Captain Marvel’s Feminism Is All Tangled Up with Military Boosterism

It’s Marvel’s first movie to star a woman, but it’s also part of a long line of Hollywood properties used to promote the Armed Forces

Much to the dismay of scores of angry white men, a female-led Captain Marvel movie comes out this week, and with it has come an avalanche of coverage and promotional material heralding it as Marvel Studios’ foray into the feminist superhero space. Star Brie Larson, who plays fighter pilot Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel) went as far as to call it “the biggest feminist movie of all time.” Not only does the film end Marvel’s drought of films helmed by a female protagonist, it incorporates yet another holdout of gender inequality: the United States Air Force.

“I think it goes back to that very simple phrase of ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’” Larson said in an interview with the Independent. “And I think, the feeling of the Air Force is so clear in this movie, too. I really do hope that it inspires girls and women [to become pilots].”

But behind the language of representation and inclusion, some critics see evidence of a problematic relationship between Captain Marvel and the Air Force, which had an active role in the film’s production, received numerous plugs throughout its promotion, and assisted in publicizing the movie. The film comes at a time when the Air Force faces a severe shortage of pilots (especially women), a recent “readiness” crisis due to its fleet of aging aircrafts, and a worsening epidemic of sexual misconduct. Even with all this baggage, the Air Force plans on expanding back to Cold War-levels, making public opinion more important than ever.

Over the course of the production, the Air Force gave the film access to Air Force historians, Edwards Air Force Base, and Air Force-operated F-15Cs, according to Lt. Col. Nathan Broshear, director of the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office, who was the project lead officer for Captain Marvel. During the film’s pre-release marketing, the Air Force performed at least two flyovers to publicize its opening, one at Disneyland and another at the Hollywood premiere. Broshear says that “all costs are passed on to the production company.”

For the most part, people seem pleased with the movie’s feminist message (angry white men excluded), judging by early box office returns. But as long as the Department of Defense can pick and choose which films to support while offering a cheaper, more authentic alternative to costly CGI, some worry that Captain Marvel’s feminism has become a Trojan horse for military propaganda.

“They’re killing a few birds with one stone with Captain Marvel,” says Dr. Roger Stahl, a professor of communication studies at the University of Georgia who studies the relationship between Hollywood and the military. “They’re recruiting, they’re rehabilitating the image of the Air Force, and they’re appealing to an elusive but desirable demographic”—namely, women.

Over the course of its production and rollout, Captain Marvel has collaborated with the U.S. Air Force to a uniquely high extent for a film of its kind. “There was maybe a sense the Army was involved in Captain America on some level,” Stahl says, “but I don’t think it even rose close to the kind of publicity that the Air Force is mustering for Captain Marvel.”

The Air Force authorized pilots to participate in multiple stops of the movie’s press junket, from Jimmy Kimmel to the red carpet. On Twitter, Adam H. Johnson, host of criminal justice podcast The Appeal, pointed out similarities in the marketing of Captain Marvel and recruitment advertisements for the Air Force.

“Everyone’s got an origin story and we’re going to see Carol Danvers’ origin story tonight,” says a host on the red carpet before pivoting to an Air Force pilot behind her. “What’s yours?” she asks. Johnson links to an Air Force recruitment website, “Every hero has an origin story,” says a banner on the site, which proceeds to profile more than a dozen women in the Air Force.

In some theaters, the movie will be preceded by an “Origin Story” ad spot, which Lt. Col. Broshear says will “highlight Air Force female aviators and to encourage young women to pursue careers in aviation.” He says that the campaign is “not necessarily” related to the movie and that the Air Force “has been featuring senior leaders’ ‘origin stories’ for some time.”

While other Marvel films have relied on military assistance, sacrificing a degree of editorial control to the little-known Department of Defense Entertainment Liaison in return for military assets and consultation, Captain Marvel has shoehorned what feels like Air Force recruitment material into its own promotion. Disney, which owns Marvel, did not respond to a request for comment.

The movie takes a page from the 1985 PR bonanza Top Gun, which boosted enlistments by 500 percent, but updates it for a 2019 “woke” audience wary of the Armed Services after 18 years in Afghanistan and over a decade of sexual abuse revelations.

Similarly, in the 1980s, the military still faced public disaffection following the quagmires in Korea and Vietnam. Following the release of Top Gun, which received considerable support from the Pentagon, the Department of Defense wrote that the film “completed rehabilitation of the military’s image, which had been savaged by the Vietnam war,” according to military documents acquired by Spy Culture, a website that monitors the military’s influence on pop culture.

“It’s classical public relations,” Stahl says. “We can have a metric of how disingenuous it is by just measuring the extent of military involvement, which is staggering, against how much the public knows about this office and their dealings with Hollywood and television, which is also a staggeringly small.”

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on and placed a greater burden on the military, it realized that “it needed to continue to broaden its appeal to women,” according to Dr. Elizabeth Mesok, an expert on gender and militarism and a senior researcher at the peace research institute, Swisspeace. Female service members, the military also realized, were uniquely valuable for navigating the perceived cultural norms of the Middle East. This recognition contributed to the formation of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission in 2009 and the end of the policy excluding women from direct ground combat in 2013. Even then, enlistment and retention rates among women remain far below what the Armed Services would like.

Adding to the Air Force’s enlistment woes, in September, 2018, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced plans to grow the Force by nearly 25 percent, adding roughly 40,000 new service members at a time when the Air Force is already experiencing a pilot shortage.

“In supporting motion picture projects, the Air Force and Department of Defense strive for accurate, plausible, and constructive depictions of service members, military history, and culture,” Lt. Col. Broshear says. While earlier statements from the Air Force insist that the film “is not part of a recruiting strategy,” Broshear explains that the movie provided a chance to highlight “opportunities for women to pursue careers in aviation.”

The Pentagon has played a role in the entertainment industry for decades, Stahl says, but the extent of that role only recently became public knowledge. In 2017, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed a “systemic relationship” between the Department of Defense and the film industry spanning over 1,000 pictures and another 1,000 TV shows, vastly exceeding all previous estimates.

When a studio hopes to use military assets, including locations, equipment, and personnel, they must submit their script for review to the Department of Defense Entertainment Liaison Office. In return for cost-saving assistance, “the Pentagon gets to have its hand on the script,” Stahl says. “They get to make changes, marginal comments, strike things.”

The cumulative effect of this is that the Pentagon has a direct hand in shaping how the military is portrayed in popular culture. While the Department of Defense claims, as it did in this tweet, that it works with Hollywood “to ensure the #military is correctly portrayed in films,” Stahl says this explanation sometimes serves as a pretext for filtering out negative or critical depictions. By deciding whether or not a film receives assistance, the Department of Defense has roadblocked films that were prohibitively expensive without it.

But Captain Marvel has gone further than just polishing the badges of the officers in the film. Even the first trailer gestures toward a more involved relationship, deploying the same formula and tropes as armed forces advertisements. “It’s a common hook in military recruiting ads,” writes Task & Purpose, a digital publication that covers the military and related stories. “You tell a life story, or a coming-of-age tale, in 60 seconds flat. After all, joining the military to transform into the pinnacle of martial perfection, and thus become a national superhero in your own right, isn’t a new lure.”

A featurette shared by Marvel on Twitter takes the relationship from subtext to text, showing behind-the-scenes footage of Larson’s tour of Nellis Air Force Base. Larson seems star struck herself as she speaks with Brig. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt, the first female fighter pilot in the Air Force. After Leavitt takes Larson for a ride in an F-16, Larson sums up her experience, saying, “That sense of humor mixed with total capability in whatever challenge comes [Danvers’] way is really what Air Force pilots are like.”

Even on her press rounds, Larson makes this point over and over again in her own “You Only Need One Person” speech. While there’s some variation in each retelling, she hits the same notes each time, describing Danvers as both “humble” and “cocky,” with “wit” to boot. But all of this is connected by a central trait, which she reiterates each time: “the spirit of the Air Force,” “the spirit of the Air Force,” and “the spirit of the Air Force.”

Amid an epidemic of sexual misconduct and assault that’s plagued the military—Senator Martha McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, recently told a Senate subcommittee that she’d been raped by a superior officer while in the Air Force—militarism and feminism can feel like strange bedfellows. According to some reviewers, the movie isn’t exactly pollyannaish about gender relations in the ‘90s, the era in which it’s set. Danvers has to contend with the kind of sanitized misogyny you’d expect in a PG-13 blockbuster.

But Mesok is dubious of Captain Marvel’s feminist laurels: “If we’re going to talk about women’s equality and women’s empowerment but we’re going to divorce it from a conversation about the rights of Afghan women and the safety and security and wellbeing Iraqi women or women in Yemen, then that’s not a conversation that I think is politically fulfilling.”

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