Brie Larson's Captain Marvel

'Captain Marvel' and the Need for a Fandom Cease-Fire

The question of which viewers get to "own" film franchises is no longer a relevant one

Courtesy: Marvel Studios

Long before its release this month, we all knew that Captain Marvel was going to be kind of a big deal. Not only is it the film that presages the blockbuster conclusion to the Avengers saga, but the onscreen adventures of Carol Danvers are a long-overdue first: a stand-alone feature film for a Marvel heroine, and one that just happened to be releasing right in the middle of a maddening political moment that's left many women angry, agitated and hungrier than ever for narratives about hardcore female empowerment.

But when a controversial remark by the film's star ignited outrage on behalf of a small but passionately indignant contingent of male fans, Captain Marvel suddenly became more than a movie: It was a battlefield, one where any feminist worth her salt could and should be counted on to show up, kick ass and (most importantly) buy tickets. The controversy trod a familiar path, one previously traveled by Paul Feig's all-female Ghostbusters reboot and The Last Jedi, or Wonder Woman and its much-debated screenings for women only. Suddenly, going to see Captain Marvel on opening weekend was no longer a matter of taste, but an expression of tribal solidarity. Women everywhere claimed Carol Danvers on behalf of ourselves, or the little girls we used to be, voting with our wallets for women's representation in the governing body of superheroes. Captain Marvel was ours; in the whole wide world of MCU films centered on a single character, she was all we had. It was us versus them. Good versus evil. Girls versus boys.
And as the trolls declared war, women circled the wagons. Because, honestly, what were these guys even doing? When men have been the heroes of virtually every big franchise film in existence since the dawn of time, why couldn't they just accept that these movies, with their female stars and girl-power themes, were not for them?

The desire to cling to these characters, rare female role models in a sea of superdudes, is an understandable one—particularly in a moment where diversity in Hollywood is the cause celebre, and the magic of representation is supposed to be the cure. We need heroes who look like us, the wisdom goes; if you can't see it, you can't be it. (Leaving aside that none of Captain Marvel's fervent fans are likely to become alien aviatrixes with power-blasters for hands anytime soon, or to look anything like, well, that, in a body-hugging flight suit.)

But the centering of identity above all else is itself problematic. For one thing, it ignores the best argument for diversity, which is not magical but practical. Giving people of all backgrounds a place in the billion-dollar film industry is a question of basic fairness, and has less to do with who's in the movies, and much more to do with who gets hired to make them. As the Washington Post's Monica Castillo noted, "If studios were serious, inclusion would be integral to how everything works from the very beginning, not an afterthought made by scrambling executives and producers, or some token project for communities to line up behind or risk never seeing themselves on-screen again. … The studios are running a business, and they have found a mini gold mine in maintaining the scarcity that leaves viewers with less-diverse options."
But worse, when we frantically lay claim to the rare female hero because she's "for women," we're only incentivizing that scarcity—particularly in combination with a no-boys-allowed mentality that only furthers the notion that women's stories are niche, unrelatable and uncompelling to everyone but us. The more we argue that a superficial resemblance to the hero onscreen is the defining factor in whether we can relate to the story being told, the more we marginalize ourselves.

After all, if Captain Marvel is not for men, who is Captain America not for?

The question of who "owns" these beloved franchises, and who gets to define and participate in historically white-and-male-dominated geek culture, has been historically contentious, and a perceived misstep still makes tempers flare. Consider the case of Jason Reitman, who was pounced on last month after an appearance on Bill Burr's podcast. Burr asked, "I would imagine that there's this whole thing where you have to be loyal to the look, the vibe and the fans of the previous, and then you also have to want to put, like, your stamp on it. … Is this a hacky fucking junket question?"

Reitman laughed, saying, "I'm not making the Juno of Ghostbusters movies" (a reference Burr didn't understand), before explaining his vision for the film:

Maybe it's time that we all stopped spoiling for a fight with the half dozen Twitter trolls whose sole purpose online is to push the buttons of easily provoked people in search of outrage clicks.

"This is gonna be a love letter to Ghostbusters. I love this franchise. I grew up watching it. I consider myself the first Ghostbusters fan. I love it, and I want to make a movie for my fellow Ghostbusters fans. We went back to the work files for the sound of the proton pack, and we went back to the stems of Elmer Bernstein's score. We went back and found the physical vinyl letters that they used to create the Ghostbusters logo in 1984. … We shot physical titles with the light and smoke effect. We're, in every way, trying to go back to the original technique and hand the movie back to the fans."

Reitman didn't mention the 2016 lady Ghostbusters reboot, nor is there any reason to think he had it in mind as he talked about digging through the archives for vinyl logos and original audiotaped sound effects. But online, the outrage was instantaneous, and Leslie Jones, one of the stars of said reboot, described Reitman's comments as "insulting" and "like something Trump would do."

In fairness, Jones has good reason to be prickly about perceived slights on the Ghostbusters front, having dealt with a particularly ugly strain of backlash while working on the movie. But at the same time, maybe it's time that we all stopped spoiling for a fight with the half dozen Twitter trolls whose sole purpose online is to push the buttons of easily provoked people in search of outrage clicks—and maybe we need to stop reacting in trollish ways ourselves, with hair-trigger indignation that turns every ambiguous statement into a capital offense. The dominance of outrage in pop-culture discourse is starting to take a toll, not just on audiences but on the filmmaking itself. Some contemporary franchises are so politically self-conscious that writers have begun clumsily breaking the fourth wall just to let viewers know whose side they're on (as in the most recent installment of Jurassic World, where the villain turns his back on a female character and simpers, "What a nasty woman!" complete with built-in pause afterward, presumably so that the audience can applaud.)

In a world where every tentpole franchise film seems to become a new flashpoint in the culture wars, the urge to treat these movies with deadly seriousness follows a certain logic. But we also lose something in this approach, where the value of art is increasingly measured in terms of its political necessity, where blockbuster action flicks featuring spandex-clad superheroes are more likely to be described as "important" than "fun," and where celebratory moments in pop culture keep getting hijacked by a few idiots who get their LOLs from seeing us at each other's throats.

If we ignore the trolls, there's no question as to women's place in geek culture. We've been here for ages, stanning just as hard for our heroes as any guy. And if this latest release changes anything, it's that we have an even greater responsibility to keep promoting and preserving an inclusive legacy for the next generation of MCU fans. Because while Captain Marvel may be significant to women, she's a hero for everyone—and membership in her fan club is open to anyone who wants to be a part of it. Yes, boys allowed.

Related Topics

Explore Categories