Captain Marvel delivered on a long-awaited possibility: a fight against Skrull warriors. The shape-shifting extraterrestrials were front and center in the trailers for the movie, being creepy and menacing as they infiltrated crowds of unsuspecting humans. The legendary antagonists of Earth have been around for decades, but their portrayal opposite Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers is anything but Marvel tradition; Captain Marvel adds a welcome layer of complexity as to how to think about Skrulls, and the politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In the first chunk of Captain Marvel, the title character is an agent of an empire, part of a Kree military unit called Starforce that hunts down Skrulls hiding out on planets all over the galaxy. In most Marvel comics storylines, Skrulls have been portrayed as explicit evil-doers. In early Fantastic Four stories, comics legend Jack Kirby drew them as creepy, humanoid creatures that looked trollish and reptilian. Since their introduction, they’ve been shown to invade, impersonate, and break down trust to destabilize important relationships on the planets they target. In Marvel’s 2008 crossover event Secret Invasion, paranoia tears Earth’s superhero community asunder after it is revealed that Skrulls had clandestinely replaced many metahumans, including high-profile operatives like Elektra. The Skrulls were bad.
Then again, empires aren’t so great either. As a concept, an empire’s chief goal is self-perpetuation, taking over resources from other sovereign entities to ensure that the ideals and goals of its animating ethos are spread far and wide. Loyalists in such societies are convinced that their empire is just, and replenishing the ranks of loyalists is often the job of higher-level functionaries.
[Ed. note: The rest of this article contains spoilers for Captain Marvel.]
In Captain Marvel, the filmmaking team makes the smart decision to paint Carol’s characterization as alternatively cocky and doubting, an attitude that comes straight from writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s revitalization of the character. While wanting to excel as a soldier in a chain of command, her natural DGAF attitude resists conformity. The movie’s big twist has her confronting the reality of being a cog of an empire: The lives, loves, and families trampled under empire’s boots are just like the ones back home. In this case, Carol learns that the Skrulls hunted down by Starforce are refugees simply trying to survive, not scheming spies with world-conquering plots.
Skrulls make for a potent, metaphorical other. They can look just like any human but come from a culture that’s alien. The parallels to the current political moment glow white hot, as the United States soldiers forward under a neo-isolationist regime that wants to revoke citizenship from people with immigrant ancestry, build a wall to keep out immigrants from countries painted as dangerous, and block entry to visitors from other, mostly Muslim nations. History is littered with propaganda-driven conflicts in a similar vein. It’s a welcome shift to have Captain Marvel leans on so hard on such radioactive themes.
Making Skrulls refugees also inserts a humanitarian raison d’etre into Carol Danvers’ heroic transformation. When the revelation of the Skrulls’ refugee status dawns on our hero, her non-conformist streak is no longer just a sign of a headstrong woman who wants to chart her own course. Like an Edward Snowden publicly exposing the federal government’s data collection tactics employed on private citizens, Carol finds a cause that brings her sincerity to the fore. As Captain Marvel, she goes from being a tool of an empire — whether it’s the Kree or the American military — to becoming a champion of liberty.
Like Black Panther before it, Captain Marvel taps into real-world happenings to turn subtext into actual text. Most superhero stories wind up largely upholding the status quo: A villain gets defeated and any promises of systemic change trickle out on an incremental, individual level. What makes Black Panther and Captain Marvel more political than, say, Winter Soldier, is how the main characters move to re-order whole societies or cultures. After Killmonger’s one-man invasion of Wakanda, T’Challa creates ties that will impact both his country and the outside world. The end of Captain Marvel sees Carol vowing to tear down the whole Kree Empire, now that she has a sense of the injustice festering inside of it.
Carol Danvers’ journey isn’t solely about solidifying her sense of self as a marginalized member of society. She becomes a luminary who fights for a persecuted population, despite the fact that they’re sentient beings she was trained to hate and distrust. It’s a cosmically meaningful sort of heroism that goes past physical levels of power, and soars into uniquely inspirational.
Evan Narcisse is a journalist and critic who writes about video games, comic books, movies and TV. He’s also the author of the Rise of the Black Panther graphic novel for Marvel Comics.