One of the scenes best remembered in Wonder Woman is ‘No Man’s Land.’ A now-iconic moment of Diana storming across a WWI battlefield, an unbreachable pass, to save a small village of civilians. This moment defines everything most important to Diana and why we love her so. After a lifetime of so many people telling her ‘no’ (up to and including Steve) she defiantly resists. Upon leaving Themyscira, we learn her motives as she interacts with the world. Admiring a baby, complimenting the man who sells ice cream, wishing to stop and help every refugee and soldier wounded by the war. And in No Man’s Land it all comes to fruition. It is a moment of triumph, a moment of becoming, for our beloved Wonder Woman.
Captain Marvel is a decent film. It is a solid comic book movie that offers much to the vast cinematic universe it is entering. But it is not a great film. And its lack of comparable ‘No Man’s Land’ sequence is the perfect demonstration of why.
When Black Panther came out last year, it blew the doors off genre blockbusters. It provided a monumental new cultural touchstone that resonated to a degree few of the previous Marvel films had accomplished. And it offered a much-needed radical shift in the kind of diversity that not just comic book, but mainstream films at large, can and should be offering.
When you watch Black Panther and Wonder Woman, it feels like a passion project for each respective director in Ryan Coogler and Patty Jenkins. Of someone with intense creative vision, aware that they’re afforded this vital opportunity to offer representation beyond the traditional white male that has been default in the industry for so long. And the result was two gamechanging films. Black Panther is a film that only ever could’ve been about T’Challa and Wakanda; Wonder Woman is a story that only ever could’ve been about Diana Prince.
Unfortunately, Captain Marvel has no such similar benefits. And it’s both puzzling and disappointing to see the first female-led Marvel film fail on this front.
The closest argument to be made is that Carol was only in that cockpit with Mar-Vell to begin with because women pilots were afforded so few opportunities. But it would be easy to concoct a scenario in which literally any other pilot in the program (female or male) wound up the in that cockpit. The hero changes, but the story would play out almost exactly the same.
Unlike so many of the best in the genre, Captain Marvel is a surprisingly impersonal story to Carol Danvers.
Ryan Coogler, by compare, put intense and intimate amounts of detail into the design of Wakanda, down to the jewelry and the clothes. Patty Jenkins opens Wonder Woman in a sequence that sees Amazons practicing their combat skills – owning the normally ripped and revealing dress of women warriors to claim it away from the male ideal to the female ideal. Radical details that add enormous amounts of texture to groundbreaking diversity.
But Captain Marvel suffers from ‘Just Another Marvel Movie’ syndrome. A fact made all the more disappointing when comparing further with the MCU’s two other most female-driven products in Agent Carter and Jessica Jones. Each of which told a deeply personal story of its protagonist that explored powerful avenues of the female experience.
The other problem hanging around Captain Marvel’s neck is that of Carol Danvers herself. A largely fine character with a largely fine (if somewhat underplayed) performance by Brie Larson. And to be clear, this isn’t to say that Brie Larson is wrong for the role. Instead it’s to argue that the character herself was underwritten; and the direction had her minimize the performance, leaving her too much of a blank slate as a character.
When you finish watching the first Iron Man, the first Captain America, the first Thor, you have a strong sense of who that title character is. No matter the differing qualities in those films, they still adequately serve the lead. You know what their convictions are, what their ambitions are, what their regrets and failings are, and everything that drives them. These are pivotal details in defining Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Thor, particularly as the heavyweights of the Marvel universe. There’s no question as to what defines them, and what it is they want.
The same cannot be said about Carol Danvers by the end of Captain Marvel. Throughout the course of the film, her own motivations are muddled, and often driven by needs of the plot, rather than of a substantially drawn character. We don’t know enough of what drives her as a person, memories or no. And given that she’s set to become one of the new heavyweights in the MCU, this is a problem.
It’s disappointing to see this from the character’s first outing, but the good news is that there’s little doubt she’ll have more films of her own, especially with the film’s $1 billion in box office returns. And with Endgame now just a few short weeks away, there’s almost immediate chance for retribution – hopefully more development, more filling out all the corners for her character, of what defines Carol Danvers as a human being.
It’s exciting to have a major female character leading the charge into post-Endgame Avengers. Helping to front a new generation of Marvel films that lean even further into much-needed diversity. So here’s hoping that the next director in rotation has more vision on par with that of Ryan Coogler and Patty Jenkins.