Remember when you could go see a superhero movie without it turning into a political rally? Those were the days.
Of all things, deciding whether or not to see this year’s Captain Marvel has now become a form of political participation… It’s weird when put like that.
So, whether I’m an ardent feminist or a toxic male troll, let’s take a look at what all the fuss is about.
This post will contain spoilers for Captain Marvel, but is focused more on the marketing and social media campaigns surrounding it.
But just how did Marvel make a film so … political?
SOCIAL MEDIA – THE HIDDEN PLATFORM
Now I usually write about things with relation to Transmedia – the process of creating a storyworld and narratives across different platforms.
But social media is a bit trickier to assess in a multi-platform context – and far less co-ordinated than, say, making a comic book series to provide context to a video game.
No, social media allows audiences anywhere to voice an opinion about the media they consume. If you don’t like an actor, franchise, or company, you can tweet at them, or tweet that you’re boycotting them, or start an account disliking them … or an account disliking the accounts that dislike them.
It should be no surprise that this has affected how we interact not only with fictional worlds, but the real world too.
“Fake News” and socio-political bubbles create a toxic space where tribalism and extremism thrive.
Now, diversity is good. It is good to have a variety of voices in film and media. I think that the writers of Captain Marvel had good intentions, but it was the delivery that was more problematic than it needed to be.
It isn’t so much the ideology that’s the problem – it’s more the marketing of ideology.
LIBERALISM IN COMICS
Comic books have a history of promoting a liberal ideology. Superman was created by two young first-generation Jewish Americans, Wonder Woman was created as an embodiment of feminist thought, X-Men exists as a race/LGBT allegory, Spider-Man was an underdog science nerd, Captain America was punching Hitler a year before America joined WWII, and Black Panther gave us our first African superhero in an advanced technological paradise.
The same can be said for much Sci-Fi and horror. Whether it’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf dealing with an oppressive conservative society, or television’s first interracial kiss in Star Trek, liberal thought is practically woven the fabric of these genres.
In short, fans are used to stuff like this in fiction. There are decades-worth of material on this and it isn’t shocking.
But when it comes down to the modern-day marketing and politics, there is an overt agenda-first push before the film’s even released. I think that’s where studios need to be careful when it comes to alienation.
GHOSTBUSTERS, DOCTOR WHO, STAR TREK, STAR WARS, AND GIRL POWER!
We are in a sort of cultural turning point, or rather that’s how certain properties have been marketed to us.
There was a huge political push to make it known that a woman of colour is the lead in Star Trek: Discovery, a female Jedi in a Star Wars trilogy, a female Doctor Who (breaking a glass ceiling) and the all-female Ghostbusters team.
Suddenly, there is a talking point about feminism, women in film and young girls being able to imagine being a superhero or Starfleet captain. Except we already had this.
We’ve had female ghostbusters in the past, we’ve seen female Time Lords, and we had Captain Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew) lead her crew in Star Trek: Voyager. Various Star Wars TV series saw the fan-loved Ashoka go through multiple character arcs, and no one batted an eyelid. It was just there-and felt thoroughly organic to their story.
So what changed? Agenda-First Marketing.
COMMERCIAL DIVERSITY – SUPPORT THE CAUSE! BUY OUR PRODUCT!
More than ever, consumers want to engage in a brand that promises more than just a product. We live for social and humanitarian issues and demand companies to reflect that.
Whether it’s selling a film or a drink, advertisers have caught on.
With Twitter, YouTube, and other forms of social media, it is easier than ever for fans to engage with a property, and companies and studios are monetising this. I think back to the Nike ad about Colin Kaepernack sacrificing everything, or the Gillette’s “The best a man can be” campaign.
Suddenly, these products aren’t just about shoes that make you run faster or getting a clean shave. They are now a movement.
At the press of a button, you can now hashtag your way to a commercialised revolution.
It doesn’t have a great track record though – Pepsi got grief for its inauthentic protest commercial (What were they protesting? Dunno, but everyone was having a good time … except the police? I guess …)
Most importantly, these topics get people talking and engaging. As I write this there is literally a go fund me campaign to get young girls to being able to go see Captain Marvel. And, of course, the profits would be going to Disney. Suddenly we’ve moved beyond telling a story to political activism.
(And here I was just wanting a fun Marvel movie with a popcorn and Pepsi Max.)
This is now not just a film. It too, is part of a political movement and social discourse.
You’re either pro or anti women superheroes. Critics can point out plot holes or character flaws, and it can be dismissed as a social attack that needs defending. Everyone’s active and fussing about your IP! Money will be made! Word-of-mouth to the max!
It’s kinda manipulative … but for a good cause (I guess).
This isn’t to say that the social issues they’re addressing aren’t important – they are. But when it comes to studios and companies, there will always be a focus on revenue generation.
When you do have racism and misogyny in the world, the solution isn’t to address those issues … but to raise money to pay a studio for children to see a Superhero movie.
But this can leave fans dissatisfied, polarised, and understandably so.
As for transmedia marketing … it does make this more of an event. I mean, a political movement is an event.
HOW THE HASHTAG TRANSFORMED NARRATIVE
Speaking as a bit of a pop culture geek I don’t think your typical moviegoer cares about gender or social politics… They probably just want to pay money to see a movie and have a good time.
So when you have politics and lecturing about issues in a franchise then can be problematic.
Right now, Star Wars is probably the best example of losing good will with fans due to its politics.
With Rey being touted as a good female role model because “she doesn’t have weakness“, it’s clear that politics is shaping the internal narrative structure. Regardless of what you think about the character, in terms of creating something compelling, there needs to be struggle and want – something essential in terms of storytelling.
But now, Star Wars is not just for boys any more, and if you don’t like these movies then you’re just a troll. And whilst I don’t doubt there’s a group of people who dislike the franchise purely because of Rey, Disney had a chance to get ahead of this, and they didn’t. Instead, they ended up attacking the fans and calling them “manbabies” – something that I doubt will win them over to your film, or political cause.
This creates divisions – exciting algorithmic divisions.
Worse still, it turns fans away precisely because it’s agenda-driven. Doctor Who has a huge disconnect on Rotten Tomatoes because of how much it got bogged down with its politics – and I can’t think of too many misogynistic mindsets it’s going to change.
It’s preaching to the choir, and creates another exclusionary political echo chamber.
That said, there is a disconnect between critics and fans. Many critics are understandably on the side of diversity, but looking through the fan reviews (even excluding the trolls) the general consensus is that they don’t want to be lectured to about social politics (on or off screen) and just want to enjoy a cool Sci-Fi film.
Similar trends emerge when you look at Star Trek: Discovery and Supergirl on the CW.
But the biggest issue comes down to sustainability. Whereas it may be possible to hear some critics praise a female Doctor saying “it’s about time” for now, the question is how much they’re able to maintain the goodwill of the fanbase.
MY THOUGHTS ON CAPTAIN MARVEL (JUST THE FILM ON ITS OWN)
So with all that build up, and all that hype about political rallying getting engaged with the property looking for something more than just a movie, what exactly did I make of Captain Marvel?
My biggest issue is probably how by-the-numbers this movie is. This is if you could describe your most basic Marvel movie. Nothing really that stands out about it which wasn’t done in other movies, and better.
Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok will always be my go to examples of how to do cosmic superhero stuff well, not to mention Infinity War‘s fantastically juggling characters and story. And this movie is just a movie… with a female character as a lead.
Fortunately, the politics isn’t really on screen. I actually liked Brie Larson in the role, and see a lot of potential there, but I don’t think the writing or directing was doing her justice … especially with two directors and five writers! The whole emotionless performance (which is written into the story) doesn’t make her that compelling a character to go on an adventure with.
For a lead into the next phase of the MCU, you really do need to have the character done well and they need to be very very compelling. I hate to think how much of a train wreck phase 1 of the MCU would have been in with Robert Downey Jr hadn’t bought that level of charisma with him.
Aristotle believed a story needs PITY, FEAR, and CATHARSIS.
Not one moment did I feel fear for Captain Marvel. She was just too … perfect, and never placed in a position of vulnerability or weakness, and that was a great detriment to the film. All her solutions to problems are blunt-hit them, or blast them.
There was even a (thankfully) deleted scene, which would have been perfect for someone playing the Terminator – but NOT a superhero flick!
It is actually very similar to the issues people have with Rey. Captain Marvel isn’t a flawed, human, character… Not really. Like Rey, she’s trying to figure out who she is, she doesn’t know where she came from, and she is very, very, VERY powerful… As of yet I have no idea what her weaknesses are or where are you even rank her strength levels.
Instead of being at her weakest and overcoming a struggle, Captain Marvel … removes a neck inhibitor? (Not quite the same emotional impact).
She is, admittedly, shown falling and getting back up again in flashback in an inspirational moment … but it isn’t part of the present story, and felt jarring.
Personally, I think this ‘lack of weakness’ can be easily fixed in Endgame and greatly improve her character. What better way to humble an all-powerful hero than to pit them against an all-powerful villain? (Edit after seeing Endgame: her character is not fixed – in fact she’s barely in the movie, which raises a slew of questions!)
The narrative does everything to make sure there are no surprises in store. You aren’t discovering anything new with Carol Danvers – you know it before she does.
But I have hope that we can get a good linear origin story.
THERE IS POLITICAL COMMENTARY (JUST NOT WHAT YOU WERE EXPECTING)
This movie really didn’t feel like a movie about female empowerment – at least, not to the degree of what was going on behind the scenes.
As for the villains, and this is where the politics shines though, and it’s … weird. And I’m not sure that something people are really thinking about.
If you know about the comics then you know about the Skrulls – the shape shifting aliens to infiltrates of the worlds and cause mischief.
Originally antagonists to the Fantastic Four, they were a stand in for the Red Scare and the Cold War. You know how Communists were depicted in media like in like Planet of the Bodysnatchers? It’s like that.
Or at least it was. Now they’re actually the victims of the Kree – another alien species who showed up in Guardians of the Galaxy … They’re the ones with blue skin.
So I thought this was going to be more complex than I got. Now the Skrull are just a persecuted minority in the universe, because the Kree don’t like them? There are some political overtones with terms like refugees being used and maybe a racial element to it. But it was weird, and the conclusion wasn’t satisfying.
I mean, they are shapeshifters. I could see why another alien species might be a bit worried about that … and stories that could explore that more like “Secret Invasion” in the comics.
But the film is very binary Good v. Evil. And I thought for a minute she might try and create a compromise, but no.
All the power in the universe, and she could end the toxic violence between these two warring species through tact and diplomacy – standard Sci-Fi Star Trek stuff, and could be good foreshadowing for a possible peacemaking role in Avengers: Endgame? Maybe?
She has super SUPER powers and destroys a whole load of Kree ships.
There is nothing that can stop her, she’s a laser-woman! She got her powers from an exploding engine … and it’s difficult to find that compelling.
For me, that was the disheartening thing about this movie. No effort at compromise or understanding the other side. Just … someone’s the bad guy and they need to be blown up.
Then again, I guess that’s how people may feel in a politically polarised space.
It’s not a bad movie. It’s just … another movie.
IT’S A RALLYING CRY!!! – BUT IS IT SUSTAINABLE?
When Brie Larson states how she ‘[doesn’t care] about the opinions of a white dude’ – we see how an audience can feel alienated. This isn’t about picking up a comic and being invited to a home for gifted mutants, this is about overly supplanting a political agenda in the marketing of an “OK” film.
As a result, Captain Marvel HAS to succeed. There are now political expectations on this film. Young women everywhere now have an icon to look up to, and she has to be a symbol against misogyny, not just the alien threat.
The issue, ironically enough, isn’t to do with feminism – it’s to do with sustainability. Can the MCU continue on with this character as a lead the same way Iron Man worked? Can she be flawed? What does it say about women if she is flawed! What does this say about them if she’s perfect! This is the problem with putting overt politics in your film-there’s no space to grow and explore the character.
There is now so much expectation on Brie Larson and Marvel to act as a voice for womenkind – because they marketed themselves into that position.
It’s sort of like marketing the X-Men franchise with its social message first. “Watch this movie! They’re persecuted mutants who are a stand in for gay rights! You support that don’t you? Then pay to see this breath-taking political revolution!!!” – It probably wouldn’t have worked as well as just having cool super-powered people who are misfits.
As a result, there are now political constraints on the narrative and direction of the MCU. And although I personally believe that more diversity in media is a good thing, the danger comes down to whether the agenda surpasses the narrative.
I mean, I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alien, Terminator, and even Disney Channel’s Kim Possible (back in the day) and was invested in those stories with female leads. But I’d struggle to think how they may be marketed now amidst this flurry of political polarisation, and whether they’d even endure the test of time as a result
I fear people looking back at this political moment in film as being “so 2019” as a result. Eventually, some other political fad takes its place, and it’ll be consigned to the history books.
When you’re looking for enduring social change, the last thing you want is for it to be “just a phase” later down the line.
Our political and media spheres of being increasingly dominated by social media, and I’ve written before on how old the multi-platform is transitioning to a far more active consumer.
Unfortunately, the polarising audience response to Captain Marvel is a direct response to social media marketing, and a shaky foot for starting off phase four of the MCU.
We’re told things about her character and why we should like her and how important she is. But it’s just such an average movie in the grand scheme of things – and one I don’t think I’ll revisit.
Do I hate Brie Larson? No. I think she’s a perfectly talented actor (loved her in Scott Pilgrim and Room) and I like to think that her character will develop in much the same was as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America or any other Marvel superhero.
But there is no regulation from the studio regarding their actor’s social media accounts, there is no attempt to get in front of the hate and snuff it out – until recently by shutting down Rotten Tomatoes pre-release audience reviews.
But that’s just playing damage control and not getting out ahead of it.
Instead Disney has capitalised on manufacturing a political rally out of a Superhero movie – and creating a cause.
As for me, this isn’t about diversity. This is about creating a good product with the potential to endure.
With the MCU set for a grand finale in this year’s Avengers: Endgame, a lot rests on creating a sustainable, likeable protagonist to lead us through to the cosmic “Phase 4”.
Wonder Woman endured as both a character and an icon. Ripley and Sarah Conner endured because their movies and arcs were expertly crafted. Buffy the Vampire Slayer endured because of her whit, charm, and subversion of the dumb blonde cheerleader archetype, Furiosa was a badass in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Kim Possible was “A basic average girl, here to save the world.” None of these properties marketed their politics and stirred up a conflict. They endured because the politics was incidental – not the selling point.
But as for Captain Marvel?
We’ll see …