Episode 558: Some are Born Kree…

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we tackle “Captain Marvel,” the latest blockbuster entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather tie on their flannels and head back into the early 90s for Captain Marvel. We discuss the film’s unique feminism, why fair doesn’t mean fair for everyone, and how Captain Marvel is really a French and a German move at the same time.

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22 Comments on “Episode 558: Some are Born Kree…”

  1. Jay #

    Please do an episode on Netflix’s Umbrella Academy. There’s a lot of themes and influences I’d love to hear you guys dissect. And its quite good

    Reply

    • clayschuldt #

      I too would enjoy a deep dive into Umbrella Academy. Maybe before “Dark Phoenix” comes out?

      Reply

  2. Three Act Destructure #

    I love the idea of Blockbuster as a stand-in for omnipresent institutions that nevertheless can be wiped out of existence. Especially since it was one of the few companies that we allowed to penalize us for perceived “bad” behavior.

    I sense that there’s some kind of statement in this film’s use of the 90s that can basically be summed up as “this too shall pass”, but which never really gets cashed out because our familiarity with the decade is different than Carol’s. At least for now, we haven’t seen her realize how much of Earth can change over just thirty years.

    A noticeable gap in the movie’s social awareness is its treatment of race. It is strange watching a protagonist be surrounded by a primarily black supporting cast, get caught up in a literal race war, and never have their film comment on this in any way. It is especially strange to see that race war be subsumed into a message about feminism instead of, well, race. Meanwhile, Nick Fury continues to not exist in the same part of the MCU wherein Killmonger and T’Challa are discussing the race politics of his country. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it all works. It just seems like it shouldn’t upon reflection.

    I’d also like to point out that this whole story plays very differently for comic readers. Ever since the marketing push began, it was clear that Marvel was signaling to us that one thing we should be excited about is that this was actually NOT going to be Carol’s story as we knew it. Truthfully — inevitably — in some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t.

    In the comics, Captain Marvel is a character defined by re-invention. She started out as a quasi-Lois Lane figure for the superhero Mar-Vell (disguised on Earth as Wendell Lawson and gender-flipped for this version as Wendy Lawson; which I thought was pretty neat). Mar-Vell died of cancer, which was covered in Marvel’s first ever graphic novel. He was a character that nobody cared about who, in death, became a major footnote in the company’s history and he, unlike most heroes, actually stayed dead because of it.

    Meanwhile, Carol Danvers had gone on to get struck with an explosion from a Kree device, the psychemagnetron, and developed powers of her own which would only come out during amnesiac spells in which she would take on a different personality and solve crimes. She dropped out of the Air Force and became a journalist working under J. Jonah Jameson. Confused yet? It gets worse.

    Although her first solo title, Ms. Marvel (that’s mizz Marvel), was a purposely feminist comic, it also wasn’t very good and didn’t sell very well. So she bummed her way over to the Avengers where she was eventually written off in just about the worst way possible: a man from another dimension hypnotized her, raped her, forced her to give birth to his son which was actually himself in the past (time loop incest!) and then kidnapped her from Earth. The Avengers thought this was all just dandy and wished her the best.

    Chris Claremont, famous X-men writer and also feminist, brought Carol back in a big way. In her first story she showed up at Avengers Mansion and told all of her ex-friends off for being rape-enabling pricks. It was pretty great.

    Then she went on to get her powers stolen by Rogue, become an alcoholic and sort of fade back into obscurity again.

    Until Kelly Sue DeConnick, who has a cameo in this movie (during the train sequence, by the way, speaking of reflected identities tying into creator figures), finally wrote the definitive Carol-Danvers-as-CAPTAIN-Marvel stories in the 2000s, with the new costume that we see in this movie and the new attitude that we see in this movie along with it. This is basically the only Carol Danvers stuff that matters but it also has to constantly reference back to older stories. The movie, on the other hand, can just default to the modernization and use those themes about the past to make up a totally different history that’s more in line with how we think of Carol now.

    So, in a way, this is also the latest step in a decade-long process of public transformation for the character. Which is great!

    Still, the movie doesn’t divorce itself from the comics. If you’re one of the Marvel readers then the Skrull twist hits a lot harder since they’re still mostly bad guys on the comics side. And the Kree being blasted to bits doesn’t hit at all. In the books, the Kree are violent fascists who started the war and have lost their biological ability to evolve which essentially makes killing them a little like killing clones. Disturbingly, I’m so trained to think of them this way that I never even questioned it when Carol started wiping out her own squadmates.

    Oh, and as for the “who’s a Kree?” question: there are blue Kree and “pink” Kree who are organized into a rigid caste system. “Pink” means “human-looking” to a white Marvel writer from the 1970s but now includes Djimon Hounsou soooo… “non-blue” Kree?

    By the way, is there anything to Carol’s connection to both space and the Air Force and The Right Stuff? I know that Pancho’s is a reference to the bar from both real life and the earlier film but is it as simple as that or is there more under the surface here that I’m not catching? I feel like there’s something to dig into here about the space race and alien hysteria in the 90s and hidden shape-shifters making first contact post-Cold War (a period which Fury calls out specifically) and mixed-up identities but it all feels a little scattershot and superficial. Maybe if this were Marvel’s first film about aliens then it would have a little more punch. I don’t know.

    Reply

    • Three Act Destructure #

      Wait, I think I just realized what this movie was missing: there wasn’t a single reference to the X-Files.

      Reply

    • clayschuldt #

      I agree the lack or racial commentary is unusual. In 1995, the US would be only a few years removed from the L.A. riots and OJ Simpson trial. Now here is a race of green shapeshifter refugees and no one comments on this?
      This might be a result of most of the characters being unfamiliar with American politics. Captain Marvel, the Skrull and Kree wouldn’t be aware of race politics at this point, but Fury and Maria should be painfully aware of this issue.
      My memory of the ’90s is there was a huge effort to avoid talking about race and the X-Files was connected to this problem.
      The X-Files became popular in a decade when UFO sightings were popular. There was a quasi-news show called Sightings after all.
      Every month there was video tape of UFOs hovering over America, meanwhile video evidence of police brutality against minorities was rare. Fast forward to 2019, when we all have video recording devices on our person at all times, UFO videos are rare and videos of police shooting unarmed minorities is on the rise.
      The ’90s was a decade where is was easier to get Americans to believe in lizard people infiltrating the government than believing racial inequality still exists and this film endorses that belief.

      Reply

      • Peter Fenzel OTI Staff #

        I don’t know which implausibility bothered me more –

        1. That this is a movie about a black cop in Los Angeles only three years after the L.A. riots who gets locked up with a white woman and beaten up by an old white man in a fistfight, and yet he never mentions race once.

        2. That this movie is about a young white person who leaves Earth in 1989, comes back in 1995, teams up in Los Angeles with a wisecracking Black law enforcement officer, and yet she never mentions Beverly Hills Cop once.

        Reply

    • Jay El #

      [A noticeable gap in the movie’s social awareness is its treatment of race. It is strange watching a protagonist be surrounded by a primarily black supporting cast, get caught up in a literal race war, and never have their film comment on this in any way.]

      The charitable reading is they didn’t want to scare off white folks and chose to use the Skrull refugee storyline as their way of addressing 2019 xenophobia/racism. The uncharitable reading is this is just typical behavior for white feminism.

      I’ve been saying since I saw Captain Marvel that I would happily watch an entire prequel movie (hell, a whole Netflix series) focused on Late ’80s Fighter Pilot Shenanigans Starring Carol & Maria: Now With Even More Top Gun References! Especially in light of the guys’ extensive discussion of sexism in the podcast – whatever Carol faced in the Air Force, Maria would’ve faced twice over for being female *and* black. I would’ve loved to have gotten her story, too. How *she* picked herself up whenever she was knocked down.

      Reply

      • Three Act Destructure #

        Thank you for pulling that thread. I was thinking along the same lines when Pete mentioned DADT. There’s a long history of fighting between white feminists and other civil rights groups, going back at least to the battle over the 15th amendment.

        One way I’ve heard this summed up is that “white women choose feminism because the only people with more power than them are men.”

        Which is too cynical to be completely true but also cynical enough that it can’t be completely false either.

        Maybe too much for a Marvel movie to tackle? After Black Panther, I think not.

        Reply

    • John C Member #

      Heh. I’m pretty sure my first exposure to Danvers was in her return to the Avengers. I had absolutely no clue what was going on (I would’ve been in first grade or so), but I knew it was something amazing…

      Reply

  3. Jay El #

    20 minutes into the podcast so far –

    Yondu Udonta is Centaurian – of the Zatoan tribe, if we go with the comics, which heavily code them as primitive indigenous stereotypes – and he says in GotG vol 2 that his parents sold him into slavery to the Kree military, who used him as a battle slave. Which only reinforces the overall anti-imperialism messaging in Captain Marvel, imo.

    Reply

  4. Jay El #

    All right, coming back after having listened to the whole thing –

    Lots of good stuff. I love the French vs German halves discussion especially.

    I was under 10 years old for most of the ’90s – and raised in a religiously conservative household to boot – so while I got a lot of the ’90s pop culture references thanks to osmosis as an adult, I don’t have the same personal connection to them. It all came off to me as mostly wink-wink-nudge-nudge “get it? get it? it’s the ’90s? get it?” harmless fun, like the writers were giggling to themselves a lot in the writer’s room, and the directors/producers mainly wanted to indulge themselves. So agreed that it didn’t come off as particularly authentic, but it doesn’t bother me much because geek stories are basically 90% about the aesthetic anyway. We’re supposed to be used to this kind of Rule of Cool/Rule of Funny pandering.

    I’m surprised you folks didn’t delve into the Skrull storyline more, especially in the context of recent political and cultural conflicts. Starting with Winter Soldier, extremely blatantly reinforced in Thor: Ragnarok, and now continued in Captain Marvel, there’s been this surprisingly open trend of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism being baked into the MCU (muddled though it may be by the baggage of the superhero genre).

    In the specific case of Captain Marvel, we have the powerful, blonde, military-trained All-American power fantasy character brainwashed and manipulated by the Fascist Empire into believing that she’s fighting against deceptive terrorists who disguise themselves as groups of harmless civilians in order to cross the border and invade the Empire. Only she finds out that they’re actually refugees who are seeking asylum. The whole thing was so incredibly obvious to me – verging on ham-fisted – I’m kind of surprised they didn’t try to work the word “caravan” into the script somewhere.

    Not that I mind the ham-fistedness in this case. That narrative does align pretty firmly with my personal politics, so an an emotional level, seeing it validated in multi-million-dollar blockbuster form was super satisfying.

    Reply

    • clayschuldt #

      The Kree played by Gemma Chan mentions that she was on earth before and described it as a “shit hole.”
      Since this is a PG-13 film the swearing is kept to a minimum so this stood out. The audience I saw it with reacted in surprise and nervous laughter.
      I am fairly confident this is a reference to Trump’s “shit hole” comment made last year during this film’s production. A caravan comment might have been too on the nose or too recent to make the cut.
      But it is true, the Marvel films have been pushing an anti-colonialism message for the last few years. I would add Black Panther to Jay’s list too.
      My cynical side feels Disney is trying to push anti-colonialism ideas to counteract fascist undertones in superhero stories and possible distance their company from an imperialism. If any film studio is an Empire, its Disney.
      My super cynical side feel Disney realize there is more money to be made pushing anti-colonialism ideas because audience won’t pay to see that.

      Reply

  5. ScholarSarah #

    There’s something weird about the use of the military in the Marvel movies: standing armed forces are not useful when it comes to violence, but they are really good at transporting people.

    In Avengers, the Helicarrier is disabled halfway through and doesn’t show up to the final battle.

    In Avengers 2, the Helicarrier shows up to the final battle, but it is not used as a weapon, but to evacuate the Sokovian people.

    In Civil War, government forces try to apprehend Bucky, but a lot of agents could have died if Cap wasn’t there to protect them, and I’m not sure they would have captured Bucky without Black Panther’s intervention. Later the government has its own force of superheroes, but can’t stop Cap from getting on the Jet, and they fail to acknowledge and respond to the threat posed by the other Winter Soldiers.

    Then in Captain Marvel, Wendy Lawson, a plane designer for the Air Force designs something “to end wars”, which felt really ominous to me, but then turned out to be a way of moving the Skrulls to somewhere the Kree couldn’t follow.

    It’s a weird dichotomy, where government forces fail when they try to use violence, but are useful in non-violent large scale mobilization. And the violence is effective deployed by individuals acting on their own accord, which, through contrast, feels to me like it’s evoking a sort of citizen soldier thing.

    Like, I know it’s probably an incidental effect that’s necessary to have a Superhero movie, but there is something heartening about that.

    Reply

    • Three Act Destructure #

      This is an interesting point and I think that it warrants mentioning in relation to how Captain Marvel fits in with the rest of the MCU as well. Famously, the military backed out of assisting with the production of the Avengers because of the way that SHIELD was portrayed:

      https://www.wired.com/2012/05/avengers-military/

      Which is in stark (ha ha) contrast to the way that the USAF was heavily involved with coaching Brie Larson for this movie. I guess they got over the whole SHIELD thing.

      I’ve often wondered if part of Marvel’s goal in getting away from their earlier Ultimate Universe-inspired stuff (which, being post-9/11 comics, treated SHIELD less like James Bond and more like Homeland Security) was to reduce their reliance on Pentagon resources.

      I think there’s also something to be said about the strange relationship between Marvel and the military more generally:

      https://io9.gizmodo.com/heres-marvels-canceled-promo-comic-for-defense-contract-1819898744

      Figuring out where to draw the line on showing the reality of the armed forces vs. propagandizing them, especially when they’re savvier than ever about how to exert control over their portrayal in entertainment, is a difficult thing.

      I think that placing them in a constant support role is probably a part of those negotiations.

      Reply

  6. yellojkt Member #

    In any discussion of notional fairness, I am always reminded of this 19th century quote:

    “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” – Anatole France

    Reply

  7. yellojkt Member #

    Several of my media outlets have remarked that Captain Marvel is a movie totally without a romantic subplot. Some have inferred a lesbian subtext into the relationship between Carol Danvers and Maria Rambeau (aside: I know the name of her daughter is canon in the comics, but just how on the nose is that surname?) while others dismiss it because of a line in the movie which clearly indicates that they were roommates with separate bedrooms, yet that does not totally eliminate the possibility that they were lovers.

    And much is made of the buddy cop banter between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury without anybody getting a whiff of sexual tension. Yet Brie Larson’s angriest line reading in the entire movie occurs in the mid-credits stinger where she demands “Where’s Fury?!”

    Still, the yearning for LGBT representation has also come up in the trailer for Frozen II where a mysterious third female character is vignetted. The internet cries for #GiveElsaAGirlfriend are deafening in my very isolated echo chamber. I fear we are only going to get My Little Ponyish paean to the power of platonic friendship rather than a relationship consummating kiss like happens at the end of all Hallmark Christmas movies.

    Reply

    • Dave #

      In terms of romance, I got flirtatious vibes between Fury and Carol near the middle and ends of the movie while Maria and Carol did genuinely come off as friends that had been forged in the fire of discrimination and achievement. Maria didn’t act like a woman who just found out her long-dead lover was still alive.

      While I tend to like “lost memories” stories, it might have been better to just tell the movie chronologically from beginning to end.

      Reply

  8. Mike O #

    1. Godwining is fine. As I see it, it just speeds up the whole debate process, rather than shutting it down. It only appears to be an argument stopper because the parties weren’t able to go beyond a certain point. So it’s better to just light speed to that point and save time.
    2. I associate Captain Marvel with AIDS in another way. AIDS weakness the host, and allows other sicknesses to harm the host. Captain Marvels cynical feminism campaign to push a product by a billion dollar corporation only weakness feminism, and will allow other “sickness” an easy target to harm it.
    3. I associate Captain Marvel with Hillary Clinton in another way too. Again, a tyrannical authority (Marvel / Clinton) cynically using social justice to push their product to the masses. And in both cases corrupting the media for positive coverage and silencing dissenters (Disney putting its weight to tamper with youtube search algorithms, RTs features. Democrats/Gov. establishment silencing “fake news”).

    Reply

    • John C Member #

      Gosh, someone still obsessed with Hillary Clinton and worried about outdated views being silenced? I’m shocked.

      Reply

  9. John C Member #

    To Pete’s minor point about using Skrulls to sneak around loss in the Marvel Universe, I point to “Avengers Forever,” where Kurt Busiek basically rendered all of Marvel’s history moot by asserting that “Space Phantoms” (time-traveling henchmen who can transform themselves into whoever they like) have been arbitrarily kidnapping heroes and villains, replacing them with other Space Phantoms who’ve been brainwashed to think they’re the kidnapping victim, and…did things to mess with the timeline during their tenures. Deeply goofy, but the upshot is that any character who died or acted strangely was probably secretly an alien with a dumb haircut and crazy eyes, and the regular character is fine.

    I should probably point out that the fascist leanings of superheroes is really more of an artifact of the (second) Red Scare and the eventual Comics Code. Early comics had plenty of cops and lawyers frustrated with not being able get convictions and turned to extrajudicial killings, unfortunately, but Superman stories, especially, started out pretty deliberately anti-authoritarian and just about helping people in the shadows.

    The Code (and DC’s internal regulations that influenced it) made it difficult to sell stories that suggested anything amiss with authorities and officials, and also required upholding of “social values.” That led to decades of regressive stories with superheroes largely acting as government agents, violently enforcing the law and societal norms. This was squarely during the formative years of most modern writers–I’m pretty sure Stan Lee was the last of the writers who was an adult during those early days and the Code wasn’t abandoned until the 2000s, meaning that only the youngest writers lived in a world without it–so the premise as “how superheroes work” persists.

    I think this also partially explains how Marvel deals with race, as other people are rightly pointing out. Because presenting systemic racism would never really fly under the Code, especially racism in policing, Marvel still spends a lot of time trying to deal with prejudice through metaphors, like Mutants, aliens, or fictional wars with fictional countries. And that might be for the best, since they’re…not always great about handling the issues without the metaphors.

    Reply

    • Three Act Destructure #

      Hell, they don’t always get it right WITH the metaphors. That whole “m-word” controversy is proof of that.

      Reply

      • John C Member #

        Wow, yeah, looks like that was a mess.

        Could’ve been the start of an interesting story illustrating exactly those “passing” and “assimilation” kinds of controversies in the real world, but it doesn’t sound like the writer had any interest in that and just wanted yet another excuse for “family on opposite sides of a fight” nonsense.

        Reply

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