Captain Marvel and the Journey of Self-Discovery

Captain Marvel and the Journey of Self-Discovery

I’m not at all a comic book fan and I’m very behind in watching all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, but my goal for this year was to catch up on watching them all. I’m finding I’m approaching them a little differently than the hardcore fans, looking at each movie as a story and evaluating it for its own merits. So this review is just considering the movie by its own lights as a stand-alone story.

I finished watching Captain Marvel the other night— it took me three days because it is a pretty long. And I really enjoyed it aside from one or two minor quibbles. As is often my wont I went looking for reviews to help me think about what I think about the movie. I remembered that at the time it came out that there were heated discussions on social media among my friends with some people loving it and some people hating it. I was curious about the second response so went especially looking for some of those negative reviews. I often find negative reviews are even better than positive reviews for helping me to think about a piece of art because even if I disagree—perhaps especially if I disagree—those points of disagreement often point to places where a careful reading will yield much fruit. I’ve found this to be true in teaching literature as well. When a discussion gets rocky and people are reading a line or a scene or an image in different ways… usually that’s a good place to probe. Usually if I dig there I find richer insight that I’d never have come to on my own without the friction of the conflicting readings.

In Captain Marvel what seems to trip up many reviewers is the dramatic shift of perspective: for the first half of the movie key information is withheld from both the protagonist and from the audience which when revealed changes everything. This is not an uncommon trope in all kinds of stories. An unreliable narrator either doesn’t tell all or gives a misleading account or even boldly lies. A new piece of information is revealed and we have to re-evaluate all we thought we knew in light of that new information. Everything has changed.

In Captain Marvel we spend much of the movie thinking that the Kree are heroic and the Skrulls are the evil enemy. And then suddenly we are forced to reconsider: it turns out the Kree have been lying to the protagonist about who she is and who they are and who the Skrulls are. The green aliens with the pointy ears are the oppressed refugees who just want to have a home and to be left alone. The Kree who look like earth humans— except that they have blue blood— are actually the oppressors fighting an unjust war of conquest.

This information shouldn’t come as a complete shock. We knew from early on— or should have known— that Vers wasn’t Kree because she had memories from Earth. We didn’t know for sure that the Kree were deceiving her deliberately, but we did know that something was wrong. And yet we mostly trusted their narrative, even if we had questions about Vers’ flashbacks. But once we realize their perfidy, shouldn’t we start to question everything about their narrative?

Take Yon-Rogg who claims to be a kindly teacher and mentor— it turns out he’s been lying to her all along. Is he really the story’s mentor figure? Or is he something else? When he tells Vers that she’s too emotional and that she needs to learn how to defeat him without using her powers… is that really true? Or does he have ulterior motives for getting her to put aside her powers? Is he deliberately handicapping her because he’s afraid of her?

And is she really too emotional? We have no evidence of an excess of emotion except his words and the words of one guy in a bar that we see telling her the same thing in a flashback— and that guy was clearly negging her— so isn’t it possible that Yon Rogg has a similar motivation? In the rest of the movie Danvers is always in control, almost to a fault, even when she’s upset she doesn’t lash out. And yet more than one critic said that this was the movie lying to us. No, it’s not the movie lying to us, it’s the villain lying to Vers. The captor lying to his prisoner. Once again, a critic who doesn’t really understand the unreliable narrator and how to cope with multiple points of view.

Vers (aka Carol) doesn’t realize she’s an abductee and prisoner, that she’s lost her memory and been given a new identity. And yet her subconscious keeps trying to tell her. She has dreams. But Yon-Rogg tells her to ignore her dreams. They’re dangerous, he claims. They make her emotional, he claims. Of course they’re dangerous— to him and to his controlling narrative. But they are not dangerous to Carol Danvers. They are the voice of her true self trying to tell her something is very very wrong beyond her amnesia.

Also, some critics claimed that there’s no clear villain in the piece. The same critics who refer to Yon-Rogg as a mentor and teacher. Um… no, he actually is the villain of the piece. He’s a jailor, a brainwasher, a controller. So why can’t some viewers see that? Sure, it was a long movie, maybe by the end they forgot how unreliable Yon-Rogg’s narrative was. Or maybe they didn’t really believe the testimony of the Skrull? I do think one of the movie’s weaknesses is how it expects the audience to suddenly see Talos as a sympathetic figure when previously we’ve been seeing him as an antagonist. But… the movie it does go on to effectively reframe his narrative. We see him as a husband and father, trying to get back to his family. We see him as a leader, trying to help his people find freedom and safety.

Or maybe they didn’t believe the testimony of Maria when she tells us who Carol Danvers really is? That scene is the heart of the movie, the key to the story. This is a story about a homecoming after long captivity. Carol Danvers is an Odysseus figure, a soldier returning home, not sure if she recognizes the place or the people, not sure of her welcome or whether she even belongs. She is a woman who has been a prisoner of war, who has been brainwashed and lost her memory who has fought her way free of her captors and their lies and come home but is having trouble putting back the pieces of herself.

It is her best friend Maria — and Maria’s daughter, Monica — who do that for her, who give Carol Danvers back the pieces of herself. Monica pulls out the box of photographs and tells Carol her story, their story. Monica gives her the identity of “Auntie Carol.” But also tells Carol about her own unhappy childhood. Maria also gives her testimony, telling Carol the story of her final day on earth, of their friendship, their striving to make a difference. And of Carol’s role in Maria’s life as a friend who believed in her as a mother and as a pilot. And finally Talos finds the black box and plays for Carol the recording of the crash and her first meeting with Yon-Rogg. And Carol begins to put together the pieces of her story, to reconstruct her shattered identity to reconcile the person she thinks she is with the person they believe her to be.

That isn’t the story of a person without character. It’s the story of a character who has survived a terrible assault but never lost her essential nature. Even among the Kree she was the same wise-cracking person she has always been. Even among the Kree she was striving to remember who she was. Even among the Kree she believed in fighting for justice and right. And when she returns home she rediscovers her true mentor, not Yon-Rogg but Mar-Vell, the renegade Kree scientist whose dream it is to stop unjust war, to bring peace, to save the innocent. Mar-Vel who entrusted her with a mission which she now is free to finish, to at last reunite Talos with his family and his people, and to help the Skrull find a new home as Mar-Vell had promised and to stop the Kree who are fighting an unjust war of aggressive expansion.

Some critics claim Carol doesn’t have much character or that her character doesn’t have much of a real story arc. She doesn’t have major character flaws or change like other Marvel heroes, they say. But to me this feels like nitpicking. These critics offer no proof to the claim that she is lacking in the character necessary for a hero— just the complaint that she doesn’t overcome a character defect. But I fail to see why an internal defect is necessary in a hero story. When I look at Carol Danvers I see a strong woman who believes in justice and who is willing to fight for what she believes in. How is that lacking in heroism? She doesn’t deserve her powers because she hasn’t changed, one critic claims. Well, none of us *deserve* the gifts we are given. But we prove ourselves worthy to continue to use them by the use we make of them. And Carol Danvers uses her gifts to do what she believes is the right thing, every time. She never uses her power for selfish ends, but to help the weak and the innocent and to bring the powerful and unjust to justice.

Even if she is mostly the same person at the end of the movie as she was at the beginning, that is because the person she is at the beginning already has a core strength that the Kree were never able to take away from her. And in regaining her memories, she regains her mission and her sense of true purpose. So yeah, there’s a grain of truth to that claim. Carol doesn’t change so much as rediscover who she already was. But that rediscovery is in itself a monumental journey, a staggering metanoia. I don’t think people should be so quick to dismiss it.

 This sort of transformation, the hero’s journey as recovery of that which has been lost, shouldn’t be unfamiliar to us. I was reminded of the similar journey in Moana when Moana discovers that her lifelong love for the sea isn’t a betrayal of her duty to her people as her father thinks it is but the fulfillment of her deeper call to leadership: to restore to her people, to Maui, to Ta Fiti, their lost heart.

I am also reminded of the novel I recently finished, Piranesi by Susanna Clark, where the unnamed narrator, who is sure that his name is not really Piranesi, must discover who he really is, despite the blandishments of the Other who tells him again and again that his memory is unreliable, that he is prone to madness. And yet Piranesi has a strength that the Other never notices: his ability to see the beauty of the House, to find meaning and purpose and joy and tranquility in this labyrinth which the Other only sees as a place of exile and of danger to be exploited but never a home to be loved. If a serious work of literary fiction like Piranesi can have as its major conflict a captive’s recovery of lost memory and identity, why is that not also a valid theme for a superhero movie?

This story of the discovery of a lost self It is really the heart of the Christian narrative of metanoia: every Christian soul is a human being who has forgotten who she is, whose task is rediscovering her lost self. Every sinner must rediscover the imago dei that has been lost through sin.

Carol’s self hasn’t been lost through her own sin, but through an accident of her getting caught up in someone else’s war and through the deception of a stranger. But that doesn’t make her journey of self-discovery any less real. This is a fundamental kind of human story. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose, my calling? And how can I live that calling today, here, now? That is Carol Danvers’ quest and in the end she finds herself back where she started and knows herself and her place again. She finds restoration, wholeness and rediscovers her true friends, her true mentor, and her true calling. Along the way she also makes a new friend, Nick Fury and helps him to find his deeper calling, and plants the seed that becomes the Avengers.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”

—T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

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