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Captain Marvel: Subverting Expectations

Last year, a wild, devastating galactic ride called Infinity War roared into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I shared my thoughts in a post here at the Rabbit Room because I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. Now I find myself in the same situation, this time with the newest MCU film, Captain Marvel. So just like last time, let me emphasize that this article assumes you have seen the movie. Major spoilers ahead!

One can’t be too careful in an internet conversation, so let’s start our discussion with a high-five and an agreement that we’re allowed to disagree. What I’m about to share are my own reactions to the film, and I’d love to listen to yours if you’ll listen to mine.

But me? I loved it. Every high-soaring, shape-shifting, flerken minute of it.

This was a movie of delightful surprises, from the sweet Stan Lee tribute in the opening to the a-ha reveals of MCU continuity to the ‘90s throwback details. We not only saw younger versions of our S.H.I.E.L.D. pals Fury and Coulton, but also a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy Ronan, and a surprising—and significant—appearance by the tesseract, the Infinity Stone that started it all. I’m still giddy about the revelation that Carol Danvers is an Infinity Stone horcrux. Brilliant!

But the film’s best surprise, the game-changing heart of the movie, was its major plot twist. After two acts of savage battle against the devious, goblin-like Skrulls, Carol learns something unthinkable: everything she knows about the Skrulls is wrong. The Skrulls are good guys.

But in the comics, the Skrulls have never been good guys.

The Skrulls debuted way back in 1961, in issue #2 of Fantastic Four, the comic book series that launched the Marvel universe as we know it. That issue begins with the Fantastic Four using their powers maliciously—Mister Fantastic switches off the power for the city, Invisible Woman steals diamonds, the Thing smashes a drilling tower, and the Human Torch scorches through a statue dedication ceremony and melts the statue. If this sounds completely out of character for our heroes (except maybe the Human Torch), well, say hello to the Skrulls. A quartet of shape-shifting Skrulls has taken the place of the Fantastic Four, to discredit them and turn humanity against them. Once this threat has been neutralized, “no power on earth can stop the Skrull invasion!”

Though the Fantastic Four stop the invasion within twenty-three pages, the pattern continued for the next fifty-plus years of comics: the Skrulls invade and conquer planets, but thanks to our Marvel superheroes, the earth was a nut they could never quite crack. Meanwhile, major wars raged on between the Kree and Skrulls. Although the Kree were often brutal and duplicitous, in their war against the Skrulls, root for the Kree. The Skrulls are bad news.

The story engaged me more fully due to my familiarity with the source material, not because it was represented faithfully, but because it was subverted. Jonny Jimison

But that made them great villains. 2008’s Secret Invasion series revealed that Skrulls have been living on earth for years, using their shape-shifting abilities to assume the identities of powerful individuals—sleeper agents, preparing for the Skrull invasion. The series tagline was also its theme: “Who do you trust?” In the months leading up to Captain Marvel, it was a safe bet that we were about to see ground laid for a cinematic Secret Invasion: the crafty aliens would integrate themselves into society in this ‘90s-era prequel, so that in modern-day films, we could see our heroes discover that some of them had been Skrulls for years.

As I entered the theater to watch Captain Marvel, the thought of trusting the Skrulls never entered my mind.

But everything I knew about the Skrulls was wrong.

Carol Danvers had to unlearn years of Kree training to see the Skrulls for who they really were. I had to unlearn years of Marvel comics to see the Skrulls for who they really were. And thus Marvel undermined their own sixty-year storytelling tradition to take me on Carol’s journey. The story engaged me more fully due to my familiarity with the source material, not because it was represented faithfully, but because it was subverted.

But sometimes I want the story to stay true to the source material. When a movie undoes my expectations, sometimes I love it, and sometimes I hate it.

On a recent episode of the Libromania podcast, Jeffrey Overstreet and Steven Greydanus had a thoughtful conversation about some of their favorite movie adaptations. I’m quoting from Greydanus here:

There are multiple ways in which a film can engage its source material: you can try to make a film that’s as faithful as possible. You can also try to be faithful in spirit. But then there’s a third kind of engagement which I think is very interesting, where the filmmaker is subversive of the source material in some way, where they engage it critically. What I think provides an interesting challenge to these kinds of questions, though, is when a film departs from its source material in such a way that you feel like something has been lost and something more interesting has not been put in its place.

As a storyteller, I want to understand more fully when to deliver on expectations and when to subvert them. Captain Marvel gave me what I think is a pretty good reference point—by undermining everything that I knew about the Skrulls, they helped me identify more directly with the hero and her journey. In a word, the result in me was empathy.

I feel for you, Carol Danvers. And we both feel for the Skrulls—misunderstood, in desperate times, in a desperate galaxy. Aren’t we all?

But that’s just one example, so let’s keep the ball rolling. Has a story ever subverted your expectations in a good way?


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