Let me premise this off by clarifying that I saw the film thrice, I loved it thoroughly in my first viewing, and I have written about it on multiple occasions. Most notably I am NOT arguing that Carol does not have an arc or a journey – see my thoughts on that here.
I do think, however, that the film has many problems that make it feel underwhelming, and the most serious problems for me appear in regard to what extent the script manages to make the audience care about Carol Danvers and the central twists of the film. Twists which alter and affect her, which form the plot machine of the film. For instance, one of the most puzzling questions I have had to answer to is, what are Carol Danvers’ flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities? Not that they are not there in concept, but that I really have to infer them or hear about them rather than see them play out on screen. It is the vulnerabilities and things a hero cannot do or struggles with that usually are more interesting as well.
While this is not central to what I am about to write, it figures in it because showing the internal tensions of a protagonist usually reveals much about them and makes us really afraid for them and their humanity. We hurt with them and we cheer with them because of them. I have found that Captain Marvel does not do this nearly enough given the plotlines it utilises to spin the story forward. It does not entirely feel like you go on a fully fleshed out emotional journey with her, even though conceptually it seems like you are. And there are good reasons for it that come down to writing and showing.
The twist in the film has two aspects – one upheaves the political world-building and one capsizes Carol’s world on a personal level. Let’s take them in order.
The political is personal and the personal is political – they bleed into each other. Carol sacrifices herself for Mar-Vell’s cause of helping the Skrulls – she acts selflessly and heroically, though she knows nothing about the Skrulls nor the Kree. Although by the end of the film Carol comes to empathise with Talos’ cause, because she too has lost family and sense of belonging (twice over), her first introduction to this intergalactic conflict is from the perspective of the Kree. It is their point of view that informs the character Carol, or Vers, is when we meet her, and it is that basis from which she develops. It informs the culmination of her journey, the twist of the film, and the consistency and wholesomeness of her character writing – something that ought to make her believable and engaging. Why does Carol care so deeply about her battle against the Skrulls, and why should we care to be on her side’s side? Why is her owning up to her role in the war meaningful but tough at the end?
When we meet Carol Danvers, she believes herself to be a victim of a Skrull attack (a lie) and that gives us one plausible source of motivation. But are we therefore to infer that Carol is seeking personal justice and vengeance? Does she want to control her powers and use them for her own sake or for the sake of the people who saved her life after the attack (explosion)? Is it a selfish or selfless motivation? In the very first scene of the film, where Yon-Rogg is teaching Carol to fight, she is told to control her emotions, which amounts to “no fireworks” with her hands. This is a fair fight, the point of which is to train her not to rely overly on her powers. That it turns out to have a more insidious undertone and subtext is currently irrelevant. Carol gets beaten in this unarmed combat scene and just blasts Yon-Rogg anyway. What does it tell us about her character? That Carol seems to be a sore loser, she has trouble controlling her temper, she is extremely competitive, and that she really-really loves to win. That Carol is willing to cheat in order to win is displayed in another scene she has with Maria. They race their cars to the base and Carol takes a shortcut, thus “violating pre-determined rules of engagement.” Given all we know about her life on Earth, it is safe to say Carol is a bit of a rebel in general, while also being a soldier – a contradiction in set expectations.
So, perhaps she holds grudges. Or, which I think is more likely, perhaps she has witnessed the people she connects with on Hala lose their loved ones or/and get hurt? Has she met Kree children who’ve lost their parents to the war? Carol’s character could be shown to identify with that, given that she is essentially an orphan in their society herself. Has she witnessed Skrull terrorists’/freedom fighters’ respective atrocities first-hand? Do the Kree have their own version of the events and reasons for why they are not satisfied with having destroyed the Skrulls’ homeworld? Does Carol care deeply about the ordinary Kree, Yon-Rogg, and the people who saved her? Is being grateful enough of a motivator to go to war over? Her mentor is a war hero, a person deeply respected and looked up to in their society – does he have personal reasons beyond the ideological ones that Carol is also aware of and sympathises with?
Sadly, none of this is shown or explored.
While all of these questions make Carol’s eventual turning against the Kree more striking and impactful it also makes Carol’s sympathy toward Talos and his family more emotionally satisfying to witness. She empathises with him even through the haze of war ideology, fear, and learned antagonism toward the Skrulls as the enemies of herself and the Kree. She empathises with Talos even though she probably knows that war is not black and white – something the film currently makes the Kree-Skrull conflict out to be. Showing her motivations for really having faith in the cause of the “noble warrior heroes” really addresses the tension that should accompany Carol’s switching sides and realising that she has fought for the stronger side that is now committing genocide. Carol is owning up to having done wrong and killed innocents, but the impact of that realisation is undercut by the audience never really witnessing the depth of her convictions, and therefore the meaningfulness of their eventual change.
Equally, conveying Carol’s personal motivations for wanting to fight the Kree-Skrull war at more depth addresses the fact that war is dirty and it is difficult to say where the line between right and wrong in conflict lies (should all Kree suffer now because of their leadership’s decisions?) – a hallmark of a hero’s struggle. It also adds much needed depth to the true antagonistic forces of this film by making the Kree’s and Yon-Rogg’s motivations and essence more complex and intricate, more life-like and realistic. Domination alone is never sufficient or interesting or true enough of a motivation and was, in my opinion, one of the greatest weaknesses of Captain Marvel’s film.
What about the twist that capsizes Carol’s world on a personal level? How does that inform her character-writing?
Carol starts out as having amnesia. Writing-wise this is a complicated, but not an undoable plot line. What makes this trope executable is this: even while the writing takes us on a journey with Carol as she is discovering about her past self, Carol Danvers already has a present self. Her present self (a Kree “noble warrior hero”) should captivate the audience – we should be able to care about Carol being an amnesiac, and about what that means for her. Film is a visual medium, which means that what a book tells you a film must be able to show. For instance, an amnesiac’s anguish and sadness over knowing absolutely nothing about herself, the feeling of helplessness, the craving for reassuring emotional connections with just about anyone in the absence of a strong, centred self.
It jots down a starting point upon which the film’s emotional tension centre (betrayal by Yon-Rogg and the Kree (her second adopted family, essentially) and the loss of control over one’s selfhood and life narrative) depends. Unfortunately, this bit of storytelling is entirely lacking. Most of the aforementioned examples are likely to have happened to Carol Danvers off-screen, at the beginning of her time on Hala – but Hala and Carol’s connection to the Kree, the emotional impact of the loss of a sense of self + nearly dying + integrating into a new life and culture + the impact her nightmares have on her newfound stable identity – how all of this impacts upon her character and her sense of meaning and purpose in life when we first meet her is pretty much not showed at all. After 6 years she is no longer a blank slate.
From the get-go, it does not do enough to endear the character’s starting position in the plot to the audience, and it does not endear Carol herself too much because not much about her present self is made relatable and nuanced enough when she is first introduced to us. The audience is not learning enough about the hero: her fears, her hopes for herself, her convictions, etc. Above all, it sets up a very weak starting point for the internal conflict Carol Danvers should very reasonably feel at discovering the truth.
When Carol discovers that her life with the Kree is built upon a lie and that she has effectively, at that moment, lost not one, but two lives, two versions of herself – it should be an earth-shattering moment. The big twist of the film should make Carol re-evaluate everything in her life. She tears up and is angry, but then promptly shrugs it off as Maria grounds her by telling her that she has faith in Carol, that she was a badass and a wholesome “self” all along, and implies that Carol can be so again (something greater than the sum of her parts). That is the only moment in the film where we really get to go inside Carol’s head as pertains to her internal conflict. But the magnitude of the twist and its effect on Carol regarding her re-evaluating everything about herself must happen off-screen, I suppose. As much of the rest of the story…
In order for that impact of what we knew about Carol/Vers at the beginning of the film to be truly poignant as it is turned upside down, the film should really show a continuing sense of conflict within Carol regarding her loyalties, the personal connections she has formed with the Kree vs the lost connection she has with Maria/life on Earth, the fact she has come to like being a “noble warrior hero” while now knowing it is not as noble as it seemed, the sense that she effectively “belongs” nowhere and with no one in particular now, the fact that she is about to kill her friends from Starforce (Att-Lass, for instance; “the only family she has” as Brie put it in Brazil), etc.
At the end Carol cracks jokes with Starforce – the people who have been her family and friends, and whom she is about to beat/kill. It is supposed to come off as this fun, empowering moment but from storytelling’s perspective it is tonally really weird. I don’t remember Steve doing that with Tony, or Thor with Loki – it undermines the emotional impact of the devastation the entire betrayal twist of the film is supposed to have. Remember, even though factually Carol’s life with the Kree may be based on falsehoods and deceit at its inception, the feelings she develops toward everyone and their lives are genuine and real. That is what makes the twist so painful.
However, this sense of internal conflict never really comes across. And it feels very hollow in terms of character-writing, despite there being a culmination of Carol’s journey through her re-establishing control over her own life. Since her self and its motivations/conflicts and likes/dislikes at the beginning of the film are devoted little to no time, none of this sense of internal conflict and its resolution could ever be potently shown. The absolutely wonderful moment where Carol asserts herself by having nothing to prove to Yon-Rogg is undercut by the question – did she ever really care all that much about her mentor and about living up to his ideals in the first place? Was she not a self-reliant rebel from the start anyway?
Also, as a side point, consider that whenever Carol is faced with a powers-related difficulty in the film, she overcomes it by simply “getting stronger.” On its own, that is not game breaking for a superhero film, but if it happens repeatedly and without any emotional tension to accompany it in any other way, it starts to come off as impactless. When she is imprisoned by the Skrulls and cannot use her powers, she eventually just shoots harder. When she is about to fall to her death, she concentrates and instantly knows how to fly. When she overcomes the Kree fleet, Carol does it again – simply gets stronger. It makes the character’s struggles feel a little bit too weightless sans all else I have outlined in this piece.
This, I believe, leads to accusations that Carol has “no arc” or that “she doesn’t change”. While these accusations are patently false, much in really showing the effects of drama in Captain Marvel’s titular character’s life remains to be desired. The film does try to do a little too much. It’s about Carol and her relationship to Yon-Rogg. Until it isn’t. It’s a buddy cop comedy with Nick Fury. Until it isn’t. It’s about her deep friendship with Maria. Until it isn’t. It is about Carol’s relationship with the Skrulls. Until it isn’t. It’s about Carol finding herself, questioning herself, re-evaluating herself, struggling with herself. And then it isn’t.
I hope they remedy that in the future, because in essence, Carol Danvers’ story has so much potential to be emotionally touching and interesting, and I hope for it dearly, since I love the character. Given the many similarities Carol shares with Gamora’s and Starlord’s stories, I would hope to see her cosmic opera as well realised as the Guardians’.