Thursday 17 October 2019

Paul Whitington: Is it a bird? Captain Marvel takes on misogyny and sexist trolls

Marvel’s first female-fronted film has been written and co-directed by a woman and stars the highly talented Oscar-winner Brie Larson, meaning the superhero’s first big battle has been with sexist trolls

Brie Larson is convincing as a high-kicking warrior but the movie is light on real action
Brie Larson is convincing as a high-kicking warrior but the movie is light on real action
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Rotten Tomatoes was forced to step into the breach last week and fly the flag for gender equality. The much-maligned site, which aggregates film reviews to give movies a percentage score that veers from ‘fresh’ to ‘rotten’, moved to change its policies and stem a tide of negative reviews of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Captain Marvel.

That doesn’t sound very democratic, one might say, until you realise Captain Marvel had not been screened publicly at all until a few days ago, which means none of those vitriolic naysayers could possibly have seen it. Their problem? Well, Brie Larson, or rather, her gender.

Though a female version of Captain Marvel has existed in comic books since the mid-1970s, the character was originally male. That’s more than enough to inflame the entitled misogynists — I mean ‘men’s rights activists’ — who loiter in the internet’s muddy shallows waiting to pounce on anything that offends their delicate sensibilities. But it’s not their only problem.

Captain Marvel is the most powerful character in the comic giant’s universe, a kind of grungy alternative to DC’s Superman, with the power of flight, superhuman strength and the ability to summon proton bursts equivalent to a nuclear explosion. In fact, she may even be the one who brings down the alien destroyer Thanos in the final Avengers movie, Endgame, which is due out next month.

Thanos is a giant, intergalactic crypto-fascist who wiped out the Guardians of the Galaxy and several Avengers at the end of Infinity Wars. Yet a slender female superhero is going to take him on? It’s like a youthful rematch of Donald Trump versus Nancy Pelosi: infuriating, in other words, to a certain cast of mind.

Then there’s Larson, a highly talented Oscar-winning actress, who recently noticed how overpopulated movie press junkets were by white, male journalists. She organised an academic study to make sure she wasn’t imagining things, and last month, when Marie Claire spoke to her, Brie asked a disabled black woman, Keah Brown, to do the interview.

The trolls were not amused, and suddenly Captain Marvel’s Rotten Tomatoes ‘audience score’ plummeted from 96pc to less than 50pc in the space of a week. If these geniuses’ intention was to wreck the opening week of a Marvel film that is pretty much a locked-in box office smash, it was not only an exercise in futility, but it also backfired, ramping up the interest in a superhero movie that promises something different.

The casting of an actor as good as Larson in a superhero movie is intriguing, but this is not the first time Marvel Studios have done that, and the Captain Marvel debate demonstrates how progressive the franchise has been in their thinking.

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off back in 2008 with Iron Man, a post-credits clip included a cameo by Samuel L Jackson as SHIELD boss Nick Fury. In the original comics, Fury was a cigar-chewing white guy. Fury would play a central role in the Avengers films, and Jackson’s casting and performance changed the franchise’s tone. (He also plays a key role in Captain Marvel.)

Heimdall, Asgard’s omniscient sentry in the Thor movies, might have been a forgettable Viking drudge had the studio not cast Idris Elba, an actor impossible to ignore, and the black Londoner made the astral kingdom seem positively cosmopolitan.

There was a backlash to the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. In the original comics, the Ancient One was a 500-year-old Tibetan man, but director Scott Derrickson and his producers were worried that they’d be accused of pandering to the ‘Fu-Manchu’ stereotype if they went down that route. So they made the character a Celtic mystic, and Swinton proved a wonderful deadpan foil to Benedict Cumberbatch’s cocky anti-hero Stephen Strange. They were accused of ‘whitewashing’, but you can’t please everyone.

It all shows how seriously the Marvel people now take issues around stereotyping and diversity, but Captain Marvel may turn out to be their darkest journey yet.

The character first appeared in comics in 1967 (there was a much earlier DC Comics character of the same name, but let’s not confuse ourselves). Mar-Vell was an alien soldier sent to Earth by a powerful empire suspicious about mankind’s experiments with space flight. He had superhuman strength, the ability to fly and an eye for the ladies: Carol Danvers, the character Brie Larson plays in the film, was originally Mar-Vell’s girlfriend.

As the Danvers character developed, she gained her own superpowers after getting caught up in the explosion of an alien weapon. As Ms Marvel, then Captain Marvel, she became a standalone hero in the 1980s, and it’s this fully formed version we meet in the film.

The reason Marvel needed an A-list actor to play her is because Danvers has suffered no end of trauma. Raised by an abusive father, she joined the US Air Force and became a pilot before getting mixed up with Mar-Vell. In one of Marvel Comics most controversial storylines, she was abducted by a supervillain called Marcus Immortus, and raped. She lost her superpowers, regained them, and battled anxiety and substance abuse.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s film doesn’t delve too deeply into all this trauma, but it is charged with bracing feminist subtexts. Captain Marvel is co-directed by a woman, co-written by two women, and if ever there was a medium purpose built to confront entitled misogynism, it’s the superhero movie.

Though one should not excessively generalise, the bulk of Marvel and DC’s target audience is young to very young, and male. They tend to get incensed about storylines and characters that depart too much from the comics that inspired them, and as we’ve seen, will take to social media to vent their spleen at the drop of a hat.

Presenting them with strong, independent female heroes like Black Widow, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel who are adjuncts to no one and don’t need rescuing is surely a positive thing, but the male supremacists aren’t going down without a fight.

When Gal Gadot’s Amazonian warrior princess Diana spectacularly interposed herself in the Great War trenches to rescue Chris Pine in DC’s winning 2017 blockbuster Wonder Woman, some were threatened. And when a cinema in Austin, Texas organised all-female screenings of the film, a Facebook campaign decried this egregious discrimination against men, that well-known downtrodden subspecies.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, whose protagonist is a loner woman with special powers, and the all-female remake of Ghostbusters, were also extensively trolled on Rotten Tomatoes prior to release.

It’s easy to dismiss superhero films as idiotic fantasies, and bemoan the sad fact that our multiplexes have been clogged up with them now for the bones of two decades. But in recent times, Marvel and DC have proved that blockbuster entertainments don’t have to stand aloof from the big issues of the day.

That Captain Marvel has been targeted in the way it has by people who haven’t even seen it proves how toxically divisive issues of gender have become. But credit where credit’s due — at least Marvel are stepping up to the plate, and could teach the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a thing or two about diversity.

Read more: Captain Marvel review: 'We wanted less faux mythology, more hand-to-hand fighting and coy pop cultural references'

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