When I first pitched “Captain Marvel” as the focus of my next column, I had only vague ideas of what I’d actually write.
Maybe I’d analyze the plot or explore the adorable scene-stealer Goose, Captain Marvel’s cat (who happens to remind me a great deal of my own furry orange friend).
Then the film premiered, and the reviews appeared.
“‘Captain Marvel’ is a fine hero, but she’s no Wonder Woman,” was the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle while an NBC News op-ed declared “Marvel’s new ‘Captain Marvel’ isn’t trailblazing like ‘Wonder Woman’ — but it’s still a lot of fun.”
Or my personal favorite: “Who Would Win? Captain Marvel vs. Wonder Woman.”
Can you spot the problem?
We’re creating a rivalry between these two women simply because they are the first — and currently only — to claim a leading space in the otherwise male-dominated world of superhero movies.
We’re buying into the age-old trope that women cannot be allies while also illustrating the immense double standard women still face.
No one ever said Captain America’s origin story was better than Iron Man’s. We didn’t analyze how Thor dressed or discuss how Doctor Strange seemed unfriendly.
But we’re doing that with Diana of Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s alter ego, and Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), which is so dangerous when they’re the only women reclaiming the superhero narrative.
It might be hard for some to understand.
They see heroes like Black Widow, “Thor: Ragnarok’s” Valkryie or Gamora in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and think, “See, there is representation.” But they don’t recognize those characters only have minimal moments of key dialogue and maybe two fight scenes in a two-and-a-half hour movie.
When they do fight, it’s often while wearing impractical costumes and making sexy innuendos. And don’t get me started on the mid-fight hair flipping.
Like the Spider-Mans and Wolverines of the world, the roles of these women in superhero films are made to please men, not inspire women.
Women — even heroic, butt-kicking women — are used as plot devices more than anything else.
Just look at what they did to Black Widow in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” First, the character was slut-shamed for her previous relationships with members of the team during the film’s press tour (while self-described “billionaire playboy philanthropist”Tony Stark didn’t get the same treatment).
Then the film revealed her entire redemption arc was rooted in the fact that she’s a “monster” because she — wait for it — can’t have kids.
In the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, no-nonsense assassin Gamora has been defined more by the men in her life (love interest Star Lord and father Thanos) than her own complex history.
Society likes its women a certain way, and when one doesn’t fit pre-determined boxes, she’s forced into them through the introduction of traditional (i.e. stereotypic) female conventions like romance and motherhood.
Captain Marvel, meanwhile, is the opposite. She’s angry and defiant, and burst onto the scene telling the haters, as she does in the film itself, “I have nothing to prove to you.”
That’s scary to those who benefit from the status quo.
Don’t believe me? Look at the attempts to sabotage “Captain Marvel” before its release as a reaction to star Brie Larson’s own campaign for more diversity in the movie industry and journalism. Weeks before the film hit theaters, it was already receiving poor reviews on Rotten Tomatoes — a technique we’ve seen work successfully before in cases like the 2016 female-led “Ghostbusters” and Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Like similar attempts to disrupt “Black Panther,” the hate campaign failed, and earlier this month, “Captain Marvel” became the seventh Marvel film to rake in $1 billion worldwide (for reference, there are currently 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Avengers: Endgame” will be the 22nd when it opens April 26).
It might be easier to contextualize Carol Danvers by comparing her to a heroine who hews closer to the current norms of female roles in film (the underlying theme of “Wonder Woman” is love, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with that).
But by focusing on how Diana had a romantic interest or that Carol Danvers never smiles — seriously, that was among the comments from trolls when the first trailer dropped — we’re saying there’s a right and wrong way to be a woman.
That’s a dangerous precedent to set.
These are two different women delivering two different messages because there is more than one female experience. And our media must reflect that.
Women understand this.
It’s why both Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, and her director Patty Jenkins gave congratulatory shout-outs to Brie Larson and the “Captain Marvel” team around the film’s release.
If you don’t think both perspectives matter, just look at photos of both Gadot and Larson surrounded by flocks of young girls dressed like their characters. Look at the smiles on their faces and the light in their eyes.
As someone who always preferred to be the knight in shining armor but never saw that woman reflected on screen, I can tell you representation means everything.