Minor spoilers ahead for Captain Marvel.
Over the weekend, Marvel’s Captain Marvel went higher, further, faster at the box office. Box Office Mojo reports the first female-led MCU film raked in $153 million domestic with a whopping $302 million international. That makes Carol Danvers’ (Brie Larson) origin story the third-highest March opening ever in the United States and the sixth largest worldwide film debut. Not bad for a film that has been buffeted by angry man-children determined to bomb Captain Marvel reviews and critics with a flood of spilt digital ink.
Audiences flocked to their local cinema to see how exactly Captain Marvel will tie into Avengers: Endgame. But what they got — on top of a rollicking action-adventure — was a peek under the hood at the specificity of the female experience in a world that still tries to keep one hand tied behind our backs at all times. But where as previous MCU heroines have worked within the system — Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) use men’s expectations of women against them — Carol Danvers is here to break the system. All summed up in a single line, delivered with devastating effect:
“I don’t have to prove myself to you.”
First of all, to get a better idea of who Carol is, we need only turn to the comics. Kelly Sue DeConnick, the writer who heavily updated Captain Marvel into the version that ended up on the big screen, was once asked by Polygon what the difference is between Steve Rogers and Carol Danvers. Her answer is a feminist anthem: “Captain America gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol gets back up because ‘Fuck you.’”
Captain Marvel is a lot of things. It’s a movie about a soldier realizing they’ve been used for war crimes and trying to make things right. It’s a movie about the bonds of friendship. It’s a movie about learning not to judge a group of people based on propaganda. But mostly, it’s a movie about a woman throwing off the shackles of a man who tried to convince her that without him, she is nothing. That her powers are not her own, and if she doesn’t play by his rules, that he will take those powers away again. That she should be grateful. That she shouldn’t be so emotional, what is she? Some kind of hysterical shrill? Over and over again, Jude Law‘s Yon-Rogg throws every trick in the abuser’s book at Carol. Watching her take the reins of her own life, realizing that she is her own power and no man can take that away from her, is as satisfying as it is aspirational.
In the end, there is something cathartic as a woman watching Carol refuse to fall into the superhero version of the “Debate me!” trap. When Yon-Rogg is on the ropes, he tries to goad Carol into a physical fight. He moves the goal posts, telling her it isn’t a real win unless she can beat him with her fists instead of her powers. That she is weak if she uses her Tesseract-given gifts to their full extent. That he knows Carol is better than that, which any woman will recognize as code for “I am feel uncomfortable when we are not about me.” Giving little girls (and grown women) a hero who specifically looks at a man, smirkingly laughs in his face while declaring she isn’t having his shit, and then LITERALLY DRAGS HIM is so on the nose for this moment in history that I want to buy the writers a tasteful edible arrangement.
“I don’t have to prove myself to you,” is a gauntlet thrown. A sacred vow. A promise made with a glint of revolution in its eye. Don’t like the way Carol Danvers talks? Don’t like her costume? Her personality? The fact that she doesn’t smile enough for you? Too bad. That baleful dying bleat of the patriarchy has no power here. Not now. Not ever again.
But we can’t talk about Carol’s middle finger to the patriarchy without taking a glance back at feminist icon Peggy Carter. Prior to Captain Marvel, the best known rallying cry for female fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was from Agent Carter. Peggy states “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.” It took me a while to figure out why Carol’s declaration hit me harder but it boils down easy enough: Peggy lived in a society where she had to push back against sexism like slogging through waist-deep pea soup everyday. The only way for her to thrive was to know, in her own mind, that she was making a difference. Knowing your value is a bulwark against emotional body blows and micro-aggressions alike. It keeps you from being scooped out by each slight and catcall and patronizing comment. Peggy put her head down and got the work done so that Carol could lift her head up and declare she was here to take charge and if the men don’t like, there’s the door.
Now that she’s here? We won’t go back.