An Average Jane gets into trouble, realizes she has been living an inauthentic life and tries to find out the truth about her past, whereupon she develops superhuman powers, and her hair turns blonde. Samuel L. Jackson shows up to be her friend, at first condescending to her, but then awed by her abilities. The more powerful she gets, the more sarcastic. I’m old enough to remember the 90s, so I can tell you this movie is called The Long Kiss Goodnight, written by the most famous writer of action movies (remember Lethal Weapon?), Shane Black, now known as the director of Iron Man 3.
Or is the movie 2019’s Captain Marvel? In the new movie (which is set in the 90s), the protagonist is a 30-year-old woman who functions as a soldier in an intergalactic conflict only to realize that she’s a completely different person underneath her conscious self—she’s an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers. And yes, Samuel L. Jackson is here too.
The connection between the two movies, surely accidental, is also very revealing, so it’s worth comparing them. Much has changed in America since the 90s and it’s reflected in our action-dominated storytelling. These movies are both about women awakening, through crises that tear up their everyday worlds, to their secret longings. Back in the 90s, the protagonist was a 40-year-old woman living a dreamy, Hallmark-suburban life with house, husband, child, and domestic bliss. Then she turns into a hardboiled vamp—presumably, to criticize conservative social attitudes. The point of the movie was that there’s no sex and death in suburbia, that life is unserious and doesn’t allow women to fully grow up. You wonder at times whether it’s a woman’s fantasy or the fantasy of a bored teenaged boy…
Here, the comparison with the Shane Black movie becomes difficult, as it is hard to say why things happen as they do in Captain Marvel. What does the eponymous character really learn? You normally expect that the events in a story, the plot, should have some effect on the protagonist. Some transformation in the character’s understanding or in our understanding as an audience, or in both. Not in this case. This new heroine, Captain Marvel, changes sides in the middle of a war without a moment of regret for her past actions or doubt about her future actions. She maintains perfect moral purity and perfect confidence—over time she only becomes more unbeatable, so she actually needs no courage nor wisdom nor any other virtue, really. When you notice this impossible combination of superlative power and superlative moral purity—like in the new Star Wars movies—you begin to notice the developing insanity that corrupts our storytelling. These characters have no conflicts, so there’s nothing really happening in the story. They’re not part of their fictional worlds any more than they could be part of our real world.
In her only moment of real anger, which you’d expect to be revealing, Captain Marvel says to an enemy that he can’t know who she really is since she herself doesn’t know who she really is. Her confusion about her own identity is the essence of her freedom. This may be why we have such stories where heroines are morally pure and supremely powerful at the same time. Moral reasoning here only means finding out who the weak victims are, who the arrogant oppressors, and then using magical powers, usually technological, to help the victims and destroy the oppressors.
I don’t mean this to suggest that the people who made the movie are stupid. It might sound that way, since they seem to have no idea how to write a plot or what we now call a character arc. But they are not at all stupid: the movie made about half a billion dollars globally on its opening weekend, including $150 million in America, for a character no one’s seen in movies before. However disappointing it must prove, it’s very popular—because what audiences desperately want is moral purity plus infinite power.
The feminist movie Shane Black wrote more than 20 years ago was too didactic and simplistic, but it acknowledged a basic fact of life: an individual cannot wield infinite power and remain morally pure. The recent movie Alita: Battle Angel was punished at the box office for its earnestness and lack of sarcasm; Captain Marvel is cooler and more humorous, but it also has a moral child in the body of an adult as its protagonist.
Captain Marvel has only one message to convey, which mixes sentimentality and cruelty: infinite power in the hands of clueless heroes is the way to solve a crisis, because they’ll find the bad guys and blast them. This is justified by hysterical world-ending imagery—in this movie, the entire planet is attacked from orbit and as soon as this apocalyptic vision is outlined, Captain Marvel flies in and solves it instantly with no problems, no casualties, and no consequences. If there is any “we” to who we are as an audience, we are the people who swallow such things because the alternative would be unbearable—growing up and dealing with the fact that power and morality cannot be coterminous in this world.
Marvel’s unyielding grasp on movie audiences is perhaps unparalleled in Hollywood history. The man who runs the show, Kevin Feige, is one of the most successful producers in film history, and has defined the terms of cultural discussion in our times. Consider the social media outrage against the Best Picture Oscar winner, Green Book. Progressives didn’t attempt anything similar, however, concerning this movie, yet Captain Marvel is a story about a brilliant, blonde, dazzlingly white savior that relegates its only two black characters to cheerleaders who do what they’re told and who can only admire the power they behold. Nobody thought writing this might be un-Progressive; the press has not created any scandal either. Social justice simply doesn’t have any power compared to the popularity articulated through the corporation-based fan-identity created by Marvel. This is the dominant cultural phenomenon of our time and it seems no one can make the slightest dent in it. For the time being, this is who we are.
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