Captain Marvel: Deus Ex Machina Or Rorschach Test?

When it comes to film, generally I have a straight forward opinion about a movie.  I liked it, or I didn’t. I feel like it worked, or I felt like the film was convoluted.   Sometimes I am generous about the language I use to describe a film I review.  But my opinion remains. solid.  And then there are those rare films which seem to defy my ability to pigeon hole my feelings about it.  It may be I will hate it later on.  Or it’s possible it will grow on me with further viewings.  And then there are those films which represent Rorschach tests for the audience, revealing more about the audience than it does about the filmmakers or their abilities.  I feel, whether intended or not, Captain Marvel represents the first Rorschach test in the Marvel Universe.

Part of this conundrum has to do with Brie Larson and outspoken comments she made about the film prior to its release.  She decided she needed to take a political stand about things in the world, and hoped her character would be a physical representation about the importance of those physical representations.  Whether she did this to generate business for a film she figured would be underwhelming and to generate a cause celeb for the film, it’s hard to figure.  Because honestly, I enjoyed watching the movie.  And for those with tweens, my daughter considers it her favorite Marvel heroine now, so I would hardly call it horrible. 

But to understand where I am coming from, I have to take you back to my first experience with a film I consider to be the quintessential Rorschach test: Magnolia.  Before I had seen it, I had a load of people coming to me insisting how brilliant it was.  They expressed to me how it represented a complex web of guilt, sin, and redemption.  This meant they felt it represented a religious experience constructed on film.  And then I heard others telling me how it represented the meaninglessness of life.  No two people held the exact same opinion and yet some themes seemed to shine through.

“Walt Disney was a master of the human psychology. His sense of timing, sense of speed. In a sense, those cartoons are like Rorschach tests.”  – Twyla Tharp

I try not to watch films with a closed mind and so I emptied out of my thoughts about what deeper meanings could be buried in the film.  And when the first scene came on, talking about this strange set of circumstances all leading to the most improbable conclusion imaginable.  And the wildest coincidences created the most fantastic conclusions.  This piqued my curiosity.  But after watching two and a half hours of film exploration about the implausible and the meaning we impose on the meaningless, I realized how this film had impacted people.  It through so much random crap out there, we could impose whatever meaning we wanted to on the plot, subtext, etc.  Basically a Rorschach test.  

This crazy, wild film, with a great turn by Tom Cruise, represented a Rorschach test for audiences.  The film could have been about anything.  But it’s creators basically told the tale of wild things happening, and defied you to impose meaning on it, creating more buzz about a film than the movie was worth.  Our opinions about the film only revealed our own thought processes, and nothing more.

© Marvel Studios 2019

Brie Larson, by taking a feminist critique of Captain Marvel character, dares us to make a Rorschach test out of Captain Marvel, jerking us around in the process.  For those on the left, she defies you not to like it, because if you don’t you are not “woke enough.”  And for those on the right, she dares you to not like it, creating a buzz around the film and generating a larger audience for her Marvel film than it possibly deserved.  From Marvel and Disney’s perspective, making Captain Marvel into a feminist hero was a win-win.

So people go around liking or hating the film before they have even seen a frame.  Their distaste of the film goes even deeper than that, given what her character represents, one of the most debatable tropes in all of literature: Deus ex Machina (“God in the machine”). Basically, this means Captain Marvel enters like the hand of God to rescue our hero(es) from a difficult situation.  And given the end of Avengers: Infinity War, it appears Captain Marvel coming on the scene means exactly that.  She is the hand of God coming in to save the day for the heroes.

“Deus ex machina not only erases all meaning and emotion, it’s an insult to the audience. Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives…deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie.”   Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..L to R: Leader of Starforce (Jude Law) and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)..Photo: Chuck Zlotnick..©Marvel Studios 2019

To be more descriptive, to be a deus ex machina, you must not have been written about in the plot previously.  You must come in for the expressed purpose of rescuing the protagonists.  Primarily, you come in to establish a happy ending for the people.  And you have to come in to resolve the climax of the story without any hint at your character beforehand.  Basically, this describes Captain Marvel to a T.

She is Nick Fury’s call for help when all appeared to be lost.  She came in right when the planted fell apart and people were tragically dying.  Of course, why she couldn’t see this without Nick Fury’s call given Thanos destruction of the entire universe, God only knows.  

The problem for the Marvel Universe in general and Captain Marvel, in particular, is deus ex machina is frequently considered a lazy man’s plot device of getting out of the harsh reality of the plot.  In film or stage, the “everything was a nightmare,” is a frequent use of the trope.  But however it’s used, it’s meant to rescue the hero from the unwinnable situation.  And if it’s a lazy man’s plot device, many would consider her entire existence weak, lazy, and unnecessary.  

“A deus ex machina will never appear in real life so you best make other arrangements.”   Marisha Pessi, Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..L to R: Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) ..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019

Many, on the other hand, feel like the use of this trope can be forgiven and even interesting.  The sailor of Lord of the Flies comes in to rescue the hero.  It allows the author not to enter into the truly dark world of the protagonist’ death and at the same time realize the depravity of man left to his own devices.  We do not need to experience death to understand it, and it rescues the author from having to go there.  Hence, many feel the use of deus ex machina can be justified in limited circumstances.

Whether it’s possible to justify this, and why I enjoyed the movie requires getting into the nuts and bolts of the film itself.  It requires looking upon the merits of the film without regard to the swirling political background noise and avoiding the Rorschach trap laid before us.  So let’s not leave you hanging and explain my thinking about the film further by discussing the movie itself.

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) ..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019

***Warning!  Spoilers Ahead!***

Captain Marvel is the story of Vers, a girl who seems to have tremendous power given to her by a collective government, part of the Kree empire.  She is being trained to harness and control her power, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law).  They are tasked with dealing with the Skrulls (a shapeshifting people) set to capture one of their spies with important information he has gleaned.  They go on a daring rescue mission to find this spy only to find out it’s a trap.

What’s curious is the Skrulls seem to have the passcode of the spy, and they seem more interested in Vers and what’s in her head rather than the spy or anyone else.  Examining past memories in Vers head they find about Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning), and they appear to have some interest in her Pegasus project.  But Vers escapes and crash lands on Earth in the middle of a Blockbuster.  There she bumps into a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), working for the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization.  He tries to question her until she runs away to pursue this Skrull she found there.

A chase scene ensues and they chase down Vers while she is chasing the Skrull on the train.  In the process, Nick Fury realizes the agent he is driving with (Clark Gregg) is Skrull and crashes intentionally to stop the alien.  The alien passes away and his true form revealed.  This makes Nick Fury rethink his ideas about life and the universe and how to keep the world safe.

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..L to R: Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) ..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019

With permission from his boss, he winds up tracking Vers down, trying to help her figure out her origins.  She realizes from her dreams and the ones the Skrulls invaded she had been on earth before.  Eventually, this leads her to seek out Mar-Vell/Dr. Wendy Lawson and find out who she was in the process, eventually leading her to discover the extent of her true powers, and how she acquired them.

In the end, Jude Law is sufficiently sketchy (a frequent Jude Law trait) and Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, and a “cat” named goose run away with the film, with their comic quips and experiences.  Any scene with them is eminently watchable.  Ben Mendelsohn as Telos, leader of the Skrull, does an excellent job as the alien out there to save his people from extinction.  He’s also a good way to release some comic tension.

As for those who are critiquing the performance of Brie Larson, I actually enjoyed her performance for the most part.  She was wooden at times, but I think intentionally so.  Here is a person who doesn’t remember her past but in snippets.  The fact she would be emotionally stunted does not come as a surprise to me.  I would actually criticize her more for those moments she smirked and galavanted around when it seemed inappropriate.  Thankfully she mostly reigned that in.  And overall, whatever she may have been thinking of doing with her performance, it was enjoyable.

One of the more interesting aspects of Captain Marvel is where the center of the emotional core of the film lies.  Yes, Danvers has a female friend and a daughter.  But because of the amnesia, they never fully bond, and Captain Marvel leaves with the Skrulls anyway.  The real emotional center of the movie lies with the men.  Sam Fury exhibits protective instincts, trying to protect the planet and helping to achieve the Avengers initiative.  He nurtures the “cat” Goose.  He bonds with both Captain Marvel and with his co-worker Phil Coulson.  And the other emotional presence in the film is Talos.  He loves and protects his people.  He loves children and will fight to the death to see they are safe.  

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..Goose ..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019

Where I would critique the film would come in two specific areas.  One, both the powers Vers, or really Carol Danvers, obtains, and the character of Captain Marvel are Deus ex Machina.  Vers magical powers come from a blown up space ship which gives her unimaginable abilities.  These magical abilities help the Skrull when they are at their lowest.  Ultimately, they save the human race.  With her character entering the Marvel Universe, she appears to be there solely with this in mind.  And while I enjoyed the movie (mostly), I do consider it a lazy way to solve the issue of Thanos for Endgame.  And entirely unnecessary.  Why not start her off fresh?

Second, if you are promoting feminism, the film is not entirely successful at this.  In the film, the Dr. took pity on Carol Danvers, letting her join her flight team because women needed to be supported.  She had to beg to get there and then got shot down in a dog fight.  What gave her the power to take on all those keeping her down and gave her purpose?  Some mystical energy source from another planet which she seemed to absorb.  

But her powers were always a little off, and unable to be controlled entirely.  Men critiqued her for her exhibited irrational behavior.  To fully achieve powers, she needed to accept her powers inside, and not try to compete on men’s level.  It’s almost a conservative critique on feminism and the role of womanhood.  Women should accept the powers and the weaknesses they have and should be appreciated for who they are.  Captain Marvel, herself, accepts this truth at the end when Yon-Rogg challenges her to a fight, trying to goad her into a battle on his terms where he knows he could win.  When she realizes to fully embrace those powers within she just shoots him.  Why should she be forced to fight on man’s level?

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) ..Photo: Chuck Zlotnick..©Marvel Studios 2019

***End of Spoilers***

Even with those parts of the film which I felt could have been handled differently, I did enjoy the Captain Marvel movie for the most part.  It is a welcome addition as the 21st film of the MCU.  I do think it would be fun to explore more female characters including the Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and possibly She-Hulk later on.  Or take on individual movies with team characters like Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy.  More of her back story might be interesting.  As a solid first contributor to the Marvel Comics Universe, I give the film a solid rating.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Wrapping Things Up

I’m definitely looking forward to the Upcoming Avengers: Endgame and finding out more about Captain Marvel with her own personal story, unconnected to any of the characters we know so far.  With an over 20 year absence from the scene, I am sure there are plenty more stories to tell about her.  But I do wish they would keep her role less significant for Endgame.  Bringing in an almost all-powerful being to save the day feels less significant and meaningful.  I don’t mind her being there.  I just don’t feel like she should be the savior.  But we shall see.  

To end out the year, we have the next Spider-man, Far From Home.  I’m excited to see the Spiderman out there dealing with his own villains and doing whatever a Spider can to help save the world.  I’m also curious about how the relationship develops with MJ.  It should be an interesting end to the Marvel series of films this year, and a good kick off to phase four of the MCU.  Can’t wait to see where it goes and how they might fold the X-Men into the fold.  We shall see.

pictures care of Marvel Studios © Marvel Studios 2019

Continue The Conversation

What do you think of films which work as Rorschach tests?  Do you appreciate them more, or does the film separating people by their preconceived thoughts feel annoying?  What are you looking forward to in the Marvel Comic Universe?  Who is your favorite MCU superhero so far?  Which is your least favorite?

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David Elliott, The Single Dad’s Guide to Life

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