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Posts Tagged ‘Marvel’

Captain Marvel, Judith, and the Power of Two

In feminism, Film, gender, girl culture on April 25, 2019 at 4:14 pm

Just hours before Avengers: Endgame opens nationwide, I finally have a few things to say about its immediate (but not chronological) predecessor Captain Marvel. As I walked out of the theatre after watching Brie Larson’s depiction of Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, all I could think of was – hang with me here – the 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem “Judith.” This is a retelling of the biblical “Book of Judith” in which Judith, an Israelite who, along with her people, has been attacked and had their town plundered by the Assyrians, slays their ferocious general with the help of God. Without question the most dramatic scene in the poem is the one in which Judith, after a drunk and lascivious Holofernes passes out pre-fornication attempt, prays to God for assistance and then decapitates the Assyrian general. This is what sprang to mind for me as I was watching Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel relive her own childhood and young adult “failings” at the reminder of her erstwhile mentor and superior officer Yon-Rogg.

Obviously this post is full of spoilers for the movie; I’m sure you’re caught up considering Endgame is on the western horizon, but just in case: I’m going to talk about one of the final scenes so continue at your own risk…

Image result for captain marvel poster

Key to the “Judith” scene, both for the poem and for Captain Marvel, is the detail that it takes Judith two strokes of a sword to decapitate her foe. As I tell my students in my British Literature course, this accomplishes two things simultaneously. Since this poem has biblical source material, the anonymous 10th century poet couldn’t change it too much – that is, we still have to have a female hero. As God’s agent and vessel, Judith can’t be changed to a man. But this is the Anglo-Saxon era, in which being a warrior, being strong and having the ability to defeat one’s foe, is a man’s role. Women, despite their strength and authority in the co-existing Viking world, are not Anglo-Saxon warriors. A woman powerful enough to lop off Holofernes’ head in one stroke is a tremendous threat: even in literature, that’s too much power. Thus Judith needing two even after appealing to God for help and being inspired – literally in-spirit-ed by him – limits her strength and reminds us that she’s still “just a woman.”

But Judith’s two strokes, and her limitation by virtue of her femaleness, does something else as well. If she were able to perform on a godlike level, she would be too close to God. She can garner divine help, but even with the spirit of God to help her, she is just a human. And there is no better way of emphasizing human weakness than by choosing as the representative a category of human generally thought of as weak. That is, if with the help of the Christian God even a woman can defeat a monstrous foe – even if it does take her two strokes – what a powerful God that must be! So Judith’s “weakness” does three things:

  • it establishes her femaleness as a limitation (or as a defining quality that entails her power must remain below a certain limit)
  • it reminds us that to be human is to be only human – we are only capable of so much
  • it makes central the difference between one and two.

Here’s where Captain Marvel comes in. At once, it operates as a mirror and as a sharp contrast to “Judith.” As Carol Danvers prepares for what we think will be her final showdown against Yon-Rogg, he taunts her and knocks her down, telling her that without what his civilization gave her – without the superpower the Kree Supreme Intelligence supposedly controls and can take back – she is only human. A series of scenes we have witnessed before flash before her and the audience: Carol as a young child falling down on the beach. Carol as a slightly older child striking out at softball and crashing in a Go-Kart. Carol as a young woman swinging, flailing, and falling during military training. These images are meant to quell her. They are meant to remind us that since she is just human. And we know from seeing them earlier in the movie, when with every one her gender is overtly or implicitly referenced, that not only is she just a human, she is just a female human. Her power has limitations. Here, we see the mirror of “Judith”: being just a woman, the weakest kind of human, means you cannot succeed on your own.

But Danvers, drawing on the strength required to be not just human, but a female human, especially one who has been told time and time again that it is because she is female that she will continually fail, now shows us the immediate aftermath of these scenes of defeat: an immediate aftermath we had not previously been allowed to see. Child Carol on the beach tumbles, but gets up again. Child Carol regrips the bat, ready to swing again. Child Carol emerges from the Go-Kart dirty but otherwise unscathed. Trainee Carol stands up after hitting the ground underneath the ropes course. We see, as Danvers tells Yon-Rogg, that she is powerful because she is human. All through their interactions, we have seen Yon-Rogg tell Danvers that she cannot reach her full potential because she is too affected by her emotions. She cannot turn them off. He and his people, it would seem, shut down emotion and fight coldly, objectively, for the good of the collective. Early in the movie he tells her to “fight with this,” pointing to her forehead, “not with this,” pointing to her heart.

But Danvers is all heart. Throughout the movie, Larson-as-Danvers exhibits wry humor, sass, and true feeling. She jokes with Nick Fury, she encourages her best friend and former fellow pilot’s daughter, and she deeply, deeply feels and needs to redeem the unfairness of how she is treated as a child: “you let him drive,” she tells her father accusingly.

In so many superhero films, heart is what defines humanity. We fail, yes, but we succeed because we feel. Our emotions lead us. Sometimes they lead us into trouble, but our ability to feel and to fight for what we believe is what pulls us out and helps us win. And even from the time of the Anglo-Saxons and “Judith,” emotions have been the province not just of humans, but of one particular category of humans: women. So here, rather than femaleness standing in as a representation for humanity’s physical and mortal weakness, women as holders of emotion stand in for what makes humans as a species great.

Just as Captain Marvel flips the script on the idea in “Judith” that female weakness stands in for human weakness, it similarly u-turns the concept of two as lesser than one.* Whereas Judith’s two strokes are meant to show the limits of her power, for Danvers, two is about full accessibility of her power. Shortly after we see Danvers remember how each of her “failures” led to her determination to press on, she tells Yon-Rogg fiercely that, using the “powers” granted by the Kree, she has been fighting with only one hand. She reaches to her neck, pulls off the bionic implant that she – and we – are realizing was actually a restraining bolt, and casually flicks it aside. Why fight with one hand when we have two? Use our heads and our hearts. Use all of that power. And so when Yon-Rogg encourages her to resist and “control” her power, to fight him with her mere human strength to show she’s good enough, rather than calling on an external force for help, she can tell him with feeling, “I don’t need to prove anything to you” and blast him with her full strength: the power of her humanness and her supercharged core.

Here, then, is what twoness tells us: first isn’t everything. It’s not weak to fail and then get up and try again – the second time can be better. We don’t have to be just one thing – in fact, being both is more powerful. Danvers can call on her Kree training and her human heart and be more than she was as just one. And finally, and what an apt lead-in to Endgame itself, doing everything alone isn’t always the right choice. It’s okay to depend on others: two (or three, or even more) is not weakness. It is strength.

 

 

* I’m not saying here that Captain Marvel is conscious of or trying to make reference in any way to “Judith.” I sincerely doubt it. The movie-makers might not even know about the poem. I’m just looking at them in conversation based on the weird constellations my brain made to see what such a comparison might tell us.