Why Captain Marvel’s milestone status creates so much pressure for it to succeed

After 11 years of Marvel moviemaking, Captain Marvel has made history simply by existing. The film, about a fighter pilot turned alien soldier turned cosmic superhero, is the first in Marvel Studios cinematic history that centers on a woman superhero.

Granted, every Marvel movie comes with built-in buzz — the studio’s cinematic strategy of linking universes and plots throughout different films guarantees as much. But on top of tying into Avengers: Endgame, the Avengers team-up movie that will serve as a capstone for 20-plus Marvel movies, Captain Marvel has already generated an astonishing amount of conversation.

That conversation isn’t just about the film’s characters, or what foundation it lays for future Marvel movies; rather, it’s a more meta exploration of Captain Marvel’s place in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Hollywood at large. And with the exception of 2018’s groundbreaking Black Panther, that’s not the sort of discussion that typically arises when debating Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

What does a woman superhero mean for Marvel Studios and the MCU? What are the takeaways from Captain Marvel’s already overwhelming box office success? What does the film have to say about feminism? What might have happened if it had flopped? And who gets to shape the conversation and narrative surrounding it?

To try to answer some of these questions, Vox culture writer Constance Grady and senior correspondent Alex Abad-Santos sat down to sort through all the different conversations currently centered on Captain Marvel.

Spoilers follow.

spoiler, aquaman

Constance Grady: Captain Marvel is the first MCU film to feature a woman superhero in the sole title role. That is a wild statistic. The MCU has been around since 2008’s Iron Man, and even though it’s boasted plenty of lady heroes (Black Widow! The Wasp! Peggy Carter, hero of my heart!), it was not until the year of our lord 2019 that a woman was trusted with carrying a whole movie — nay, a whole franchise — on her shoulders.

It’s great that Marvel has at last made that movie. But the fact that Captain Marvel is the first and so far only one puts an enormous amount of pressure on both the movie and viewers.

Captain Marvel has to make enough money to prove that movies starring women can do well, so that studio executives will make more of them. It has to be good enough to make up for decades of movies that relentlessly focused on the narratives of straight white men. It has to give women a superhero in whom they can see themselves and their lives (one character! To reflect the experiences of every single woman!).

And in turn, viewers — especially women — have to see themselves in Captain Marvel. If they don’t, maybe it’s because of their male privilege (men) or their internalized misogyny (everyone else). Good feminist viewers have to do their part to lift this movie up, because don’t you want women to get representation?

The stakes are high. And the expectations are impossible. I know that, but as I sat down to watch Captain Marvel, I found myself thinking, “This movie better be great, and I’d better love it. After all, I want women to get representation onscreen.”

In the end, I didn’t love it. I liked it fine. I think it has some noticeable flaws, but it’s mostly pretty solid.

The first act is flat, but it picks up considerably once Carol Danvers crash-lands her wisecracking self on Earth and gets to spend some time bouncing off a cheerfully bemused Nick Fury. Carol seems a little bit underwritten, but I found Brie Larson’s deadpan incredibly charming. The reveal that the movie’s true villain is the man who consistently undermined Carol and held her back while continually assuring her he was doing it for her own good was both moving and, dare I say, relevant to my lived experience as a woman.

Captain Marvel is pretty good. It’s not the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. It’s not even the greatest MCU movie I’ve ever seen (Black Panther, probably).

In a culture that wasn’t starved for stories about women, that wouldn’t be a problem. We wouldn’t be putting this much pressure on a single movie and its reception; we could say, “Well, that was pretty fun. What’s next?”

But in our current culture, in which only 17 percent of movies have a female lead and male characters spend, on average, twice as long as female characters do talking, when it comes to superhero movies about women, we have Wonder Woman and we have Captain Marvel. And that puts way more pressure on those movies than they should have to bear.

Did you feel that pressure when you were watching this movie, Alex? And do you think it changed the way you experienced it?

Alex Abad-Santos: Watching this movie for the first time, for me, was like watching a figure skater’s Olympic long program. Every single second of the movie, I was waiting to see if it was going to nail the story or bungle a line or hit a high note of joy (holy shit, when she crushes that Kree battle cruiser, it’s so satisfying).

I have read the Captain Marvel comic books. I remember the hype and excitement from Carol Danvers’s fandom, known as the Carol Corps. I also know how much writers like Kelly Sue DeConnick, Margaret Stohl, and Kelly Thompson and artists like Dexter Soy, David Lopez, Jamie McKelvie, and others have taken special care in being stewards for the character.

But I’m also aware of how sexist trolls have tried to sabotage this movie by posting fake negative reviews online ahead of its release.

So I guess you could call it pressure? Maybe suspense? Tension?

Despite knowing the backstory of Carol Danvers and understanding how much Captain Marvel means, especially for women and girls who have never seen themselves in a superhero movie, I think I was able to compartmentalize those feelings away from being a critic. I too think the movie’s first act is poorly executed, and in my review, I wrote about how it eventually becomes quite a spectacle, despite an origin story for Carol that is determined to mosey in sideways.

I talked to a fellow critic who didn’t enjoy the movie as much, about the pressure to like it and the fear that if you don’t like it, someone with bad intentions could use your words as ammunition. She gave me the good advice to “fuck the haters” and write something I’d look back on and be proud of.

But is the pressure to root for a piece of art that represents a social “good,” in this case Captain Marvel bucking a history of a lack of representation, a real fear?

Captain Marvel has a lot in common with Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Crazy Rich Asians in that it’s going to be talked about as the reason more movies like it will be made, i.e., if Captain Marvel succeeds, it will lead to more movies about women superheroes. Or, if it were to fail, it would be the number one example executives would point to to reject movies about women superheroes in the future.

That’s an unfair burden. And a real one. You’re a book critic — does this sort of thing happen in your realm? Did you feel “pressure” or tension while you were watching Wonder Woman or Black Panther?

Constance: There’s definitely pressure in bookland, especially in the world of YA, where #OwnVoices books are increasingly getting promoted to counteract the overrepresentation of stories about straight white cis dudes. That’s where you’ll sometimes see two black women authors, for instance, get pitted against each other with this kind of “there can only be one” mentality: “You’re allowed to pick either Children of Blood and Bone or The Belles! You’re not allowed to like both!” That viewpoint is absolutely out there, and it’s incredibly unfair.

But because there are so many books published every year, it’s less likely that a book will end up getting positioned as the only representation out there for a certain group than it is for that to happen in blockbuster comic book movie world. There are definitely still underrepresented groups — books for ace teens, I’m thinking about you — but there are just so many books that it’s pretty unusual for a group to have only one singular book whose perceived “job” it is to represent everything about their experiences. That may be part of why the discourse often flattens out a lot of the books that are written for marginalized groups: If there’s only one, everything gets a lot easier to talk about.

In movieland, however — and particularly in blockbuster comic book movie land — there really is a scarcity, and it seems to affect the ways we talk about those movies that do have an underrepresented group at their center. There was so much pressure on Wonder Woman — which was a good movie that I enjoyed a lot — to feel like a completely unproblematic feminist triumph that when it came out, it was fashionable in certain corners of the internet to remark approvingly that the male gaze didn’t exist in that movie, as though Diana weren’t constantly doing battle in a strapless leotard and miniskirt. (Yes, I know her thigh jiggled and some people found that deeply moving. Personally, I think it is more worth noting that we all saw her thigh jiggle because her legs were bare, and that her legs were bare both to highlight Diana’s invincibility and so that the audience could ogle them.)

I don’t mean to imply that Wonder Woman is somehow bad or unfeminist, but that whole conversation seemed wildly absurd to me. Wonder Woman is a great and empowering hero, and she was clearly positioned and dressed so that straight men would find her attractive! We don’t have to pretend that the second one isn’t true to make the movie’s feminism as pure as possible.

That flattening, to me, is what is most exhausting about this scarcity-induced discourse. There is so much baggage around blockbuster movies for underrepresented people that it becomes difficult to talk about them as anything other than ideologically pure and therefore artistically great at one end of the political spectrum, or as terrible moral pap for rabid liberals and therefore artistically bankrupt at the other end. And that’s unfair to both the movies and the people watching them.

But I also understand why this discourse exists. People want to be represented in movies! They want to enjoy movies that represent them! The movies that represent people who haven’t been represented before aren’t just movies. They’re symbols, whether we like it or not.

Do you think there’s a better way to approach this conversation? Or is it unlikely to get more nuanced until there are more movies out there for these groups, so no one film has to bear the weight of being “the only one”?

Alex: My one regret in life is not knowing about Wonder Woman’s thigh jiggle discourse earlier.

I think the better way to approach the conversation is to really hold Hollywood executives and studio heads more responsible than the movies themselves. Bad ideas about a movie being “the one,” or about a movie serving as a box office trial balloon, are embarrassing — and the people who deserve the blame are the people in charge of making decisions about which movies get made in the first place.

That said, I think a more fascinating question about a movie like Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman is whether their messages of women’s empowerment are convincing. Is the power fantasy achieved? Did you feel like you could crush Jude Law with your bare hands? Are these movies a respite even though the real world is plagued by people saying misogynistic things?

Another question I wanted to ask you is what you think of the “controversy” that Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson, started in the summer of 2018 when she talked about diversity among film critics, and who gets to review movies and who doesn’t — particularly women and nonwhite people.

“[Audiences] are not allowed enough chances to read public discourse on these films by the people that the films were made for,“ Larson said in 2018, during a speech at the Crystal + Lucy Awards. “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about A Wrinkle in Time. It wasn’t made for him. I want to know what it meant to women of color, to biracial women, to teen women of color, to teens that are biracial.”

Some people responded to that statement with outrage and suggested that Larson was being sexist against men. Hence, the online sabotage against the movie from sexist trolls.

A more level-headed argument that some critics have had is built on the notion that movies shouldn’t be for anyone in particular, and that Larson’s logic could very well be used against nonwhite and women critics to disregard their opinions when criticizing a film about a white male protagonist.

Though if you look at how predominantly white and male-dominated film criticism is, and the lack of diversity in journalism as a whole, it’s easy to understand what Larson is getting at: that hearing what a movie like A Wrinkle in Time or her own movie Captain Marvel meant to women and women of color is extremely difficult, because there’s a shocking lack of nonwhite, non-male voices writing about film at big publications.

In the wake of this discussion, now that the movie is in theaters, some Captain Marvel fans have paid close attention to who’s writing about it, with some posting Twitter threads calling out the reviews of Captain Marvel written by men, particularly straight white men, and highlighting the reviews written by women.

To be clear, hearing women’s perspective on Captain Marvel is important, and I know there are nuances of womanhood that I won’t get, because I never have experienced it. And the lack of diversity among film critics is definitely a problem; it often results in redundancy and monotony, or a dangerously shallow picture of how a piece of cinema might be viewed by diverse audiences — the number of white critics who didn’t understand the animated short “Bao” is just one recent example.

But I also think that Asian people, black people, women, and other underrepresented groups should have their voices heard and be asked to review movies that aren’t specifically “for them.” Being upset that diversity in criticism needs to improve, and being angry at the lack of nonwhite and non-male critiques of Captain Marvel is the right sentiment. But this issue is also one that should be discussed at all times, not just in the context of Captain Marvel. And the anger over a lack of diversity shouldn’t disappear after Captain Marvel has left theaters.

Constance: I was 100 percent ready to crush Jude Law with my bare hands after this movie, and it felt great.

As for the criticism controversy: I tend to agree with you, Alex. Criticism in general, including film criticism, really is dominated by straight white male voices, and those voices have helped shape the canon in ways that we’re really only beginning to unpack. Brie Larson’s initiative to make her press tour more inclusive — including picking women of color to be her interviewers — is a great example of a celebrity using her platform and her power to uplift voices that aren’t heard enough.

But that laudable goal tends to get simplified into Twitter threads and articles about how male critics all hate Captain Marvel and female critics all love it and that just goes to show how only women should review movies for women. That feels reductive, in a not-great way. To begin with, female critics are not a monolith! There are plenty of female critics who hated Captain Marvel and plenty of male critics who loved it, and their points of view shouldn’t be erased.

The point of lifting up critical voices from outside the straight white male bubble isn’t so that the people whom a movie is “for” can all speak as one and confirm that a movie is virtuous and ideologically pure. It’s so that we can get a variety of voices from a variety of perspectives.

In a way, critics from marginalized groups are experiencing the same problem as movies about people from marginalized groups: There are so few of them that they are being asked to act as spokespeople for those groups and be all things to all people. Which is not fair to anyone.