Torn Between Two Captains

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…Well, three captains, really, but only two are being featured in major movies right now or in the immediate future. (And this is without even getting into Monica Rambeau or Genis-Vell or whatever other captains Marvel that Marvel Comics may have put out that I’m unaware of or might have otherwise forgotten.) Marvel’s Captain Marvel film has been out a couple weeks while DC’s Shazam (featuring the original Captain Marvel) opens in theaters on April 5, and I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss these two characters/projects, along with Marvel’s original captain, Mar-Vell of the Kree.

But before we get into this, we need to discuss a controversy that, unfortunately, has become all too common: Trolls figuratively carpet bombing review sites like Rotten Tomatoes in an attempt to sabotage a film. In the case of Captain Marvel, most of these trolls were scumbag misogynists and incels who wanted the movie to tank because it was the first Marvel film with a female protagonist. Said trolls have pulled this stunt before (and not without success, either) with the new Star Wars and Ghostbusters films because they resented their racial and gender inclusivity.

Thankfully, studio execs are getting smarter about handling trolls like this and Captain Marvel has been very successful despite these attempts at sabotage. I want to make it perfectly clear that I find these trolls and their motives to be repugnant, disgusting, and stomach turning; and their actions vile and reprehensible.

But.

These troll smear campaigns should not render their targets immune to legitimate criticism. And in many instances there’s a great deal of room for legit criticism to be offered.

Let me confess that most of the criticism to follow has been written by me before. Many times. And I will likely continue to repeat it in the future. It’s what crusty, old curmudgeons do—we sit around pissing and moaning until things get fixed or we die. (Spoiler alert: we always die without anything getting properly fixed.)

Legit Crit

In the case of the new Star Wars films, I made my case over a year ago for why these new films have proven themselves creative failures. (And it pleases me to know that Mark Hamill agrees with me.) But to give you the Cliffs Notes version, in case you don’t feel like clicking the links: The new characters are one-dimensional; they pretty much crap all over the original characters that I grew up with; and worst of all, the writers have no unified vision and no plan. They are literally making it all up as they go along.

As for the new Ghostbusters from a couple years back, I’ll confess I haven’t seen it. But I don’t need to see it to know I absolutely despise the premise. Why in the name of sanity would anyone want to do any kind of remake of 1984’s Ghostbusters—a virtually perfect film? You could not possibly improve upon the original, will inevitably be compared to the original, and will inevitably fall short of the original. So why would anyone be crazy enough to greenlight such a suicide mission?

Because Hollywood can’t resist remakes. It’s an addiction that they just can’t shake. I swear, if paintings were films, some studio would absolutely re-do the Mona Lisa.

Again, I never saw this new Ghostbusters, but I don’t need to see it to know that I don’t need, nor do I have any desire, to see a remake of Ghostbusters—because the original was pretty much perfect and I absolutely cherish it. Of course, there was a way this project could have worked. You could have kept the same cast, same director, same creative people, all of whom are extremely talented, and just done something new and original.

Allow me to draw a comparison to Watchmen here: Watchmen was first conceived as a story involving the classic Charlton characters, but it was decided these characters could be put to better use elsewhere. Still, they liked Alan Moore’s story concept so much that they suggested he create original characters for it—a most serendipitous turn of events that ultimately led to a better story.

For example: The Rorschach character wound up being superior to his inspiration, the Question—certainly within the context of Watchmen, if not overall. That’s because he was tailor made to fit the narrative and themes of Watchmen, which made the character not only a better fit, but the perfect fit. Ditto Nite-Owl over Blue Beetle, Dr. Manhattan over Captain Atom, and so on.

Also, the fact that it was now all original material freed the project from the prying eyes and editorial meddling it would have gotten otherwise. Now no one could tell Moore, “Blue Beetle wouldn’t do that,” or, “you’ve got Peacemaker all wrong,” because the characters in the story were now his. They began and ended in his own mind, making him the final, absolute authority on them. He no longer had to concern himself with previous treatments of the characters because these characters hadn’t existed before he made them.

Now imagine they tried to take a similar approach with the new Ghostbusters movie. Rather than just re-do Ghostbusters with a gender swap (which is kinda lazy anyway, creatively speaking, and very gimmicky), make them something else. Perhaps something inspired by the spirit of the original Ghostbusters, but now its own thing. Have them be werewolf hunters or something instead—and if you want to deal with feminist issues, wouldn’t werewolves make for pretty good symbols of toxic masculinity? These are the creative avenues that open up when you set yourself free and are no longer tied down to some previous concept; when you make something original.

Which is the best argument I could imagine for Hollywood to STOP WITH ALL THE !@&^!! REMAKES AND REBOOTS ALREADY. In addition, NOT EVERY MOVIE CAN BE A FRANCHISE. IT’S OKAY TO MAKE ONE GREAT MOVIE AND THEN MOVE ON TO SOMETHING NEW.

Seriously, Hollywood, can we just stop now? Please? I am begging you, please, just stop the madness.

Back to Comics

Along similar lines, there was a lot of anger and resentment a few years back over the replacement of some iconic characters in Marvel comics with characters that were either women and/or non-white. Ms. Marvel became Captain Marvel, the Falcon became Captain America, and Bruce Banner died and a new Asian character became the Hulk (just to name a few).

And again, a lot of racist, misogynist fans did not like this. These people are pond scum, of course.

But again still, this did not make the creative direction that Marvel chose immune to legitimate criticism.

(It should be noted that the status quo would eventually be restored, largely. While Carol Danvers remains Captain Marvel as of this writing, Steve Rogers came back as Cap and Bruce Banner got better. Depending on when you’re reading this, of course, they could all be dead again. And replaced. Or not.)

As mentioned, there were many bigots among the group that hated these changes, but there were plenty of us (raises hand) that hated the changes because they were simply bad decisions and lazy. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m all for inclusivity and multiculturalism, but why does this have to occur at the expense of the characters that are dearly loved?

And this is the problem. It’s not that these new/re-imagined characters are disliked, necessarily, but that these iconic characters we grew up with and love get taken away. The Miles Morales version of Spider-Man works a lot better precisely because the character does not supplant Peter Parker as Spider-Man. He is an addition, not a replacement.

Oftentimes, this approach also devalues the characters that are doing the replacing. Why would the Falcon, for example, want to give up his established, original identity to be Captain America? The implication, of course, is that it’s an upgrade of some kind, right? So Falcon is just a B- or C-level superhero, I guess? As the first African-American superhero in comics, he should be A-level. If he’s perceived as anything less, that’s a pretty major failure on Marvel’s part.

The fact that the Falcon is an African-American character taking over for a white character kinda makes this worse, no? Because the African-American character of the Falcon is less than the white Captain America character; he would definitely take the upgrade to being the new Cap, right? He’s more than happy to put aside his cultural identity as the Falcon and take the white guy’s identity as his own. True or not, intentional or not, this is what the approach would seem to be screaming into readers’ faces.

The new Captain Marvel presents similar problems. Back in the 70s, the “Ms.” form of address was a feminist declaration on women’s part, so feminism and equality are kinda baked into the very name, “Ms. Marvel.” Ergo, choosing “Captain” over “Ms.” would seem to detract from (if not outright abandon) the feminist aspect of the character, no? Again, like the Falcon, it feels like you’re telling us that Carol Danvers would rather be Captain Marvel than Ms. Marvel because Ms. Marvel was the name of a mediocre superhero that failed. She was a loser while Cap was a winner.

However, when you create an original character to represent a minority group—when the character belongs to this group, when it’s theirs from the beginning, from the very conception—these issues are avoided entirely. Moreso, said character can never really be taken away from the group(s) they were made to represent. As opposed to a situation like the Sam Wilson Captain America, Carol Danvers Captain Marvel, or the Asian Hulk, where you know that the character can (and almost inevitably will) be undone and revert back to its original, white-guy conception.

So instead of taking an established white-guy character and making him a woman or a person of color—which is rather lazy, cheap, and gimmicky—wouldn’t it be more respectful to put in the time, energy, and imagination to create an original concept to represent women or a people of color?

Alright, so having said all this… what did I think of the new Captain Marvel movie? Let’s save that ‘til the end, when I’ll include a little spoiler space.

Shazam!

Which brings us to the other Captain Marvel—the original (as in the very, very first) Captain Marvel of comics lore, even though his movie can’t be called “Captain Marvel” for legal reasons. In fact, scuttlebutt is that they don’t even use the name “Captain Marvel” in the upcoming Shazam movie; that they call the character “Shazam,” which… ugh. No, no, no. “Shazam” is the wizard’s name, people; the hero is Captain Marvel!

In this instance, I can’t be accused of allowing nostalgia to color my sense of right and wrong because the original Captain has never been published under a comic cover bearing his true name in my lifetime; his comic always bore the title, “Shazam” back in my day. But Good Lord, can’t we just call him by his name already? When the popularity of the entire medium was at its height, he was the most popular comic character of them all—yes, even more popular than Superman—and he’s not even allowed to be called by his name? Come on Marvel Comics, can you stop with legal nonsense? Calling him Captain Marvel does you no harm of any kind; LET HIM HAVE HIS NAME!

…Man, I’m doing a lot of yelling today. Anybody got an extra blood pressure pill they can spare?

Getting back to the primary topic: In the Golden Age, and even during his 70s revival at DC, young Billy Batson transformed himself into Earth’s mightiest mortal, the grownup Captain Marvel, with the utterance of the magic word “Shazam!” Now when Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. came along, they didn’t transform into adults; they remained essentially themselves when they turned into superheroes and their personalities remained their own. Not so with Billy/Cap.

This rendered Billy’s relationship to his superhero self a rather compelling mystery. Who was Captain Marvel? Was he Billy as an adult? Was he the ghost of Billy’s father somehow? A long-lost big brother? Or someone else entirely? The question was never answered. (In fact, the question was never even asked!) This lent the otherwise whimsical character some mystique; some deeper heft.

Then Crisis on Infinite Earths happened, resetting DC continuity, and Roy Thomas took on the task of rebooting the Captain Marvel character in the 1987 miniseries, Shazam!: The New Beginning. One of the things Thomas did in this reboot was give the adult Captain Marvel the juvenile Billy Batson’s personality. In other words, Captain Marvel was no longer a separate personality, he was Billy Batson. A kid in an adult, super-powered body.

While I admire much of Thomas’s work, I have to tell you I hated this choice. The aforementioned mystique was now lost (or more accurately, thrown away). In fact, it made the character a joke—Earth’s Mightiest Mortal, and one of the top three or four most iconic superheroes of all time, was now a dumb, silly kid.

And this is the direction the Shazam movie is taking, as I’ve even heard it described as a superhero version of the movie Big. I’ve also seen some scenes in a trailer where Cap appears to be throwing lightning from his hands. Bleh. No thanks. I’ll stay home and watch my DVD of the old B&W serial starring Tom Tyler instead.

Marvel’s Captain Marvel

Aaaaand we circle back to the MCU. Now I wasn’t planning on seeing this one either, but then I heard Jude Law was in it and that he’d be playing a Kree character, filling my naïve heart with hope. If you don’t want to me to spoil the Captain Marvel movie for you, stop reading now.

 

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I was hoping Law would be playing my beloved Mar-Vell, of course. And the more I thought about it, this made sense—where would she get the name “Captain Marvel” from otherwise, right?

Well, I wound up disappointed. Law wasn’t playing Mar-Vell, he was playing Yon-Rogg, Cap’s original antagonist in Marvel’s first Captain Marvel comic book series. There was a character named Mar-Vell, but the character was played by Annette Bening in a gender swap. And I get why they did the gender swap—they didn’t want the identity of their female protagonist to be derived in any way from some other male character. But emotionally, nostalgically, I miss my Mar-Vell. (Strangely enough, it turned out that no Mar-Vell character of any kind was really necessary anyway, as no one even refers to the character as “Captain Marvel” in the film.)

Overall, it’s a good movie. Fine entertainment. I wouldn’t call it great, as it does have one major flaw: its protagonist begins as a cipher and remains one throughout the film. Carol starts out having no memories of her life on Earth, and then gets at least some of her memories back (it’s still not clear to me if she got all of them back), but almost nothing of her character is revealed in the process. She reunites with her best friend and the friend’s daughter, Maria and Monica Rambeau, but doesn’t seek to reunite with any other family or friends. Even if she were estranged from said family or friends, wouldn’t she want to let them know she’s alive, at least? Or is she an orphan and utterly friendless apart from the Rambeau family? We don’t know because they never tell us.

Everything else was fine. There’s action, there’s humor, and one final Stan Lee cameo (where he is actually playing himself, appropriately enough) that will make you well up. Another reason I decided to see it was because I thought it might be more deeply connected to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, but it wasn’t—so if you were thinking of seeing the film for this reason, you can keep your powder dry and wait until it’s released to on-demand or cable.

And that should do it for the movies for the next six weeks or so. I’m sure we’ll get back to it when Endgame comes out. Happy Spring, everybody!

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