Around the same time the United States military was in the process of withdrawing from Syria, a move that all but ensured the deaths of its Kurdish partners in the fight against ISIS, a different army was also mobilizing. This formidable force was none other than male Marvel fans, enraged and ready to boycott the studio’s latest release because of alleged comments by star Brie Larson that the film, Marvel’s first ever female-led release, “wasn’t for white men” (Finn). In the bloody battle that ensued, Captain Marvel (2018), and the act of buying tickets to see it, emerged as a supposedly feminist symbol, a righteous stand against male-comic-book-nerd misogyny. The film tells the story of an alien warrior who comes to Earth to discover her past as human Air Force pilot Carol Danvers. It received favorable reviews and was hailed by Brie Larson as “the biggest feminist movie of all time” (Braslow). Despite the claims of Larson, an interrogation of the film and its real-world implications leaves its feminist legacy in doubt. While Captain Marvel is marketed and often discussed as a feminist work, it engages with this movement in an ultimately disingenuous way because of, among other things, its financial and thematic involvement with the United States military, an institution opposed to women’s liberation. Several factors made it easy for Captain Marvel to make its claim to feminist fame, one of which was the cultural context in which the film was released. While Marvel had released over twenty films during the preceding ten years, Captain Marvel was its first to star a woman. It was also its first film with a female (co)director, and its first with a female composer (Finn). For its part, Marvel Studios actively promoted Captain Marvel as a movie meant to empower women – in the film’s trailer, the word “her” dramatically expands into “a hero” (Braslow). Ironically, the vitriol of misogynist boycotters enraged by this advertisement strategy ultimately contributed to the narrative of Captain Marvel as a worthwhile feminist venture.
Fans of the film believed this feminist marketing was a truthful representation of the story itself, which, besides being about a woman, also included depictions of said woman facing and overcoming misogynistic challenges. Danvers is manipulated by her villainous male mentor, who insists that her emotions are her weakness – a plotpoint many women saw as the reflection of their own experiences. She defeats her mentor, steals the motorcycle of a stranger who tells her to smile, and (both literally and symbolically) rises to her feet after being knocked down by the sexism of her male peers in the 1990s Air Force. In the words of Ms. Magazine’s Amanda Finn, “Her movie is better [than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel]. Quite frankly, her character is a lot more interesting. And that’s likely all in part because she has to put up with a lot of nonsense that male superheroes don’t” (Finn).
Others, however, were quick to find the faults in this viewpoint. Some were disappointed by the lack of intersectionality in the film, pointing out that in the comics, the mantle of Captain Marvel is actually first taken up by Monica Rambeau, a young black girl – meaning that the film could have been an opportunity to unveil Marvel’s first-ever leading black superheroine instead of defaulting to a white star (Garcia). Monica and her mother Maria make appearances in the film, but their characters mostly exist to support and challenge Danvers on her journey rather than go on their own. Other than these characters, the movie continues Marvel’s trend of relegating women of color to roles as blue- and green-skinned extraterrestrials, a practice that has long allowed the studio to flaunt its diverse cast without truly representing women of color on screen. Gemma Chan plays a cobalt-colored alien warrior who dies almost immediately, recalling Zoë Saldana and Pom Klementieff’s similar roles in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) (Garcia).
And besides any specific offense, many critics were simply put off by the shallow, commercial nature of the film’s “girl power” sentiment. No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” playing during the climax, the inability of the writing to ascribe many real character traits to Danvers besides “badass,” the cliché moment in which a man tells her to smile – to many, these elements reeked of a corporate boardroom scrambling to pay lip service to women’s issues before the release of Avengers: Endgame a few months later. As Mashable’s Jess Joho writes, “[Captain Marvel] summons the same feelings of a modern Dove commercial. It’s a cloying sensation, the off-putting suspicion that your own crushing sense of disempowerment is being exploited to sell you soap” (Joho).
That notion begs the question: What, then, is Captain Marvel selling us? The answer points to the biggest flaw in the film’s engagement with feminism, which is not that it’s too white or shallow (although it is those things, too). It’s that, at its core, Captain Marvel is a two-hour-long commercial for the U.S. Air Force.
The Air Force is featured heavily in the film, so much that it’s almost a character alongside Captain Marvel and her friends. The fact that Danvers was a pilot turns out to be central to her character; it seems that her strength, intelligence, and courage are tied inextricably to her Air Force training. The U.S. military also comes in handy when the bad guys need defeating. In one revealing scene, Danvers consults Monica for advice on the color palette of her superhero suit. In a moment scored with swelling strings and trumpets, they decide on American red white and blue, after Danvers points at Monica’s Air Force t-shirt and observes that they’re “on the same team” (Captain Marvel). Despite the fact that the generally progressive themes of the film pair oddly with the U.S. military and its practices, the message is, over and over again, that the Air Force saves the day. As summarized by Los Angeles Magazine’s Samuel Braslow: “The movie takes a page from the 1985 PR bonanza Top Gun, which boosted enlistments by 500 percent, but updates it for a 2019 ‘woke’ audience wary of the Armed Services after 18 years in Afghanistan and over a decade of sexual abuse revelations” (Braslow).
The film’s use of feminism to rehabilitate the image of the U.S. military wasn’t an accident – the very real Air Force was fully involved in its production, distribution, and promotion. If a film production seeks to use U.S. military personnel, locations, or equipment, it must submit its script to the Department of Defense Entertainment Liaison, who, in exchange for cost-saving assistance, has the power to demand changes to ensure the military is represented in a positive light. The Air Force gave Captain Marvel access to Air Force historians, Edwards Air Force Base, and Air Force-operated F-15Cs. It authorized pilots to participate in press, including appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and the red carpet. The Air Force performed flyovers at the film’s Hollywood premiere (Braslow).
Actress Brie Larson also gushed relentlessly about the Air Force during her press rounds, saying that one of Danvers’ most central traits is “the spirit of the Air Force,” and that she hopes the movie inspires girls and women to become pilots (Braslow). She’s shown in Marvel featurettes taking tours of Air Force bases and talking, starstruck, with aviators. Dr. Roger Stahl, a professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in the relationship between Hollywood and the military, says that this is a classic public relations strategy. He explains that “we can have a metric of how disingenuous it is by just measuring the extent of military involvement, which is staggering, against how much the public knows about this office and their dealings with Hollywood and television, which is also staggeringly small” (Braslow).
The Air Force didn’t just assist with Captain Marvel’s production and promotion – it incorporated the film into its own recruitment material. At the time of the film’s release, the Force was dangerously short on pilots, particularly women, yet was still moving forward with its plan to expand by nearly twenty-five percent (Braslow). Good PR like Captain Marvel was sorely needed. On airforce.com/originstory, female pilots are profiled under a banner reading “EVERY HERO HAS AN ORIGIN STORY,” and in some theaters, Captain Marvel was preceded by an “Origin Story” ad focusing on female Air Force aviators. Despite this rather clear brand synergy, Lt. Col. Nathan Broshear, director of the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office, insists that the campaign is “not necessarily” related to Captain Marvel and that the Air Force “has been featuring senior leaders’ ‘origin stories’ for some time.” He clarifies that although the film is “not part of a recruiting strategy,” it was indeed an opportunity to encourage “women to pursue careers in aviation” (Braslow).
Is this a bad thing? Is it possible for an institution like the Air Force to have a hand in producing a genuinely feminist film? In this case, the answer is a definite no. A piece of media more committed to advertisement than storytelling cannot be fully dedicated to any cause other than profit. If a commercial is overtly “feminist,” it may be created with women’s empowerment in mind, but that does not change the fact that its fundamental purpose is to convince women to purchase a product. When one examines the product that Captain Marvel is selling, it becomes clear just how flimsy its feminist gift-wrapping is.
The Air Force’s first-ever female fighter pilot to fly in combat, Senator Martha McSally, told a Senate subcommittee in 2019 that she’d been raped by a superior officer in the Air Force – only one example in a flood of sexual misconduct allegations against the military in recent years (Braslow). Interviews with more than a dozen female service members by Buzzfeed News also revealed a pattern of dangerous neglect by military doctors, who often told women that their serious health problems were “female issues,” and that they needed to tough it out and ignore the pain. Female soldiers were also more likely to report depressive symptoms, and ten times more likely to have reported serious sexual harassment after deployment (Minsberg). An analysis of U.S. Foreign Policy by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that U.S. military practices “marginalize women and entrench the masculinization of political life at home and abroad” (Enloe).
There is an argument to be made that, by depicting some sexism in the Air Force, Captain Marvel seeks to address these issues. However, it eschews a hard look at the true systematic sexism of the military in favor of a few airbrushed “no girls allowed!” moments. And its solution to this problem seems to require individual women to somehow overcome violent misogyny on their own (perhaps by developing alien superpowers) rather than have the military take responsibility and make changes on an institutional level. Empowerment buzzwords notwithstanding, its most coherent message to women and girls seems to mirror that of the military doctors: Just tough it out.
While the film’s attempts to address the military’s mistreatment of female troops is lackluster at best, Captain Marvel utterly ignores the military’s troubling relationship with civilian women abroad. Another investigation by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that the stressful experience of combat – along with the training to dehumanize “others” in preparation for battle – is often taken out on host communities, women in particular. It explains that “male sexuality is assumed to be uncontrollable and in need of regular release, so prostitution is built into military operations, directly or indirectly, with the agreement of host governments” (Women and the U.S. Military in East Asia). Research in 2007 discovered that U.S. military bases in South Korea have become hubs for international human trafficking of women from the Asian Pacific and Eurasia (Hughes). Korean women themselves, the report found, are often brought back to the U.S. in sham marriages and forced to perform sex work in massage parlors (Vine). Captain Marvel has been defended by its fans as an empowering, progressive film. Ultimately, however, its “girl power” sentiments matter less than the intentions behind them, which are about as far from women’s liberation as it gets. Exploiting feminism to market soap might be calculated and shallow, but it’s nowhere near as insidious as exploiting feminism to market an organization like the United States military. If women’s empowerment according to Captain Marvel involves a stars-and-stripes clad Brie Larson blasting energy rays out of her hands, but not justice for the millions of women who have suffered at the hands of an extremely powerful and deeply misogynist organization, how is it feminist work of art? The answer is that it’s not. It’s propaganda dressed up in a tight-fitting lycra suit.
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