For those keeping track (and for those who aren’t) Captain Marvel is the 21st movie in the popular film franchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s also the first of those 21 movies to feature a woman as the main character. It’s the story of Captain Carol Danvers, an air force pilot who gains superhuman powers and finds herself caught between two warring alien races who’ve brought their conflict to Earth.

In the real world, Captain Marvel found herself caught in a war of a different kind – a war of ideologies fought mainly on social media. One side attacked the movie with vehement anger for its supposed agenda of political correctness. The other praised it to the hilt as a pivotal film with a vital message for women and girls. All of this happened before the movie was released or anyone had seen it.

Before long, Christian bloggers joined the fray from various angles. Some felt the movie undermined biblical standards of manhood and womanhood. Others saw echoes of biblical truth and an affirmation that both women and men are made in the image of God.

What was it about Captain Marvel that sparked such a polarized reaction? More important, what does that reaction say about how the online community – including Christians – engage with culture and with one another?

[Spoiler alert: this article discusses themes, plot and characters from Captain Marvel. If you’re planning to see the film and haven’t yet, you might wish to do so before reading further.]

Reactionaries on one side

The sparks began to fly from the moment Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, announced they were making a Captain Marvel movie. Feige stated it was high time for a Marvel film about a female hero, and he intended Captain Marvel to be a strong role model with whom girls and women could identify.

This drew the ire of a reactionary fringe of online fans who hanker for the so-called good old days when the heroes of these films were mostly white and male by default. They dismiss any popular movie with a woman or person of colour in a central role as politically correct propaganda. And they engage in online harassment campaigns, heaping verbal abuse on the creators, stars and supporters of these movies.

Things got worse after Brie Larson, the star of Captain Marvel, delivered a speech at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards, calling for more diverse representation among film critics. Larson cited research showing that a disproportionate number of top film reviewers are older white males, compared to the makeup of the viewing public. She urged that critics from other demographic groups be given a larger place at the table, in order to reflect the experiences and viewpoints of a variety of target audiences for which movies are made.

Somehow Larson’s comments got twisted into inflammatory accusations that she hated white men and didn’t want them at her movie. No one bothered to fact check this fake news; it just got tossed about like a bunch of logs for the fire. The reactionaries descended en masse, attacking Larson in the vilest terms, including suggestions that she kill herself, and calling for a boycott of Captain Marvel. There was a coordinated effort to review bomb the film on Rotten Tomatoes to drive down its ratings, forcing the popular site to revise how it handled audience reviews.

Progressives on the other

There’s a wise adage for navigating the sometimes toxic waters of social media: don’t feed the trolls. Don’t give individuals fuelled by anger or hatred what they’re after: attention and a response. Attempts to engage them in reasonable debate are rarely if ever fruitful, and attacking them in kind, even less so. The context may be different, but there’s a clear echo of Jesus’ principle not to cast pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).

For the most part, fans interested in seeing Captain Marvel were happy to abide by that adage, keeping their discussions civil and focused on the film itself. But social media being what it is, a backlash was bound to come.

A vocal minority from the progressive end of the spectrum, apparently more interested in Captain Marvel as a symbol than as a movie, bit back against the trolls, trading taunt for taunt, insult for insult. They doubled down on insisting the film would be one of the most pivotal cultural moments of our time. They called for people to buy extra tickets they’d never use, just to offset a potential boycott.

And so, a movie intended to entertain and inspire both women and men had been co-opted as a political weapon between polarized ideologies. On the eve of its release, media bloggers who simply wanted to discuss Captain Marvel on its own merits were finding it harder and harder to do so. Those who liked the film risked being labelled social justice warriors, and those who didn’t might get branded as misogynists.

Christians on every side

Perhaps it was due to the divisive online chatter that Christian bloggers began weighing in on Captain Marvel from a variety of theological viewpoints, more than might be expected for a Marvel superhero movie.

One writer from a well-known blog with a conservative perspective took issue with a woman warrior going into battle to protect and rescue men, when in his view it’s the exclusive role of men to protect and rescue women. Since Marvel is owned by Disney, he compared Carol Danvers unfavourably to early Disney princesses who were saved by their respective Princes Charming – an unfortunate comparison, given that the women in those stories were often unconscious and saved by being kissed without their consent.

The responses to this article weren’t always the most gracious or irenic in tone. One particular rebuttal, published by a prominent online Christian magazine, was especially heavy on the sarcasm. Although it made some valid criticisms, these were undercut by snide comments about the author’s motives and character. The subtitle of the rebuttal was short and telling: “Oh brother” – the verbal equivalent of an eye roll.

Happily there were other thoughtful, even-handed voices joining the conversation. Several of them pointed to Deborah and to Jael in the book of Judges, women who performed heroic (and in Jael’s case, violent) acts to protect and deliver their people in time of war. And far from being condemned for it, Scripture in fact commended these women for their heroism and leadership.

Building on that, a number of bloggers stressed the need for heroic role models, for women as well as men. They cited the inspiring effect on women and girls of seeing a hero like Captain Marvel, someone with whom they can identify. As God’s image-bearers, both women and men have agency to do good, to fight for truth and justice, to protect and serve others. Whether in the real world or onscreen, a woman who acts heroically, risking her life to defend and rescue people, isn’t stepping outside of her divinely mandated role, but fulfilling it. She’s reflecting the image of God and the character of Christ.

What about the movie itself?

Contrary to the fears of some and the hopes of others, Captain Marvel steers clear of any heavy-handed themes about gender politics. Instead, it tells the story of a noble warrior hero – sometimes cocky, often funny, always likeable – who discovers that the cause she’s been serving is neither noble nor heroic.

She’s been manipulated into fighting an unjust war of oppression against an alien race that turns out to be not a dangerous enemy, but a band of persecuted refugees. She then rebels against her militaristic overlords and devotes herself to protecting the refugees and finding them a new home.

As one Christian blogger noted, it’s a highly unusual theme for a Marvel movie, one that’s dripping with biblical echoes of God’s heart for the poor, the powerless and the outsider. Indeed, during the course of the film, Carol learns that her emotions are not a weakness but a strength that fuels her compassion and unleashes the full extent of her powers as she defends those under her care.

Captain Marvel delights in subverting a number of standard superhero tropes. Despite the cosmic setting, it’s the movie’s characters and relationships that drive the story, rather than its epic plot points. The heart of the film is the friendship between Carol and Nick Fury, full of affection, humour and mutual respect, without the slightest hint of sexual tension.

In the talented hands of Brie Larson, Captain Marvel is an instantly iconic addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, inspiring and relatable not just for girls and women, but for boys and men as well.

A catalyst for gracious, thoughtful dialogue

Captain Marvel turned out to be a smashing box office success – a tribute to the fact that people will watch what they want to watch, despite the best (or worst) efforts of social media bullies with a political axe to grind, from whichever side. It’s gratifying to see that the vast majority of the viewing public isn’t being swayed by a loud, angry handful of online ideologues – at least not yet.

Nevertheless, the existence of these troll wars points to something darker in the way at least some people relate to popular culture, and to each other. There’s a degree of idolatry at play here, which twists the legitimate enjoyment of stories created to delight and inspire, and turns them into objects of worship that reflect one’s hopes, beliefs and very identity. Consequently, any disagreement about the movie’s merits, or even any perceived failure on the movie’s part to meet expectations, is seen as a personal attack and met with outrage.

Christians sadly – tragically – aren’t immune to this temptation. The battleground may shift to questions of theology and biblical interpretation, and the verbal weapons may be less sharp, but the attitude behind them produces similar results: eye rolls, sarcasm, disrespect for those who disagree. The anonymity and fake courage provided by social media covers a multitude of sins – and not in a redemptive way.

That being said, it was heartening to see so much of the dialogue surrounding Captain Marvel conducted in a gracious, thoughtful manner. Believers – brothers and sisters in good conscience – may disagree about what they think the movie is saying. They may draw their lines of discernment at different places in the sand, depending on their theology, their church tradition and their personal history. But they can engage the movie, and each other’s opinion about it, with intelligence and respect. That’s at least part of what it means to enjoy a film like Captain Marvel to the glory of God.

[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement of the movie, Captain Marvel, by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether Captain Marvel is appropriate for you or your family.]

Sources and further reading

Kelly Ladd Bishop, “Captain Marvel and the rise of women warriors: A response to Desiring God,” CBE International, March 12, 2019.

Cara Buckley, “When ‘Captain Marvel’ became a target, the rules changed,” New York Times, March 13, 2019.

E. Stephen Burnett, “Why are fans turning against their favourite franchises?Speculative Faith, March 5, 2019.

Jaleesa Lashay Diaz, “Watch Brie Larson’s speech calling for more critics of colour,” Variety, June 14, 2018.

K.B. Hoyle, “Captain Marvel and the importance of telling female hero stories,” Christ and Pop Culture, March 12, 2019.

Tyler Huckabee, “A ‘Desiring God’ writer is mad ‘Captain Marvel’ had the audacity to make a woman a hero,” Relevant Magazine, March 11, 2019.

Erik Kain, “The ‘Captain Marvel’ controversy underscores just how ridiculous we’ve become,” Forbes, March 14, 2019.

Greg Morse, “Behold your queen: The real conflict in Captain Marvel,” Desiring God, March 11, 2019.

Ryan Parker, “‘Captain Marvel’ sandbagged on Rotten Tomatoes within a few hours of opening,” Hollywood Reporter, March 8, 2019.

Michelle Reyes, “Captain Marvel’s care for the refugee,” Think Christian, March 13, 2019.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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