Fury, Captain Marvel, desi boys and more

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An edited version of this was published in today’s Hindustan Times.

It’s not every day that I feel like cheering for the Indian male, but this Friday, the desi boys did us proud. Ever since preview screenings of Captain Marvel started, grumpy keyboard ‘warriors’ from the northern hemisphere have been complaining that they hate the movie already because it’s forcing diversity down their eyeballs. Why couldn’t Captain Marvel be a man? Why doesn’t she smile more? And most importantly, who’s ready to fight these damned feminists who are looking to take over the Marvel universe? (Never mind the minor detail that Captain Marvel is the first female superhero in said universe and this film is the only one in the 22-film franchise – Avengers: Endgame, which releases next month, will no. 22 – with a female co-director. If this is world domination, then I’m the next prime minister of India.)

On Friday morning, within hours of Captain Marvel opening in theatres around the world, more than 58,000 reviews had been posted on the website, Rotten Tomatoes, all of them slamming the film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, that’s more than the total of audience score reviews for Avengers: Infinity War in its entire theatrical run. Much like Wonder Woman, Ghostbusters and Black Panther, Captain Marvel was being review-bombed by the newest villain in the internet: men dedicated to saving culture from the evil of progressive, liberal ideas, aka trolls.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s reason enough to buy a ticket, but there’s actually a lot to love in this film about a stubborn little girl who grows up to be a superhero with an electric mohawk, flashing eyes and pretty much every superpower you can imagine.

The Bandra theatre where I saw Captain Marvel had some women in the audience, but the bulk of the crowd was was made up of boys in their late teens and men in their early twenties. And they cheered hard for Carol Danvers, aka Vers, aka Captain Marvel (played by Brie Larson). The first time she appeared on screen, they whooped. When her fist turned into a gleaming, fiery weapon that slammed the commander of the Starforce across the screen, the boys unleashed admiring catcalls. Every logic-busting, science-defying development in Carol Danvers’s marvellous abilities was greeted with delight. The dialogues with which she cut male egos down to size received applause and whistles. Towards the end, the man sitting next to me whispered to the woman he’d come to see the film with, “Thanos ki toh phatne waali hai [Thanos is bust].”

Written by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck (who co-directed the film) and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, ‘Captain Marvel’ is thoroughly enjoyable even though it isn’t technically the best movie in the franchise. It’s funny but in a quiet way, with jokes like Captain Marvel literally leaving Nick Fury to his own device. There are giggle-inducers like this all across the film, but it doesn’t offer the big laughs that the first Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy films did. Neither is Captain Marvel as visually breathtaking as Black Panther and occasionally, it feels like an earnest, well-made, public service announcement for women’s empowerment. The flaws are balanced out by stellar acting performances (particularly from Samuel L Jackson as a young Nick Fury and Larson), a healthy reverence for cats and the fact that Captain Marvel is a superhero film without a bad guy.

In a genre characterised by charismatic villains who often outshine the heroes, Captain Marvel doesn’t just turn its back to the idea of a single overarching villain; it also reminds you repeatedly that what separates good guys from the bad are context and perspective. At the start of the film, we see Vers as the Kree warrior who is trained to follow orders in a militaristic society. She accepts that the Skrulls are the enemy because that’s what her superiors have told her. Eventually, she learns to ask questions and appreciate nuance. The takedown of the chain-of-command culture that characterises the military establishment is subtle but unmistakable in Captain Marvel. Intertwined with that is a critique of machismo and toxic masculinity. The snark in the film is subtle – for instance, Captain Marvel is constantly told by her male mentor (Jude Law as Yon-Rogg) that she must control her emotions (because even in a galaxy far, far away, it’s the women who are stereotyped as hysterical). However, the one who actually ends up throwing a hissy fit is Yon-Rogg, and that too after he’s been whupped by Captain Marvel. When this happens, Captain Marvel doesn’t respond with her version of mansplaining or give him a withering look. Once he’s got the rant out of his system, she says just one line: “I don’t need to prove myself to you.” Then she holds out her had and helps Yon-Rogg up to his feet.

It’s refreshing to see a film in which men vent their feelings, aren’t ashamed of accepting they’re afraid of a cat and don’t feel threatened by the idea of being a supporting act. The men in Captain Marvel perform very traditional roles — a father, a soldier, a commander, a “science guy”, a sidekick — but without an ego. Only Yon-Rogg struts around being an alpha male, but even he eventually settles down.

The best parts of Captain Marvel are the scenes that flesh out Captain Marvel’s relationship with Nick Fury. Fury is effectively her sidekick and the script does a great job of showing how the two suss each other out to establish the power dynamic between them. He’s not miffed at being outwitted by a woman and neither is he a disgruntled deputy. Like the best of work relationships, there’s respect, loyalty and a whole lot of one-liners in the banter between Jackson and Larson. The film’s emotional heart lies in Captain Marvel’s relationship with Maria Rambeau and her daughter. Maria’s a mother, a friend and a daring pilot in her own right who connects Vers with Carol Danvers and gives Captain Marvel her humanity. Also, Maria Rambeau totally deserves her own film.

Among the supporting characters, particularly interesting is Talos, the leader of the Skrulls, a people who were once powerful and are now hunted because they lost a war to the Kree.

SPOILER AHEAD

It’s a poignant touch to make the Skrulls refugees because in addition to demonised and othered, they’re also a race of shapeshifters. They can look like anybody and often blend in, learning the ways of the society they’re living in and all the while striving for a sense of belonging. As of 2017, 65.6 million people in the world had been forcibly displaced according to the UN High Commissioner of Refugees. They’re mostly invisible to us, unless one of them achieves something miraculous or something horrible befalls them. In Captain Marvel, however, the refugees are the ones who open Captain Marvel’s eyes and considering the way most countries treated those who need help and support, it serves Earth right that Captain Marvel goes with them instead of staying with us.

Along with getting rid of the bad guy as a concept, Captain Marvel is also careful in the kind of violence it shows. There are many fight scenes in the film and bodies of extras drop dead with rhythmic regularity, but there’s no gore and the real violence is psychological. As both Vers and Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel suffers intense trauma. The first thing we know of her is that she has trouble sleeping — not the sign of a shiny, happy person — and as the film progresses, the set jaw of Larson’s mask-like expression starts conveying the careful stillness of someone processing her feelings, rather than a lack of emotion.

As an individual who becomes an important pawn in a war, Captain Marvel repeatedly suffers emotional abuse. Her memories are ripped out of her on one occasion. In another, her mind is stretched on a rack and people somewhat literally get inside her head and make her do things for their advantage. The real challenge for Captain Marvel aren’t the physical obstacles to defeating the growing cluster of enemies, but a fight for sovereignty over her own body and thoughts. Bad guys often turn out to be good and vice versa, making the audience appreciate how one has to have perspective to recognise right from wrong. To understand the context, you must know the past rather than forget it. In a time when we’re obsessed with reinventing ourselves and looking ahead, Captain Marvel urges us to remember.

The film’s climactic fight literally takes place inside Captain Marvel’s head and is a struggle about taking control of one’s own narrative. This is not intended to throw shade at the fight in which physical things are blown up – that fight is pretty spectacular and makes Iron Man forcing a single nuclear missile to do a u-turn seem like a puny effort – but the real battle is for freedom, and that’s a state of mind in Captain Marvel.

If there is one overarching baddie in Captain Marvel, it is artificial intelligence. (Siri, Alexa, cover your ears.) In the tradition of all good science fiction and comic books, this tells a lot about contemporary society’s anxieties about automation and robotic technology. Artificial intelligence is the equivalent of the divine in Kree. It can look into your soul even while selling you an illusion. It requires you to submit to its authority and is considered infallible. Like religion in our societies, the supreme artificial intelligence of Kree can enlighten you or delude you; empower you at one level and constrain you in others. Against its pristine geometry and logic stands Captain Marvel with her humanity.

Against bad guys with guns, Captain Marvel stands tall, shimmering with golden energy, defying science with every fibre of her being and winning all the way. What makes this possible is her victory over the artificial intelligence, which broke her again and again, and whom she challenged again and again until she won. At the core of Captain Marvel’s superpower is humanity, that quality of jutting out your jaw out at overwhelming odds, dusting off the bruises and getting back on your feet. And it’s safe to say the only thing more remarkable is a cat called Goose.