Spoilers: What Does 'The Art Of Self-Defense' Have In Common With 'Captain Marvel'?
It’s hardly unusual for movies to cycle through similar themes, seemingly independent of each other yet in rapid succession. Remember that year when we got two big-budget animated family films about ants?! But sometimes those similarities are subtler beasts and present themselves where you’d least expect them. Like, say, in a huge honking Marvel joint and in a quirky lil indie flick that — somehow, some way — just so happen to feature nearly identical climaxes.
(So, obviously, SPOILER ALERT because I’m going to be talking specifically about the ends of these two movies!)
Let’s flashback to March 2019, when your intrepid Pajiba review team was on the ground in Austin, TX to
eat our weight in BBQ cover the SXSW Film Festival, like we do each year — except that this year was a little different. This year, the opening weekend of the fest also happened to be the opening weekend for Captain Marvel, a movie we all wanted to watch and a movie I happened to be assigned to review. Which is how we found ourselves seated at an AMC across town at roughly brunch time, trying to squeeze in our dose of high flying spandex adventures before we settled into a solid 4 days of hardcore journalism (you know how we do). By now, you’re probably aware of exactly how that film ended: With Carol (Brie Larson) blasting her former mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) with her light-up fist before declaring “I have nothing to prove to you”:
Sure, Carol saved the Skrull refugees and the entire Earth from a Kree battalion, but it was this particular showdown that provided the emotional resolution to the film’s entire arc. In fact, it gave us the film’s entire argument. Here was the MCU’s first solo female superhero casting off the dictates of a superior who simultaneously suppressed her and took credit for her — and then she used her own unique powers to defeat him. Because why follow rules of engagement that are specifically designed to weaken you? Why not play to your strengths? Why is using the tools at your disposal somehow cheating, especially if you never agreed to the conditions of this face-off in the first place? Who are we letting define “strength” anyway?
Carol blasting Yon-Rogg instead of engaging in the depowered fisticuffs he demanded wasn’t underhanded at all. It was a rejection of Yon-Rogg’s entire philosophy — a philosophy that said her emotions are a weakness, that who she is is a weakness, and that success could only be achieved by becoming more like him, and beating him according to rules he’d decided on himself. If you think it was somehow cheating, it’s because you’re not recognizing how unfair the game was to begin with. With this scene Captain Marvel proves it’s not feminist just because it’s about a female superhero — its feminism lies in the way it identifies and rejects unequal power structures that are designed to suppress, and its message is clear: injustice is anyone who tells you that you are not enough exactly as you are.
Of course, women aren’t the only ones who fall prey to this kind of rigged game, and that’s where the toxic masculinity allegory of The Art of Self-Defense comes in. The film is just releasing this month, but it premiered at SXSW and it was a strange experience, watching it just a day or so after Captain Marvel. Stylistically, the two films are vastly different. Instead of ’90s nostalgia, The Art of Self-Defense is deliberately timeless, and instead of a self-assured hero, there is a scared, confused man in the center of the plot. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is traumatized by an assault, and his journey to feel safe again leads him to a dojo run by the mysterious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). There he begins to learn karate — but more than that, Sensei teaches him how to be the thing he fears. Essentially, how to be a “man” in the most ludicrously backward of terms. It’s a dark satire, where straight-faced jokes compete with disturbing brutality, and it is by no means a feel-good romp — but by the climax, it’s clear both films had something similar to say.
Both Carol and Casey were led astray by manipulative mentors, only to realize the extent of the deception. And they are both left trying to right the wrong they’d unwittingly been a party to while also knocking down the power structure that allowed it. Of course, Casey’s last stand also happens in a one-on-one face-off against Sensei — a fight to the death, no less (Sensei, after all, has been leading a Fight Club-esque thug squad on a murder spree for kicks, and was the one responsible for the assault that traumatized Casey in the first place). Following the rules of the dojo, this should be a physical fight only, since resorting to guns is a sign of weakness. But Casey, who has a yellow belt in karate that he has barely earned and has only been practicing for a handful of weeks, is no match for Sensei on brute strength alone. So he brings a gun and shoots him.
The movie makes it clear that guns aren’t the solution to personal safety (in a succinct scene at a gun shop earlier in the film), and I don’t believe the message in the climax is that guns are any other sort of answer at all. To me, it underscored the point that Sensei is nothing more than the lord of his own little fiefdom. His power came from a game of his own making, and his weakness was assuming that everyone else would stay inside the bounds of his rigged game as well. Unlike Carol, Casey is not and never was some sort of “hero” — but just like Captain Marvel, he had to cast off the version of “strength” he’d previously accepted and find his own. Turns out, he’s good at thinking outside of the box. To convince everyone else at the dojo that he’s somehow miraculously beaten Sensei, he dips his finger in the bullet hole and claims he’d mastered a mysterious technique Sensei’s own master knew which involved punching a single finger through your opponent’s skull. And then he hands the dojo over to the most qualified leader and knocks himself back to being a beginner.
Eisenberg talked to The Ringer about filming the movie while the first Weinstein exposé hit, saying:
“Everybody in the cast and crew spent the morning reading about, you know, violence that had been horrifyingly perpetrated against our colleagues in our industry. And then we’re going to set and filming a movie that talked about misogyny and the way men can be really violent and dangerous, and the way our culture can promote that kind of behavior.”
Now, I’ve read some criticism of The Art of Self-Defense, saying it’s “a very male fantasy about ending the patriarchy” and I can see that. Carol, of course, didn’t kill Yon-Rogg, and she didn’t smuggle in a tool to topple him either. But I also think it doesn’t glorify the violence. As director Riley Stearns explained to Slashfilm:
“In a weird way, it’s a lose-lose-win for Casey. Sensei wouldn’t have respected his decision, set aside the fact Sensei dies. He wouldn’t have respected Casey using a gun to defeat anyone. Casey sacrifices his own morality in the process. Also, he wins. I think he wins in the end, and he’s going to have to keep that with him the rest of his life, but I think he’s probably sleeping pretty OK at night knowing Sensei’s not around to fuck with people from that point on.”
I’m always leery of any story where the end justifies the means, but I also give this one a bit of leeway precisely because I saw it so close to Captain Marvel, I think. Maybe I’m reading too much into these climactic potshots, but it struck a chord with me that both these films avoid going the traditional route in overthrowing power. So often heroes outthink or overpower their opponents, but all within the bounds of the existing hierarchy. They play by the rules. Instead, both Captain Marvel and The Art of Self-Defense question the validity of the rules themselves. The climax isn’t just about defeating a villain — it’s about rejecting the villain’s entire value system. And that’s something we should see more people doing, regardless of gender. It’s not enough to just question the players. We need to question the game itself.
Header Image Source: Marvel/Bleecker Street
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