How Captain Marvel Tells an Anti-War Story with the Air Force’s Money.

Author’s Note: Sorry I haven’t uploaded in a while, things have been hectic on my end. Also, this article will contain spoilers for a film that’s still in theaters. You have been warned.

Captain Marvel is the newest film to become part of the cinematic juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It opened with a resoundingly successful 155 million dollars premiere weekend. This would make it the biggest opening for a female fronted movie ever and the sixth largest premiere weekend for a film of all time. Critically, the movie has been praised for being pretty good with the worst reviews being that it’s just another predicable Marvel movie. That said, I think I liked it a bit more than most critics, both because I’m a sucker for the MCU and because I got a kick out of the movie’s Cold War spy trappings. I also noticed something pretty big that I haven’t seen being talked about elsewhere. Namely, I think the writers of Captain Marvel snuck a fairly radical idea into the movie with the inherent approval of the US Air Force.. Curious to know more? Read on for my explanation.

In order to explain what might be going on, I need to do a few things. Firstly, I need to elaborate on how movies sometimes get funded in the United States. Did you know that the Department of Defense (DoD) has a Hollywood liaison? It’s true. Part of this is because the US military is the most readily available supplier of planes, troops and other pieces of military equipment in the nation. An enterprising director gets to use “the real thing,” in filming and the DoD gets a fast and easy piece of advertising. This has been going on for decades. The very first Oscar for best picture was given to Wings, a movie that had received DoD funding. That said, this money and equipment isn’t given for nothing, there are some hoops filmmakers need to jump through to get Pentagon support.

In order to receive Department of Defense subsidies, filmmakers need to submit a script for approval to the government. If the script is approved, then the support is granted. That said, this isn’t just a rubber stamp process and you’d be surprised at what films have and haven’t received government funding. For instance, the first three Transformers movies were made with the DoD’s blessing. In contrast, Independence Day wasn’t, which spurred director Roland Emmerich to create the movie’s various action set pieces using CGI. Incidentally, the movie wasn’t granted funding because Will Smith’s character was dating a stripper, which the DoD felt was conduct unbecoming of a modern military officer.

In the case of Captain Marvel, a DoD approval was probably essential to the story Marvel wanted to tell. Brie Larson’s character, Carol Danvers, has always been associated with the Air Force, going back to her creation in 1968. Moreso even than Tony Stark’s origin as a weapon dealer, Captain Marvel is joined at the hip with the US Military. And the military seems to get that, using the movie as the speartip of a recruiting effort focused on young women. The pairing of property and promotional material almost writes itself. Carol and her best friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) even use the Air Force’s unofficial motto of “Higher, Further, Faster,” as an in-joke. And yet I’m not convinced that things were so cut and dried. If Captain Marvel really was a paint-by-numbers piece of military recruiting I wouldn’t be writing about it.

In order to explain exactly what is going on with Captain Marvel, I have to spoil the plot. As the story opens, Carol Danvers does not know who she is. She’s a soldier of the alien Kree Empire, operating under the name of Vers. For what it’s worth, if the name Kree is familiar (and you aren’t a comic book fan), you might remember them as the blue-skinned bad guys from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film.  That said, when explaining who the Kree are, Larson’s character makes a point of calling them a civilization of “noble, warrior heroes.” Seen from Vers’ perspective, the Kree (and specifically their military) are the good guys. From her perspective, they saved her life, and gave her new powers as well as purpose.

The future Captain Marvel and her cohorts are embroiled in a war with the Skrulls, a shapeshifting race of aliens. The Skrulls have been an iconic part of the Marvel canon since their debut as foes for the Fantastic Four in 1962 (making them six years older than Carol Danvers). They were a comic book manifestation of the Red Scare. The Skrulls are portrayed as master infiltrators who can subvert any society from within. They were the perfect enemy for a team of superheroes that best resembled the nuclear family of the 60s. So I was both surprised and utterly delighted to see that Captain Marvel‘s writers took a giant risk and flipped the script. In the MCU, Skrulls are still shapeshifters and they still fight with subversive guerrilla tactics but now they’re self-admitted refugees on the run from the Kree. Their deceptive tactics are much more of a defense mechanism than an aggressive strategy. Speaking for myself, I love this change. Not only is it fresh and original, it makes sense in a historical context. The Cold War has been over since 1991, the Skrulls are a relic from Marvel’s distant past. Recasting them also recontextualizes Carol Danvers’ own recent past. If the Skrulls aren’t the “bad guys,” does that mean she is? Admittedly, the film is pretty soft on that answer. The assumed antagonist Talos even says “it’s war, nobody’s hands are clean,” with the same shrug the writers seem to have made.

Outside of the story, the recasting of the Skrulls has an even greater impact. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It really says something that the shapeshifters who could be anyone you meet on the street are now refugees. That’s not even going into the various pieces of visual coding that went into the Kree. We only see two arms of the Kree military: Starforce, and The Accusers. Carol serves with the former, who are presented in much the same way as modern American Special Forces units. Starforce operates in small units, seems to favor tactical flexibility and works closely with the Kree intelligence apparatus (in the film, the mission we see Carol and her team dispatched on are exfiltrating a spy from a foreign populace). In contrast the Accusers are more blunt in their methods, impassively bombings targets from orbit. Additionally, to really hammer home how callous the Accuser are, their leader is Ronan (Lee Pace) – a character that theatergoers might recognize as the primary villain from 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The visual comparisons to the modern day War on Terror are pointed and unmistakable. To drive the point home, by the end of the movie, the Kree military is unquestionably the villain of the story.

So is this anti-war imagery at odds with the film’s use as a recruiting ad? I don’t know. In the process of writing this article, I’ve been vacillating. If I were cynical, I could argue that the Air Froce doesn’t have to care about anti-war imagery in a movie like this. The Air Force is a branch of the US military, it’s large enough to not have to worry about anything Hollywood produces, even a tentpole blockbuster release like Captain Marvel. If I were idealistic I might say that we’ve come along way since 1996, and its safe to assume that the Pentagon is more willing to acknowledge slightly subversive material. It’s also entirely possible that I’m way to close to this particular issue. I grew up in a military family, often surrounded by military recruitment material. As such, I’m probably inclined to be bias in this sort of thing’s favor.

It feels really unsatisfying to come away from my first piece back (and my first real Media Studies article) with such a mealy mouthed conclusion. I guess my big takeaway is that visual coding, metaphor and implied themes actually matter and have an enormous impact on the movie. Whether or not you approve of Captain Marvel’s implicit themes, you can’t argue that the movie is stronger for it. It’s heartening to see that Marvel Studios is willing to hire writers who are inclined to take risks and use their platform to say something. Given the state of other media out there, it could be so much worse. It’s far from the most important thing in the world, but I’d much rather be having this conversation at all then being entirely silent.

3 thoughts on “How Captain Marvel Tells an Anti-War Story with the Air Force’s Money.

  1. Haven’t seen this movie. From what you’ve written, I’m not sure it’s subversive. Most movies these days involving the military or intelligence agencies end up with the main character’s organization being the real enemy. The Bourne series is a good example of this, but there are many more. Even when they aren’t the real enemy, organizations are often in the way of the hero doing what he wants.

    I’ve come to expect it. You mean the character’s boss is really the villain? Shocking… Once you look for the trope you see it everywhere. This trope is very rarely subverted (The Last Jedi subverted it, when Po Damaron’s antics were completely counterproductive and the Rebellion chain of command had a plan that he screwed up.)

    So, I’m not sure this movie is really trying to say something new. It sounds like lazy, predictable writing.

  2. “I haven’t seen it but it sounds lazy,” wow, gripping insight. Recasting the Skrulls (well known villains to most casual comics fans) as falsely vilified refugees, especially in our current political climate, is almost by definition a subversive move, forcing the audience to question the assumptions they themselves made about the physically monstrous Skrulls and the shining noble-seeming Kree. The subversion doesn’t come from Yon-Rogg turning out to be an antagonist, but from how the movie treats him and Carol. Mar-vell says her tech, which gave Carol her powers will “end wars,” a crucial difference from “winning” them, implying peace is a more important goal than victory, an INCREDIBLY subversive idea in a film with a military focus.

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