Captain Marvel is a big deal for many reasons. For one thing, it’s the first female-led film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a feat that has only taken them a decade or so to achieve. It’s their first woman directed picture too (Anna Boden shares duties with her collaborator Ryan Fleck), and three of the four credited screenwriters are women. Oscar winner Brie Larson will play one of Marvel Comics’s leading heroines, primarily influenced by the iteration written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. A week ahead of release, tracking for its opening had increased to $100 - 160 million. According to Fandango, the movie has garnered the third largest advanced ticket sales of any film in the MCU. Make no mistake, this film is a Big F*cking Deal.
It is not, as its most virulent opposition insists, a flop in waiting, nor is it a declaration of war against men. Driven in part by malice against Larson’s support for diversifying the pool of critics and journalists covering the movie, the usual suspects have decided that Captain Marvel is the biggest threat to masculinity in pop culture since The Last Jedi let Leia use the force Mary Poppins style. It’s not worth giving this crowd the benefit of the doubt. We’ve seen this playbook many times before and how violently it effects women and people of colour at the centre of it. These creeps’ most baffling defence is that this has nothing to do with misogyny. They don’t hate women: They just think this one particular woman has ‘gone too far’.
Now, to fuel that lie further, the same people whose review bombing of the movie led to Rotten Tomatoes changing their site have latched onto a new shield. To the surprise of basically everyone, their new hero has become the Robert Rodriguez film Alita: Battle Angel. The adaptation of the classic manga and anime has made $72.2 million domestically from an estimated $170 million budget, but overall has grossed around $350.4 million. It’s not exactly a flop but given the cost of the project and the obvious franchise hopes Fox had resting on its shoulders, it’s not a soaring success either. Reviews have been mixed, with some notable fans including Matt Zoller Seitz. There’s really not all that much malice towards the film or a great divide in the rhetoric surrounding it. Some people loved it, others hated it, but mostly it was just fine. Plenty of blockbusters have faced this fate and they present interesting case studies for the future of big-budget film-making in an expanded universe age. What the film isn’t, however, is a battering ram to launch against other female-led blockbusters.
Alita: Battle Angel has suddenly become the scrappy underdog and bastion of ‘real feminism’ to the same dudes who think two women in a room at once is a sign of a hostile gender takeover. Even James Woods has gotten in on the act. Don’t see Captain Marvel, they shriek, support a Strong Female Character in a movie that doesn’t hate white men!
This point proves all the more entertaining for those of us who actually saw Alita: Battle Angel because all of the men in that film are kind of ridiculous and stupid or just generally useless. There’s Christoph Waltz, who has never looked more bored, playing the sweet but ineffectual father figure; Mahershala Ali, the charismatic villain who has no real power of his own and sends stupid teenage boys to do all his dirty work; the Ed Skrein cyborg who is pathetically vain and gets his arse handed to him by an adolescent girl; and there’s possibly the most hopeless and mediocre male love interest committed to camera. The female characters, the few of them that there are, don’t fare much better thanks to a cliched script and adherence to very well-worn tropes, but it’s hardly a film that positions guys as the undisputed heroes.
But the men of Alita: Battle Angel aren’t why these guys are suddenly so desperate to elevate this film to new heights. Their interest lies with Alita herself, a cyborg with incomprehensibly mighty powers who also hopelessly naïve. She’s kickass but still needs a boy to teach her all about life. The Born Sexy Yesterday trope is all over the film, although it is remarkably less fetishistic than this narrative could have been. Still, there is a scene where she heals herself and suddenly grows bigger boobs, and boy does the camera want you to know that happened.
Alita: Battle Angel is nowhere near the worst example of these lazy sexist tropes. However, it is emblematic of just how common this sort of storytelling is throughout Hollywood. Even in a vastly ambitious technological marvel like this, the screenwriters can’t help but fall back on the old ways because they’re easy to implement, garner an instinctive reaction from audiences, and propel the story forward enough for the real focus of our attentions - the effects - to be placed centre stage. It’s the sort of narrative that thinks any woman who can punch a guy harder than he can punch her is empowerment, even as she literally offers her heart to a man who has been stabbing her in the back for months. It’s familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a movie, and the power dynamic is clear. She may be powerful but she’s never seen the ‘real world’ before. The first guy she bumps into who isn’t her dad can show it to her and leave her enraptured.
I haven’t seen Captain Marvel yet. Early word has been wildly positive, especially from critics I trust, and I’m looking forward to it. it’s still dishearteningly rare for us to see women front and centre with narratives not exclusively concerned with men, catfights or victimization. It’s exciting that Larson has used her larger platform to advocate for the issues she’s always supported, and I hope to see more of that from Disney/Marvel in the future (although I’m still mad that sexist bullsh*t like this forces me to root for a multi-billion dollar media monopoly that gets money from the US military as if they’re the underdogs here). It would be nice if both Captain Marvel and Alita: Battle Angel could stand as signs of Hollywood progress, but I do not expect the usual suspects to stop pitting women against one another for fear of losing the last vestiges of their dwindling relevance. The times are a-changing and Captain Marvel won’t be the last of her kind.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Marvel Studios