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There’s a moment in Captain Marvel where the girl-power pandering is so over the top it makes the rest of the movie pointless.
Carol Danvers, aka “Vers,” finally discovers the full range of her superpowers and, to the never-so-subtle strains of Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl,” proceeds to pummel a battalion of alien bad guys single-handedly. Her abilities prove so dominant that she can seemingly do anything, be it fly to farthest reaches of space without protective gear or destroy intergalactic warheads with a single blow. Thus does the cause of female empowerment lay waste to old-fashioned storytelling notions like tension and surprise, otherwise known as ... reasons for the audience to stay interested in what’s happening on the screen.
You almost wonder why Nick Fury bothered assembling all those other Avengers over the years. Why not just keep paging the one-woman wrecking crew?
Clumsily draped around this one-note moralizing is a backstory that’s equally sanctimonious and dull. Played by a wooden Brie Larson, our heroine starts out as a strong, valiant Kree warrior who keeps having flashbacks to another life on another planet. When the Kree’s ancient enemies, the Skrulls, take Vers captive and start digging around in her memories, Vers begins to realize she once had a different identity. It turns out, before becoming a tough-as-nails fighter pilot in outer space, she was a tough-as-nails fighter pilot on Earth. Thankfully, the experience teaches her the importance of being a woman who’s tough as nails.
Beyond Carol Danvers’ lack of even elementary-level depth or growth, Captain Marvel (rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language) fails on basic plotting as well. Anyone who saw Guardians of the Galaxy is going to see the major twist coming in the first few scenes. There is a bit of fun to be had once we enter Earth’s atmosphere, but this is in spite of the movie’s titular character, not because of her. We get a thrill seeing the early days of S.H.I.E.L.D., we get some laughs from seeing how Nick Fury lost that eye, and a Blockbuster Video cameo coupled with a few 1990s songs provides some pleasant nostalgia. Beyond that, the story is almost solely a hectoring reminder to hear women roar. Which would be a lot easier to do if not for the fact that every character in the film is able to upstage Carol on the personality meter, including the cat.
To be blunt, it’s insulting that Marvel felt simply making its first leading woman “one tough chick” would be enough to placate female fans. All the male Avengers' origin stories feature character flaws, physical weaknesses, and romantic interests who complicate their missions. Captain Marvel has none of these things. It’s impossible not to compare her to DC’s leading lady, Wonder Woman, who proved so winsome, warm, and witty she alone breathed life into the flailing Justice League franchise.
Diana Prince’s Amazonian strength and agility, combined with her traditionally idealized feminine traits like innocence and beauty, create a nicely complex mix. Her chaste romance with self-sacrificing soldier Steve Trevor only compliments her loveliness. Over the course of the story, Steve helps her learn some hard lessons about her own naiveté that ultimately make both of their heroics more meaningful.
Captain Marvel, in contrast, has nothing to learn beyond discovering that even those supposed flaws some man-mentor kept yammering at her to restrain are really strengths. Every challenge she faces is because someone with an XY chromosome is trying to box her in. She overcomes them by throwing off her male-forged shackles.
So Wonder Woman willingly leaves the Eden-like perfection of Themyscira to grapple with humanity’s capacity for evil and weigh whether their fallenness still makes them worthy of her sacrifices. Captain Marvel returns to Earth on a journey of self-actualization to struggle with the idea that she’s even more awesome than she thinks she is. Which one sounds like a real role model for girls?