Sunday Reads: CAPTAIN MARVEL’s Beautiful Use Of Amnesia
***FULL CAPTAIN MARVEL SPOILERS AHEAD***
It’s not unfair to say that Carol Danvers’s comics backstory is pretty convoluted, so the decision to cut down on all of that and establish her with superpowers as quickly as possible was seen as a smart move by fans of Captain Marvel. What hasn’t been seen as warmly was the decision to turn Carol into Vers, the brainwashed Kree soldier.
It’s a common sentiment that Captain Marvel doesn’t really get going until its second half, after Vers finally remembers that she’s an Airforce pilot from Earth named Carol Danvers. This has led some people to the conclusion that the film’s first half was unnecessary, or that Vers should have been Carol for the entire film. Some have even criticized the film’s use of memory loss for being a storytelling gimmick, one meant to obscure the fact that Captain Marvel is yet another formulaic origin story.
I’m proposing that there’s a deliberate purpose to the film’s early chapters, and it shouldn’t be dismissed sight unseen. The film’s execution of it is debatable, but I believe the concept of Carol starting out deeply mistaken about her own identity and working her way from there is a rock-solid foundation for exploring many of the film’s ideas. By portraying Carol as Vers for so long, Captain Marvel joins a long tradition of alien invasion stories that interrogate the peculiarities of identity.
Amnesia, brainwashing, and identity theft have been a staple of the alien invasion genre since the 1950s, with stories like The Thing from Another World and Invasion of Body Snatchers. Those stories and their adaptations popularized the concept of the “alien infiltration”, where an extraterrestrial threat uses humans and human bodies as its mask while it perverts society from the inside. Alien invaders stopped being the aggressive conquerors imagined by H.G. Wells in the 19th century, and they instead reflected the fears of psychological and ideological conquest that many people had during the Cold War. The alien infiltration subgenre has never really left us, and it has gone on to talk about a lot more than scary Communists.
Most recently, there has been Annihilation and Under the Skin, both wonderful films that use alien infiltrations to dissect our ideas about self-concept in terrifyingly different ways. Annihilation uses its Shimmer as a metaphor for the many ways we destroy ourselves in the face of change. Under the Skin takes the point of view the alien, to tell a story about “the feminine struggle”. Both films play heavily on their characters’ memory, self-perception, and outward presentation—the same topics that Captain Marvel juggles in its own, tentpole blockbuster way. This leads me to believe that at some point during the writing process, Captain Marvel had similar metaphorical aims.
Vers begins the film with no memory of who she is, being trained to become less emotional, so she can fight in a war that she doesn’t totally understand. All she has is a vague sense that something isn’t right, but she can’t express the feeling without showing she’s too emotional, thereby failing her training. Later in the film, we learn that if she continued her training, she would have played directly into a man’s plan to groom her into a remorseless killing machine.
Vers’ situation is, without a doubt, many people’s worst nightmare. Women and PoC might know this fear best, as we all understand the “mask” we have to put on when we go into aggressively white male spaces. It’s a mask that hides our main fallibility: the fact that we’re human too. That we have emotions, and fears, and dreams. But we have to put on the mask to make things less complicated for people who just want to use us. The thing about the mask, though, is that if you wear it long enough, you might wake up with it stuck to your face.
Carol as Vers is essentially someone who has “become the mask”, someone who let the daily slights of sexism, and the pressure of double standards erode their sense of self. That’s what the imperialist war of Yon Rogg and the Kree represents in Carol’s life: the ceaseless influence of the patriarchy and imperialism to bury our emotions, and, in the process, lose our selves.
That’s why it’s important that Carol becomes Vers and Vers becomes Captain Marvel over the course of the movie. Without showing us a Carol who is almost lost and broken, we have no frame of reference for the powerful fleet-destroyer Carol we see after she rediscovers herself. Captain Marvel is fundamentally a movie about erosion and recovery.