Captain Marvel and Why Strong Characters need to Fail

Am I risking my budding author platform for the sake of a click bait title? Maybe. But actually, the title is true – let me explain.

As you may have guessed, I saw Captain Marvel over the weekend. I was never particuarly enthused by the trailers, and I walked in the theater with the basic expectation of watching another have-fun, move-on kind of Marvel movie. And honestly, it was just that.

To clarify, there are some Marvel movies that rank on my list of top favorite moves of all time, namely Iron Man, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy volumes 1 & 2, and Thor: Ragnarok. I love super hero movies. But in my opinion Captiain Marvel was just on-par with about every other Marvel character introduction movie (besides Ant Man, and the aformentioned Iron man and Guardians of the Galaxy).

I have my quibbles with the plot, as usual, and naturally I think I could edit the movie and make it better. I’ll happily have that discussion in the comments! In this post, though, I want to talk about the bigger-picture, story craft lesson I think is ilustrated by this movie:

Strong characters need to fail. (See, I said it again. It’s not click bait.)

Captain Marvel has been billed as a “strong female character,” and it’s true, she is – mentally and physically. But, I don’t think the movie had quite the impact that was intended.

(Spoilers ahead!)

During the climax of the movie, Captain Marvel unleashes her powers, breaks out of the mind-prison the Cree put her in, and then subequentially beats up a bunch of bad guys, learns she can fly, single-handedly destroys dozes of missiles that were launched to destroy the Earth, and then enters the Avatar state and flies through some spaceships and blows them up, too.

Yeah! So strong! So amazing!

At least I think that was what I was supposed to be saying. But, in reality, all I really could say was, yep she destroyed all the bad guys and saved the day. I never thought she wasn’t going to do that.

You ever get those scratch-off adds in the mail from car dealerships? They say things like, “match these four numbers and you’re a WINNER!” And what happens every single time? The numbers match. You never loose, and of course you never will because a looser isn’t going to walk into the dealership to claim any prizes.

So, if you never loose, does winning even mean anything? I don’t think so. And that is why strong charaters need to fail: to prove that, when they win, it actually means something.

If I’ve never seen a strong character fail in the past, what is there to make me think they’ll fail now? They’re strong, they’re capable, and I’m completely confident in their ability to save the day – until the moment I see them lose.

Now, I’m not saying I want to see Captain Marvel lose at the end of the movie. Of course I want her to win! But I do want to wonder if she will or can win – I mean, that’s kind of the whole point of a story, right? I want the suspense. And since I never saw Captain Marvel fail, I never doubted that she would win. It wasn’t spectacular to see her blow up spaceships because I’d never been given the impression she couldn’t.

I think a great contrary example to this is in Voltron: Legendary defender. Voltron blows up a lot of space ships, and in my opinion it was 1000x more spectacular than what Captain Marvel did. Because I saw Voltron fail, a lot. Voltron, like Captain Marvel, is incredibly powerful – the most powerful weapon in the universe. That robot is epic to a point that I should expect it to be abe to slice through spaceships with ease. Trouble is, the paladins that make up Voltron have to be able to work together for Voltron to truly be powerful, and at this they fail a lot. Additionally, they are always running into some new Galra technology that rivals their current abilites as pilots, and so they have to fight hard to blow up the things they blow up.

Voltron is a strong character that fails. Then gets up, tries again, and wins. Then fails again, and the cycle continues. I’m always pretty sure, logically, that Voltron is going to win, but in the moment I still have a nagging doubt they could fail again, like they did before. And that’s what makes the moment suspencful and the victory something to cheer for.

That really comes to the heart of the issue here: is a strong character one that just succeeds spectacuarly, or one that succeeds spectacularly in spite of their past failures? I’m inclined to say the latter.

So, what did you think of Captain Marvel? (Honestly, my favorite part was seeing Nick Fury before he became a micro-managing crumudgeon, and I wanted moreof him and Agent Coulson being friends!) What do you think makes a strong character? Comment below!

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