Captain Marvel and the Art of Being Lied To
Essay released on April 5, 2019
I have seen Captain Marvel twice now. I loved the film. Its 78% Tomatometer score fails to do it justice. The chemistry between Brie Larson’s character Carol Danvers and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury was amazing, and it was fun to see Fury’s origin story play out in the background. And, as others have mentioned, Ben Mendelsohn crushed it as Skrull leader Talos. The story was compelling, driven largely by a plot twist that Marvel’s campaign of secrecy made all the more potent. And the post-credit scenes were fun too, one of which offered a solid link to the much-anticipated Avengers: Endgame. Within Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the film was bested only by last year’s Black Panther, in my opinion.
While Captain Marvel was great fun, this essay is more about what it inspired me to reflect on than about the film itself. As the plot twist I alluded to unfolded with a revelatory flashback, I was reminded of days spent in school soaking up the history of the good old US of A: the grandeur of a North American continent ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus, the courage and fortitude of colonists and explorers who pushed the frontier westward while Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and other founding fathers forged a nation that symbolized truth, justice, and opportunity. This history forms what I call The American Myth, a powerful tale sold to me throughout years of compulsory schooling and media repetition that gets much less scrutiny than it deserves.
I bought The American Myth for a long time. As I walked across the stage at my High School graduation I was solidly in its grasp. Looking back, my schooling seems designed to embed this myth so deeply in my psyche that it would remain forever rooted. The Myth persisted through my college undergraduate years and even through most of graduate school, though towards the end of my formal education it started taking damage. Not, I will admit, because of anything I learned in my classes. The damage came from media I chose to seek out on my own. My extracurricular activities, you might say.
The first assault on The American Myth came from the realm of fiction, with the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. This novel offers a creative reinterpretation of The Holy Bible as articulated by a telepathic gorilla. Yes, you read that correctly. (And I did not mistype.) Fiction, I think, makes us feel safe enough that authors can challenge our worldviews in ways we would not stand for otherwise. But as delightful as Ishmael was (it is actually the first novel in a trilogy), fiction can, at best, weaken our worldview’s foundations. If we want to demolish them and build a new structure, the realm of fantasy we must leave.
And leave I did. I learned, over time, that The American Myth was at best molded of sugar-coated, cherry-picked half-truths and at worst blatant fabrications. The truth—that the United States I live in owes its existence to a history of genocide that would make Adolf Hitler blush and that today’s economy would not exist were it not for billions of hours of forced, unpaid labor wrought from the bodies of slaves and indentured servants—does not inspire much in the way of pride or honor, at least not in me. A few books that helped inform my understanding were Columbus and Other Cannibals, by Jack Forbes; An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; and more recently The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist. I list other titles elsewhere on my website for those on the lookout for a few good reads.
When I woke up to this reality, I longed for a set of superpowers that would let me make The American Myth visible to all. Perhaps this is why films like Captain Marvel so intrigue me. Here I am, a cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, white man, privileged in many respects, and yet I still feel powerless to address the cooption of US history and its many grave consequences. If only I could end up in the blast radius of an exploding lightspeed engine.
The anger that arises when we realize we have been lied to can be a powerful thing. I think about the social studies teachers I had over the years and wonder if they knew that much of what they were teaching was fabricated, about the many stories of brown-skinned people and of women that were conveniently left out of his-story to preserve the sanctity of The American Myth. Were my teachers liars? Did they deliberately pass on information they knew to be false? Or did they legitimately believe what they were teaching? Did fate keep more accurate information just out of their grasp, throughout all their years of schooling, as it managed to do for me? Or were they following the path of least resistance, parroting information contained in history books provided for them by administrators without investing much critical thought in the worldviews they were selling? These are important questions to ask, I think. I remain noncommittal.
I have lamented about the falsification of history for long enough, and want to touch on another tangentially-related issue. When I saw Captain Marvel on opening night, as the last post-credit scene wrapped and I stood to rush to the restroom, I noticed a line of college-age men sporting their varsity jackets in the row in front of me. They made their enjoyment of the film obvious over the previous two-plus hours, but at least a few of them were on their phones logging into the Rotten Tomatoes website to submit poor reviews. One of the men joked that he wanted to “See this bitch bomb so hard”. I had read about a movement among men to tank Captain Marvel’s Audience Score. As I type this, the score sits at 60%, a rather low number considering it is has already grossed over $1 billion worldwide.
I still wonder what inspires the men who cast shade on this film. Is it that Brie Larson’s character does not show enough skin? If she had saved the day wearing armored lingerie and let the directors feature plenty of gratuitous ass shots, would that have satisfied them? If she had a love interest, if she pined over a chiseled guy who lifted her up in her moment of need, would that have been enough? What is it about one single film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe having a female lead who does not show skin or cleavage and does not hang on a man that inspires so much insecurity? I have thoughts on these questions, and I suspect you might too. And I suspect, as mainstream films feature more strong female leads, this question will come up again. We will be better for it, in the long run.