For the purposes of brevity, I am only going to discuss a single concept in relation to Captain Marvel in this critique, and the one I feel is the biggest issue affecting the movie. If I were to try to tackle every single problem with the film’s narrative, this article would probably be hundreds of thousands of words long.
So what is the biggest issue plaguing Captain Marvel that makes it a bad movie?
Lack Of Character Arc
In my opinion, the film’s biggest issue is the lack of a believable character arc for its main character, Carol Danvers.
Let’s talk about what a character arc is very briefly. A character arc is basically a term used to describe the transformation of a character throughout a narrative. The character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story. Since the change is often substantive and leading from one personality trait to a diametrically opposite trait (for example, from greed to selflessness), the term arc is often used to describe the sweeping change.
In short, character arcs allow the audience to see a character transform.
This is important because character transformation is a way to create audience empathy, which gives the viewer an emotional attachment to a character. If you think about Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film, his character starts as a selfish, greedy playboy who only cares about himself and his acquisition of material wealth. Throughout the course of the film, we see him transform into a character who cares about saving other people and fighting injustice, putting himself in harm’s way and using his incredible intellect for selfless reasons. The Tony Stark we see at the end of the first Iron Man film is very different from the one we saw at the beginning. And we also saw the transformation that occurred to bring that change, and it cemented our attachment to that character.
You’ll see this concept of a character arc play out in other Marvel movies with great effect. The Thor movies have this, as do the Guardian of the Galaxymovies, the Ant-Man movies, etc. Every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe brings its characters through some form of transformation, be it a physical one, an emotional one, or a moral one. In every Marvel movie, the main characters end the film different from how they began it in some way.
The issue with Captain Marvel is that it is the first Marvel film that lacks an actual character arc. The Carol Danvers we see at the start of the movie is the exact same Carol Danvers we see at the end of the movie. Her character does not so much transform as she does double down on what she’s been all along, and who she is, is never challenged.
This issue behind this narrative flaw is the choice to make the main narrative thrust of Captain Marvel an amnesiac story. This is often referred to as the “Search for Identity” plot, which is essentially an extension of a “Quest” master plot. In the “Search for Identity” narrative, a character goes on a quest to discover who they used to be in order to help determine who they should be. In this quest, they find clues about their past life, often times a past life they don’t remember, and through finding these clues they ultimately discover who they were in relation to who they currently are. This discovery either reverts them back to the person they used to be, or they reject the past to become someone new altogether.
A good example of this type of plot is 1990’s Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwartzeneggar. In that film, we see the quintessential “Search for Identity” story, as the main character of Douglas Quaid discovers he’s not a mild-mannered blue-collar worker stuck in a mundane existence, but rather a cut-throat and villainous spy embroiled in inter-planetary intrigue. In that movie, we see Quaid discover who he used to be and ultimately reject his old self in favor of the more virtuous and heroic person he’s become.
The issue where it relates to Captain Marvel is that because Carol Danvers doesn’t remember who she is, it is difficult to define her character at the start of the movie and throughout the narrative. From the first frame of the film to the final one, Danvers is a plucky, wise-cracking, rebellious soldier with incredible powers. The only real change that is made to her is that she becomes more powerful by the end of the film. Even when she discovers who she used to be before she lost her memory, she was essentially the same person — plucky, wise-cracking, and rebellious.
Typically, in a “Search for Identity” plot, you want to have a contrast between who the character is currently, and who they used to be. This not only gives the character a journey upon which to take, but allows the audience to more clearly witness the transformation of the character and grow attached to them.
Sacrificing Character In Service Of The Plot
Inthe film, Carol Danvers is kidnapped by the Kree after an accident where she absorbs a large amount of cosmic energy, granting her incredible powers. This accident causes her to lose her memory, so she is essentially brainwashed by the Kree to believe she is one of them, and because of her powers, they train her to be a soldier in their army, making her believe the alien race of the Skrull are her enemy. From a narrative standpoint, this is a good set-up for the quest of self-discovery the character of Carol Danvers is meant to go on. However, the problem is that Danvers is already too likableat the start of the movie.
Ideally, the proper way to set this character up at the start of the film would have been to make her cold, emotionless, and ruthless. A character with little to no empathy. A true soldier in an evil army. Then, throughout the film, as she discovers who she used to be, she fights against the cold and emotionless training of the Kree to once more embrace her humanity and become the plucky, wise-cracking, rebellious soldier she used to be — the kind that fights to protect people as opposed to killing or enslaving them.
I believe the decision not to do this was an attempt by the film’s storytellers to set up a plot twist where it is revealed the Kree are actually bad guys and the Skrull are their victims. Unfortunately, this misguided attempt at a plot twist only serves to detract from Carol Danver’s story. Already, the Kree have been painted as villains in other Marvel films, most notably Guardians of the Galaxy. This reveal then isn’t really a huge twist, especially considering the actual villain of Guardians of the Galaxy, Ronan the Accuser, appears in Captain Marvel.
The filmmakers’ desire to have a big plot twist midway through the film essentially sacrificed the necessary character arc to make Carol Danvers a truly great character the audience could connect to in favor of a single “gotcha” moment that most fans of the previous Marvel films could essentially see coming a mile away. Instead of giving Carol Danvers a transformative character arc, she’s made to be a static character in favor of a plot point.
Thus, the attempts to make Danvers a “likable” character from the beginning is necessary, because she will be unchanging. However, what if the character of Danvers had started the film as being “unlikable,” and throughout her narrative journey, she becomes likable? Would that not have been a stronger transformation to witness? After all, Marvel did this with the first Iron Manand Thor movies.
Dynamic Character versus Static Character
Imagine Marvel’s goal was to make Danvers more like Captain America, in the sense that the character of Steve Rodgers is also static. He starts his first movie as an idealistic, iron-willed, and noble patriot, and that’s how he remains throughout the movie. However, the audience gets to see Steve Rodgers’s struggle as the sickly wimp before he is transformed into the superhero Captain America. The audience is allowed to build great levels of empathy and connection with the character before he physically changes. And after that, we see the challenges that are set before him to try to get him to abandon his moral principles. Thus, though Captain America as a character is also static, he is constantly fighting AGAINST transformation because to transform would be the death of the character and all he stands for.
This is not present with the character of Carol Danvers. She never really stands for or symbolizes anything. Her hatred and persecution of the Skrulls stems from her being deceived about them, as opposed to knowingly embracing the Kree’s xenophobic philosophy. Thus, the decision to turn against the Kree — who she believed to be her friends and family — never presents itself as a struggle, nor does her Kree training give her a moral standard to rebel against. Her relationship and connection with her mentor Yong-Rogg becomes a non-factor in her decision to betray the Kree once she discovers they are the bad guys. There is no moment of indecision or moral dilemma when she decides to fight those she once considered friends and allies. She turns on a dime because “it’s the right thing to do.” But from the beginning of the film, the character has wanted to do the right thing, because she’s a good person. Thus, there is no transformation for her to undertake. Nor is there any challenge to the static nature of her character.
A well written film from a storytelling perspective would have placed the character of Carol Danvers first in the crafting of its narrative — above any plot twist the storyteller would have liked to incorporate. Due to placing a plot point ahead of characterization, I think it’s pretty clear that Captain Marvel fell into the trap of trying to craft a perfect character rather than a flawed and interesting one. In choosing to utilize the “Search for Identity” plot, the film failed to create a contrast between the Carol Danvers we meet when the film begins, and the Carol Danvers we see at the end of the film. When she finally discovers who she used to be, she does not have to accept or reject her previous identity, because that is who she already is. Thus, Carol Danvers lacks a character arc. And though she’s a static character, due to her amnesia, she has no real moral code to be challenged like Captain America does because she does not know who she truly is until the end of the film. In fact, it could be argued that she spends the first half of her own movie as the bad guy.
Often times, with static characters, the narrative thrust of their stories are attempts to change who they are. Superman is seen as a paragon of virtue, a Christ figure at times. He’s so powerful that nothing can really present any physical harm to him. Thus, his character is rather static. He is unchanging in his virtue and moral code. Because of this, some of Superman’s best stories are when he’s placed in a moral dilemma of some type. The same is true of Captain America. With a character of such power, like Captain Marvel, it is vital that is she have a strong moral center if she is meant to be static and without a character arc. But it is also vital that any narrative with her as the main character constantly challenge that static nature and attempt to change her so she has something to struggle against and challenges to overcome.
But none of this was done in Captain Marvel.
Carol Danvers was a static character with no attempts to transform her, thus ultimately making her dull and uninteresting. I believe this is why so much of Captain Marvel’s audience is ambivalent toward her, because they were never given the opportunity by the storytellers to actually connect to her through the lack of a character arc. Had Captain Marvel been a better crafted story, we’d have either gotten to see Carol Danvers transform in some way, or we’d have gotten to see the core of her character challenged in a manner that she had to effectively resist. Either of these things would have created the necessary emotional connection to the character to make the audience really attached to her.
But neither of these things were present in the actual movie.
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