[Editor’s Note – The following article contains spoilers for Captain Marvel …]
Yon-Rogg, Jude Law’s “paternalistic” character in Captain Marvel, seems very familiar. He is ever present in in Vers’ (Brie Larson) life on Hala; training her to not let her emotions (oh, her emotions!) get the best of her as he teaches her to “properly” use her supernatural powers. He is a rescuer; a man who saved her life when she was in peril. But he did it all after kidnapping her from her home planet and taking advantage of memory loss she suffered after a catastrophic event.
To some, this is just another Marvel backstory. But I recognized it as something more. What Yon-Rogg was doing was abusive. It was gaslighting. When you’ve been on the receiving end of it, you recognize the patterns.
I’m not always in the mood to watch a new movie. Nobody knows this better than my husband, who has graciously laughed through repeated marathons of Frasier since we first began seeing each other.
While I do sincerely love the show, it’s more than my affinity for farce that has me opting for the sitcom over the newest release again and again. As someone with PTSD, I have employed various coping mechanisms to help me survive. Some of them are healthier than others and most are there to avoid my own personal triggers (a word that, seriously, can we stop using to mock people?). I have experienced multiple incidents of violence in my life; some isolated and some that repeated over the course of years. If you have seen literally any movie, well, you can understand why I may not always be in the mood to brace myself for something new and exciting (a.k.a. potentially traumatic and triggering).
Cue Frasier and Niles bantering about wine and opera, thank you very much.
But, even with my reservations about new movies, I felt secure enough to accompany my husband to the screening of Captain Marvel this week. I fully admit to being a fair-weather fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are a few films in the MCU that I love, but I don’t obsess over them the way others do. And I honestly don’t know when Avengers: Endgame is coming out (though I will probably go see it).
I had this same casual attitude towards the Captain Marvel screening (save for my sincere love for Brie Larson). But it wasn’t long before my feelings towards Captain Marvel turned from casual to something much deeper.
Watching Captain Marvel was an incredibly transformative, healing experience for me; an opportunity to see aspects of myself on screen portrayed in a heroic and sympathetic way. As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl, I’m certainly not lacking in cinematic representation. And Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel certainly fits that mold (not to mention the fact that her Earth wardrobe looks as if it was lifted straight out of my closet). But there was something else going on that I rarely see portrayed well in movies: a woman trying to navigate the world while struggling to sift through the lies she has been fed about her identity. A woman coping with years of gaslighting and abuse. A woman who is exhibiting many of the signs of PTSD. A woman who is in the midst of an identity crisis. A woman who has been tricked into believing that everything she is belongs to a man who is actively harming her.
It felt as if every fractured piece of myself that I have been trying to stitch back together over the years since I left my abuser had been woven together into Captain Marvel’s search for her own identity.
Not everybody was so awe struck by the identity crisis plot line. The majority of reviews I have read have focused on how her amnesia creates a “meandering” narrative that ends up making the film feel underwhelming. We spend a lot of time with her as she struggles to figure out who she is – lost in the fog of her own mind, trying to sift through memories she can’t confidently say are true or false. I’ve read criticisms ranging from “muddled” to flat out “boring.”
But, for me, it was like watching my life. It was PTSD. Seeing it written off as boring, underwhelming or tedious felt as if people were saying the same thing to me. Invalidation is central to trauma that stems from abuse. And here it was, again and again and again.
Let me be clear – I understand this isn’t what critics are doing. It’s not intentional. It’s obviously possible to just watch a movie and feel that it was vaguely unsatisfying without intentionally attacking an entire group of maligned individuals. I get that.
But it’s equally possible that this movie wasn’t written for them. Those who feel that a woman’s search for identity in the midst of trauma-induced amnesia is “meandering.” Or those who would refer to kidnappers and abusers as, “well meaning,” but, “stifling,” – not realizing that this, in itself, is gaslighting. Or those who could watch a movie that deals with topics such as trauma, abuse and gaslighting and then glibly remark that it’s a “fun,” “lighthearted” film.
It was, perhaps, written for those of us who are scared that our trauma has robbed us of an identity outside of our pain. That, if we speak up, people will get tired and try to steer the conversation towards ANYTHING else (as happens so often when somebody finally discloses these things). Perhaps this movie was written for those of us who needed to see that we were a person before we were abused and that we can become somebody again, separate from our abuse. That maybe, just maybe, we can become somebody stronger. That we will find a support system. That in our absolute worst moment, when we are trapped, we can summon our strength and continue to survive.
Perhaps this movie is for those of us who need to see Captain Marvel blast Yon-Rogg across the desert with a bolt of blue energy from her hand. Those of us who need to see that the climax – the personal triumph – is that Captain Marvel can become a literal superhero once she processes her trauma. Maybe we need to see her smirk and start kicking ass to the tune of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” because we had men who kicked our asses precisely because we were just girls.
Being able to live out this kind of cathartic scenario, with the distance of a fantasy setting, is so incredibly important. I – and so many other victims of abuse – could never confront our abusers. Our lives would be in peril. But being able to superimpose my abuser’s face onto Jude Law’s as Captain Marvel denies his wishes and blasts him away with her superpowers – the ones he had been keeping her from fully utilizing – was wish fulfillment on the highest level.
There are parts of me that want to say, “I’m sorry if this movie isn’t for you.’ I understand that many will go to see Captain Marvel with much more excitement than I did, and likely come out with a whole lot less than I did. But then there is the part of me that feels an apology isn’t in order. Because it doesn’t really matter if this movie isn’t for everyone. It was for me. And I shouldn’t apologize for loving a movie that speaks to my experience.
And to take a page from Captain Marvel herself: I don’t owe you anything.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Los Angeles. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.