Captain Marvel's battle? Heroic expectations, toxic fans

Brie Larson suits up as Captain Marvel, as her comments around diversity in media has led Rotten Tomatoes to step up its troll-fighting measures.

The first female-led Marvel movie divides fans while soaring with some critics

You wouldn't like her when she's angry. Brie Larson embraces her emotions as Captain Marvel in the first female-led movie for the studio. (Marvel Studios)

There's a lot riding on Captain Marvel's fiery shoulders.

It's the first Marvel Studios film led by a woman, which happens to be co-directed by a woman, featuring an original musical score by a woman, opening on International Women's Day.

After a decade of mostly dudes suiting up in spandex and flinging magic hammers, the mighty Marvel Studios is putting a female front and centre.

But as the penultimate Marvel movie before Avengers: Endgame, due out in April, Captain Marvel has a lot of work to do, including introducing the character and teeing up the Avengers finale — all while weathering a wave of controversy.

Who is Captain Marvel? 

Marvel Studios's first female-led movie, Captain Marvel, is out in March. (David Lopez/Marvel Entertainment)

There have been many versions of characters named Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel — not to mention DC Comics' own (and completely different) Captain Marvel, now renamed Shazam! to avoid further confusion.

But in the world of Marvel Comics, the original Captain Marvel — a man — was introduced in 1968, with a comic about an alien hero known as Mar-Vell. The title was actually part of a strategy to trademark the name.

In the late '70s, with the women's liberation movement growing stronger, Marvel launched a new title around a supporting character named Carol Danvers, naming it Ms. Marvel.

Before she was relaunched in 2012, the comic version of Captain Marvel went through many names and costumes. This is from her Ms. Marvel period. (Marvel Comics)

Costumes for Ms. Marvel looked more like bathing suits, but that changed when writer Kelly Sue DeConnick created a new storyline for the character in 2012.

Under DeConnick, Ms. Marvel became Captain Marvel, an air force pilot who discovers she has superhuman abilities of strength, flight and energy blasts. To fit her military background, Captain Marvel's costume was reconfigured as a red, gold and blue flight suit, complete with helmet mode for interstellar adventures.

DeConnick's reboot of the character was so successful that the writer was brought in as a consultant for the movie.

Where does the movie begin?

The elite warriors of the Kree Starforce, from left to right: Korath (Djimon Hounsou), Att-Lass (Algenis Perez Soto), Vers (Brie Larson), Bron-Char (Rune Temte) and Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan). (Marvel Studios)

As Captain Marvel, Brie Larson isn't just battling expectations; she starts by slugging her way through an identity crisis.

The film's first glimpse of Larson is as Vers, a member of a Kree combat unit called Starforce. The Kree are an alien race with advanced technology, locked in a war with a shape-shifting species known as the Skrulls.

Although Vers has formidable strength and glowing power fists, she struggles with flashbacks of another life on Earth, where she was a test pilot named Carol.

When is the Captain Marvel movie set? 

Samuel L. Jackson plays a younger version of Nick Fury with the help of a digital de-aging process from Lola Visual Effects. (Marvel Studios)

On the run from the Skrulls, Vers crashes on Earth and wakes up in a Blockbuster video store.

The year is 1995. TLC and No Doubt are on the radio and the grunge look is high fashion.

The most surprising blast-from-the-past is a young Nick Fury; Samuel L. Jackson still plays the S.H.I.E.L.D agent, now 24 years younger, with two eyes and plenty of attitude.

As has been done before, Marvel Studios used Lola VFX — the same visual effects company who created digital facelifts for Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr. — to de-age the 70-year-old Jackson.

Captain Marvel marks the first time Lola VFX has digitally altered a character that appears in the majority of a film.  

What's behind the backlash against Brie Larson?

'About a year ago, I started paying attention to what my press days looked like, and the critics reviewing movies, and noticed 
it appeared to be overwhelmingly white male,' Brie Larson has said. (Getty Images for Turner Image)

In February, speaking to Marie Claire magazine writer Keah Brown, Brie Larson called attention to what she described as the "the overwhelming white and male" critics reviewing her films and participating in media opportunities.

After speaking with other critics of colour, Larson said she decided to use the power of Captain Marvel to make her press days more inclusive. 

Los Angeles film critic Yolanda Machado is one of the writers who benefited and was invited to join a set visit to Captain Marvel. The experience was very different than the typical film junket, she says. "I looked around and I'm like, 'Oh my god, we're all women. There's two men, and one of them was a gay man, and at least half of the women were women of colour."

The result was a refreshing change, Machado says, where they were able to more deeply explore issues of representations with the actors.

Rotten Tomatoes changes the rules

While the first wave of official reviews have generally been positive, Larson's original comments were interpreted by some as an attack against all white men, leading to a backlash on Twitter and a wave of negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

In a practice known as "review bombing," users flooded the film-review aggregator with negative comments weeks before the film opened.

On Feb. 25, Rotten Tomatoes announced it was disabling the ability for users to comment on a film before its release date, explaining: "We have seen an uptick in non-constructive input, sometimes bordering on trolling."

Rotten Tomatoes' approved film critics are still be able to review the film before the official release and can add to Captain Marvel's "Tomatometer" score, which is separate from the site's audience rating.

What do women think about Captain Marvel? 

Maria Rambeau, left, played by Lashana Lynch,and Carol Danvers, played by Brie Larson, are friends and fellow test pilots in the new Captain Marvel film. (Marvel Studios)

With female screenwriters, a composer and co-director, the studio is trying to sidestep the clichés and tropes that plague most female characters.

In her review for io9, Machado writes: "Carol Danvers is every bit as awesome as you had hoped."

She says her favourite aspect of the film is the friendship between Carol and Maria. (Played by Lashana Lynch, Maria is a fellow test pilot and friend from Carol's past.)

"You don't really see that portrayed on screen, in particular in comic book movies," Machado said. "In general, it seems like they don't understand that type of friendship really exists between women. The past 40 years watching all these buddy films, I never thought, 'Oh, I can have that too.'"

Captain Marvel also stars Jude Law as Yon-Rogg, Vers' teacher on the Kree homeworld, who continually reminds Larson's character to control her emotions. That, too, was something with which Machado strongly identified: "I pictured some of my old bosses saying things like that to me, or guys on the Internet."

Not all female film critics have been as laudatory. Lindsey Bahr, with the Associated Press, wrote that "the first female-led movie of the MCU deserved more," and the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday said that "the emotional journey of Captain Marvel is a strangely mixed bag."

Wasn't Wonder Woman the first female-led superhero film? 

Gal Gadot dodges bullets as Wonder Woman. (Clay Enos/DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Nope. That would be 1984's Supergirl, starring Helen Slater in a skirt as Superman's cousin.

More recently, Wonder Woman won over critics and audiences with the 2017 standalone film starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins — a soaring combination of heart and heroics that helped plot a new direction for the formerly grim and gritty DC Comics Extended Universe.

Where does Captain Marvel go next? (Spoilers ahead)

Larson is expected to reprise her role as Captain Marvel in the upcoming Marvel movie, Avengers: Endgame. (Marvel Studios)

At the end of Avengers: Infinity War, as Nick Fury is dissolving into ash, he manages to activate a pager which sends a signal matching Captain Marvel's uniform.

The Captain Marvel movie essentially acts as a prequel to the last decade of Marvel films, explaining how Captain Marvel and Fury first met, and setting in motion events that led to the first Avengers film. Brie Larson is listed in the credits to Avengers: Endgame and is expected to return for that finale.

Somebody warn Thanos.

About the Author

Eli Glasner

Entertainment reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national entertainment reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.


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