Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel ★★★

Our heroes raid a village to retrieve one of their undercover operatives from a group of shapeshifting aliens, and the confrontation itself shapeshifts into a bizarre hall of resonance. Captain Marvel is a game of slipping recognition and identification and this first mission is one of the more audacious scenes in recent popular cinema- it perturbs as it chills. The indigenous villagers mimic Star Wars' Tusken Raiders, scuttling at a distance in their robes, but our view of them is abruptly broken down and abstracted across thermal scope and military drone interfaces. The warm, tactile familiarity of this moment of recognition is transformed into digits, and then represented on screen according to the logic of depersonalised warfare. In the process of abstraction the figures become formless, once reconstituted they take the form of 'enemy', and behind this visual breaking/building we recognise that a decision has been made: these figures are already dead. We call out to a familiar image but the one that responds is not the one we expected, so we try again but our voice is long gone, refracted in the haze.

When these abstractions take physical form again, we are on the ground with them, locked in an embrace, our weapons scanning their body language and facial expressions, our shoulders hunched against the screen so as to say 'don't look at me'. The forms plead toward us and beg and grow bold and shudder into themselves, but our arms remain drawn, demanding they complete the ritual. A two-way transformation started with this dance, and it's important for all parties involved that it finishes before the night is over. Our backs remain turned, our arms extended, our part in this is done. Then, in a flash, the spell works: aliens spring from the rags and rush at us. This comes as no surprise- we knew what they were all along. They have four limbs, a head, a neck, eyes and ears and mouths and noses. They are hideous monsters. They are not us because they look nothing like us. What Captain Marvel knows and Captain Marvel will learn is that a ritual such as this is never complete. The formless enemy demands more bodies, and eliminating it requires constant upkeep. It demands great sacrifice because it is a process, not a conclusion.

Later, in a setup directly mirroring McCarthy-era science fiction, Carol arrives on earth and the story changes: the enemy is assuredly not us, precisely because it looks so convincingly like us. At this stage we must ask 'Who is this enemy who looks monstrously unlike us abroad, and who on our soil is most dangerous precisely because it could well be us?' Like the devil the enemy's greatest skill is deceit, so it is when we are least aware that it is among us that we can be must sure that it has already won. We will never be safe from it, and we will never be done with it. Captain Marvel dramatises an ugly truth about its own cinematic universe, which is the nebulous 'good' that can only define itself with and against an equally substance-less, shapeshifting 'bad'. What might seem at first like a cop out (that the group hunting the formless enemy is externalised as another group of aliens called the 'Kree'), is the filmmakers' way of destabilising the rigid 'good' who sought its negative reflection in that aforementioned raid sequence. That hall of resonance is upsetting because in it we see all of suffering echoing out in front of the rückenfigur, its square shoulders saying 'I knew what you were all along'.

This is the absent face of the Final Solution which did not die at Nuremberg, but instead found endless hosts in its parasitic state to sustain any and all forms of imperialism across the twentieth and twenty first centuries. The 'final', any historian will tell you, was a misnomer- the 'Jewish problem' was a formless people unlike 'us', dangerous for the very reason that they could convincingly be 'us', among 'us'. The only thing 'final' about it was that its adoption constituted the final thought a person could make before never thinking again. To forfeit thought in the moment for servitude to eternal process- the automatic process- to kill and kill and never stop killing. It is in precisely this mode that we see twenty first century conflict framed as a 'hard decision' that we have lost the imagination to see ever ending. This raid sequence which breaks into discrete moments the act of seeing, processing, and representing, the other, the same, the enemy, is shocking because it is so clear and yet so hallucinatory in its time-travelling pathology. In it I saw IDF and ICE raids but also quotidian armed patrols in Baghdad, images of Border Patrol units stretching back to the proxies of the Cold War, and from there ripples in Captain Marvel's vision of the nineties which is McCarthy's witch-hunt at the desert of the end of history. The filmmakers' way around Marvel's commitment to military recruitment propaganda is what makes the work so powerful, namely that it locates parasitic evil in the act of perceiving oneself as 'good' against the projected image of the 'bad'. It's simple, because this is not complicated. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if it drives people away from the recruiting booth.

One issue with the origin story comes in the rare case that the hero is more interesting than their Super form. Captain Marvel is so clearly a point of certain departure for Carol. There will never be another film where she runs up a staircase, or jumps a chain link fence, or does karaoke at a desert bar, or walks in the long grass of Maria's Louisiana home, or gets in a car and drives at full speed down the highway talking shit and listening to music. From this film on she will never 'be' in a world that we recognise- instead she will exist as an abstraction, occurring whenever information is needed to explain the matters of an unfamiliar information set. By the end of the second act she is Carol and then at the end of the film she is subsumed into the Marvel body as a useful plot device and hyperlink. With the film's approach to visualising the politics of abstraction it is unclear whether or not this is done intentionally: we lose Carol as she becomes digitised as Captain Marvel, and then absorbed as data into Marvel's nebulous 'good', but I say this as though an answer here would matter. Perhaps there's comprehensive subversion at play, or perhaps the major plot beats were all mandatory- really it is the absence of another film where she can ever 'be' that is the tragedy.

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