Film & TV

The Movie Messages of Women’s History Month

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel (Marvel Studios)
Hollywood turns complex women into cartoons.

In time for Women’s History Month, Kino has restored Sidney Lumet’s 1966 film of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group. An underrated artifact from the era of second-wave feminism, it combines women’s melodrama and personal political observation. McCarthy’s eight Vassar graduates facing the adult world in The Group’s 1933–40 setting personify women’s ambivalence about their social roles and WASP privilege. Lumet interweaves vignettes crudely, yet through McCarthy’s sexual frankness and the actresses’ emotional honesty (especially Shirley Knight’s Polly, Joan Hackett’s Dottie, and Joanna Pettet’s Kay), The Group exposes the fakery of women’s pictures today. Nora Ephron’s legacy is many steps down from McCarthy’s. We have settled for shrill exploitation in chick flicks, superheroine parity, and the devious political propaganda now disguised as monthly social-group “celebration.”

The Group anatomizes its upper-middle-class clique through their individual romantic exploration, New Deal zealotry, selfish careerism, even their sexual impulses. (Elizabeth Hartman’s Democratic character, Priss Hartshorn Crockett, conforms to her Republican obstetrician husband, and Candace Bergen’s lesbian, Lakey Eastlake, unnerves them all.) These period exploits are part of anti-Communist McCarthy’s foundational portrait of pre-’60s political confusion; an a capella girls’ glee-club soundtrack provides daring, ironic commentary. The Group doesn’t seem dated but feels even more timely — more necessary — now that crass Hollywood suppresses basic sexual instincts and progressive indie filmmakers attempt to redefine sexual ideology.

***

Comically lewd rapper Cardi B nearly won me over when she recently exclaimed that “Jussie Smollett f***ed up Black History Month!” Former stripper Cardi B sought pop stardom on her own exhibitionist terms, so it has fallen to others to mess up Women’s History Month: Hollywood’s Marvel franchise has done it with Captain Marvel, the latest attempt to entrap a politically targeted social group.

It’s more than coincidence that Captain Marvel opened the same week that Hillary Clinton announced she would not run for president in 2020. This newest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, designed to show valiant femininity, features a female superhero and renews the hopes of all those broken-hearted 2016 supporters who cling to the possibility that Hillary will have a last-minute change of heart and finally receive her (their) entitlement. The film’s current box office gross is $265 million.

In the meantime, Captain Marvel also satisfies trendy MCU fans by promoting a female superhero to military-officer status. The plot includes her repetitive battles alongside a neutered male colleague (Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury) as she outwits distrustful male creatures. Skirmishes with an alien bad guy (Jude Law) and a dubious mentor (Annette Bening) are intended to satisfy those Hillary Hopefuls who set about destroying the American political system with efforts to restage the election as proof of female worthiness and power.

Evidently Gal Gadot in 2017’s Wonder Woman wasn’t cynically calculated enough. Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, has what critic Gregory Solman recognized as a “Marsha Brady look” — that unmistakably angry, all-American Millennial scowl you see marching on the White House or in front of Trump Tower.

Larson’s Oscar win for the unpopular victim-movie Room made her a figurehead in Hollywood for third-wave feminist impertinence. (The actress earned $5 million for the role, according to Hollywood Reporter, and signed to a seven-film Marvel contract. This personal bonanza correlates to Larson’s assuming the public role of cultural scold, advocating gender parity in film journalism.) As civilian Danvers, then super-empowered Captain, she takes on the bellicose attitude of supporters who followed Hillary’s post-election imperative to “fight.”

Captain Marvel makes feminine belligerence unattractive. What used to be thought of as superior feminine intuition is replaced here by boyish aggression and dissatisfied spoiling for a fight. Captain Marvel messes up Women’s History Month because its juvenile story goes against the feminine confidence that Inger Stevens showed 50 years ago in 5 Card Stud when she told Dean Martin, “If I wanted to kill a man, I wouldn’t have to use a gun.”

***

The directors of Captain Marvel are former NYU film students Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. After the couple established themselves as indie sociologists via sentimental films about America’s dysfunction (Half Nelson, Sugar), they took off their hair shirts, signed on to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and became cogs in Captain Marvel’s machinery.

Even race-hustler Ava DuVernay knew that an offer to direct a comic-book movie was beyond her capabilities, but Boden and Fleck seize the opportunity to realize the hidden messages that Marvel sends to the pop audience.

Boden and Fleck are subordinate to Marvel’s F/X team, which makes sure that the action sequences move and explode on cue, with the requisite video-game pandemonium. The backstory of Carol Danvers’s becoming MCU’s distaff Captain is formulaic, combining generic points with political correctness. The story copies the Wonder Woman prescription that gives women physical prowess equal to or beyond that of men. This doesn’t necessarily express Boden and Fleck’s personal worldview (such as indicated by the racial and sexual messages of Half Nelson and Sugar) but, instead, reveals the indie couple’s willingness to accept Marvel’s cultural dominance — to speak its language, do its bidding, and eventually normalize it, just like Hillary’s political followers do.

Captain Marvel gives political cartoons a bad name. Instead of a form-fitting flight suit, Brie Larson’s Captain should wear a pink pussy hat, so we’ll know to laugh rather than salute.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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