Captain Marvel vs. Wonder Woman - Superhero Feminist Icons
Ever since it was announced, I was never sold on Brie Larson as a badass Marvel superhero. Room is one of my favorite movies and she was fantastic in it. But usually, a comic book hero needs a certain type of charisma and I just couldn't see Brie Larson having that to carry a Marvel movie.
Captain Marvel the movie was fine. I didn’t hate it and I didn’t hate Larson’s performance in it. I was reminded of Christopher Reeves’ Superman in a lot of ways, and I think it might have to do with how she carries herself in her superhero costume. She looks proud of having the responsibility to play a hero, and I am happy for her in that regard. I imagine her putting on the costume and visiting sick kids in a hospital and lighting up the room!
The movie as a movie isn’t really worth talking about. I was first going to complain how I felt like the movie was holding me hostage to see it before Avengers: Endgame, but it turns out that it’s really inconsequential aside from being a quick rundown on who the hell Captain Marvel is and what she might be up to in the upcoming Avengers movie. What I wanted to talk about instead is how Captain Marvel falls flat as a feminist superhero icon, especially when compared to Wonder Woman. (And to be clear, I am only talking about their movies here.)
On the surface, both movies are similar. A woman with god-like powers is suddenly plopped into our world. They meet a man who shows them the ropes and eventually solves the problem that caused them to be plopped in our world in the first place. Then they return to their world, leaving an impact on our world. Essentially, it’s a classic “fish out of water” story, but with lots of explosions.
I was re-watching the trailers for both movies and I noticed something very interesting: Captain Marvel advertises itself as woman who is on a mission. She’s going to accomplish her task whether she’s accompanied by other people or not. All the shots have her in the center or her as the focus. I don’t want to say she’s a self-centered character, but the movie is definitely centered around her.
By contrast, Wonder Woman is portrayed in several different manners and you can tell based on what she’s wearing. When she is in her Amazon clothes, she is naive, inquisitive, and optimistic. In her costume, she is confident and capable. You can tell she’s going to grow as a character by the end of the movie.
Wonder Woman is usually seen with Steve Trevor on the same level. They're in a boat together, in the back of a truck together, they walk down the street together. It shows that he (the stand-in for us, the audience) wants to fight, too; he just needs someone to show him the way. In the movie, every time Wonder Woman charges into battle, Steve Trevor seizes the opportunity to advance. He doesn’t sit around and wait for her to defeat the enemy, he charges in on a different side. I think back to how she says, “Let’s go to the war”, implying a partnership. Wonder Woman wants to fight with us, not for us.
Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is always shown alone or at the forefront of a group behind her. The times she’s with Fury, it is usually where one of them is in a power position over the other. Fury is driving and Danvers is in the other seat, or vice-versa with Danvers piloting a jetplane. Or, Danvers is just in a single-seated motorcycle or sitting in the front of a two-seater jet BEHIND her superior. Even in the promotional images, Captain Marvel is always alone in the picture. In the image above, she's framed as the leader of a team, but in actuality, not only is she not the leader, she is kind of the black sheep of her team which otherwise likes each other!
(I want to point out here that in Captain Marvel there is a scene in a bar with her and Fury and they are sort of interviewing each other and there, they’re both in unfamiliar territory. It shows them learning to trust each other and a comradery forms between them. I really enjoyed that scene.)
So, what does all this have to say about feminism or female superheroes? Well, I think this all shows very clearly what makes a hero and what makes an icon, let alone a feminist one.
Wonder Woman left her home to fight for peace for mankind. She made a sacrifice (turning away from her people) in order to fight for her cause (stopping the war). The fact that she is a woman only matters for the play on words. “This is no man’s land.” “I am no man!” It may not be the most subtle way to make the point, but you in your brain connects the dots: Wars are almost exclusively fought between men and the only way to break the cycle is for something to disrupt the cycle; something more powerful than a man.
Captain Marvel did not make a sacrifice. She did not have a cause to fight for. There were no classic fish-out-of-water scenes with her interacting with our world and showing us her vulnerabilities. She never tastes ice cream for the first time. She never times a leap into a revolving door. She never just walks into an important meeting claiming some Greek God is behind a world war! (Perhaps if the movie took more of a “buddy cop” motif, this could have all be avoided.) Wonder Woman never had such an in-your-face 21st century line going, “They didn’t let us fly with the boys back then.”
The final difference I can tell between the two characters is how their actresses handled their roles. Gal Gadot never set out to be a role model for women, as much as she just wanted to play a heroic character. Brie Larson set out to make statements about how the character she was cast in is a role model to girls and blah blah blah white men.
To end on an interesting point with Brie Larson’s characters, I never looked up to Captain Marvel. I never cared enough about her, and probably won’t see the film again for a long time. On the other hand, Larson's character in Room heavily inspired me. She sacrificed a lot and fought so hard. I’m neither a female, nor was ever trapped in a room, but I related to her struggle to not give up in such a hopeless situation.
And on more of a meta point, Wonder Woman persevered by being a beloved DC film after a long run of critical flops. She overcame all odds and saved the DCEU whereas Captain Marvel was just another typical Marvel movie that I didn't even want to see in theaters if it didn't come out almost a month before the next Avenger's movie.