Spoilers ahead for Captain Marvel.
Typically, in a Marvel movie, heroism is defined as self-sacrifice in order to save the world. Most Marvel heroes reach the climax of the movie, and in a moment of humility and selflessness, they risk their lives to protect others. And there’s nothing wrong with that being a definition for heroism. But it’s also a broad and repetitive way to depict a hero, and thankfully, Captain Marvel breaks free from that mold by giving specificity to Carol Danvers’ (Brie Larson) actions.
For the first half of the movie, we’re led to believe that the Skrulls are the bad guys, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), and that they’re looking for Dr. Wendy Lawson’s (Annette Bening) research because it will allow them to reach more planets and invade them. Halfway through the movie, we learn that Talos isn’t a villain and that the Skrulls aren’t invaders but refugees. Although they’ve been painted as bad guys by the Kree, the Skrulls are just looking for a new home, and they hope to use Lawson’s lightspeed technology to help them reach a new world where they’ll be safe from the Kree. Carol resolves to not only defeat her former Kree comrades, but to protect the Skrulls and help them find a new planet.
In 2018, the United States drastically cut the number of refugees it resettled. According to the Migration Policy Institute [via NPR], “Just 22,491 refugees were resettled in the U.S. in fiscal year 2018, roughly half the 45,000 cap.” Furthermore, “the number of Muslim refugees is down by 90 percent since fiscal year 2017, and Latin American refugee numbers are down by almost 40 percent, even though these asylum seekers are coming from regions that produce some of the highest numbers of refugees due to civil wars and violence.” This is clearly a result of the President and his party’s xenophobia and Islamophobia that has become baked into their policy decisions. It’s done in the name of “safety”, but in actuality it’s to create an enemy and then claim safety by banning that enemy. The refugee resettlement program is already incredibly stringent and the vetting process is rigorous.
You can see Captain Marvel and go through the film not thinking about refugees. The film doesn’t beat you over the head with its subtext or real-world parallels. But I like that the subtext is there and that there’s sympathy for the Skrulls and a questioning of allegiances. When faced with injustice, our hero doesn’t say, “Kree Empire, right or wrong!” She does the morally right thing because the evidence has shown her that not only did the Kree betray her, they preferred war over peace.
The fact that Captain Marvel makes it her mission to protect refugees makes her heroism feel more immediate and well-defined. When she does her saving-the-world bit by fighting off a bunch of missiles sent by Ronan (Lee Pace), but it comes off as rote, another set piece to give the people their money’s worth, but nothing that tells us more about her as a hero. It’s her relationship with Talos and the Skrulls that make us care about Carol’s actions, not how many spaceships she can blow up.
When you see a superhero you admire taking a specific action that relates to real-world events, it matters more than when you see them beating up a bunch of space goblins or stopping a giant thing from falling out of the sky. While Captain Marvel doesn’t need to slow down to explain its refugee metaphor, the parallel is clear and a potent reminder that heroism is helping the beleaguered rather than using them as a convenient enemy. For some, this may be “too political” (i.e. what people say when something doesn’t agree with their personal politics), but if you only look for heroism in broad strokes and stakes completely divorced from reality, then paradoxically your heroism becomes amoral. Captain Marvel takes a clear stand on the right thing to do, and the film’s hero is more powerful because of it.