathy can only fuel a kind of neutral complacency and continue a one-sided belief that paints the oppressed as the enemy to the Kree empire’s law and order.
This is not an unfamiliar theme, in fact it is one that all oppressed people have intimate knowledge of. The dehumanization of oppressed people through a series of laws, policies, beliefs, socially ingrained structures and biases perpetuate systems like white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and exert themselves through colonialism, anti-Blackness, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, misogyny, queer and transphobia, ableism, poverty, environmental disasters, and more. It fuels wars, it wants to build a wall, it evicts and displaces people from their homes and lands, it bombs schools and hospitals, it controls wealth and crushes revolutions.
“Captain Marvel” managed to weave what we intimately know about the oppression that exists in our world and showed us that what our oppressors fear the most is us using our rage and our empathy to avenge those who are being harmed. It encourages us all, particularly women and girls, to not be ashamed of our range of emotions, but rather to recognize them as a source of strength against those who tell us that they make us undesirable, unemployable, unreasonable. It is no wonder that the same gatekeepers who rallied to intentionally underrate the likes of “Black Panther” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” also gave “Captain Marvel” bad reviews weeks before it was even released because misogynists are enraged at the idea of a woman being centered in a superhero film, especially one who is positioned as the single most powerful being in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rotten Tomatoes was forced to change its permissions in order to prevent these kinds of petulant tantrums in the future. For weeks, male YouTubers have posted videos about how they know without a doubt the film would be terrible and screaming about how Brie Larson hates white men. The fact that the film itself turned out to be a statement on how mansplainers should just be quiet because their opinions ultimately don’t matter, and the fact that it opened Thursday night with $20-$24 million at the box office, just feels so satisfying.
I would like to think that “Captain Marvel” serves as reminder that emotional, compassionate, angry, resilient, brave, loud girls and women are dangerous to white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. I’m glad that there are fictional and nonfictional superheroes who show us that our emotions are our strength every single day.
With contributions from Sherronda J. Brown
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