Somehow, in the midst of all the identity politics and culture war noise, the fact that Captain Marvel was the biggest military-supported movie in years got lost. In this episode, we correct that oversight by delving into the US Air Force’s role in turning Captain Marvel into a recruitment video and an advert for Space Force. We examine Air Force documents on the themes and messages they wanted the film to project into the minds of audiences, as well as the admissions of the movie’s star, Brie Larson.
There are some exceptional elements to Captain Marvel. It was the first female-led movie in the Marvel Universe, and the first female-fronted superhero film to gross over $1 billion. If we compare the box office numbers with those for Wonder Woman, two years earlier, the big difference came outside the US. Domestically Wonder Woman took nearly $413 million, while Captain Marvel took nearly $426 million. Accounting for inflation, that’s the same amount. But while Wonder Woman took $410 million overseas, slightly less than its domestic gross, Captain Marvel earned over $700 million.
I bring this up not just to highlight how the Marvel Universe is more popular than the DC universe, but also how Captain Marvel was a more effective soft power projection than Wonder Woman was. Wonder Woman was not supported by the US military, they went to the British MOD instead, and it is set in World War One so it was more of a PR boon for the British military establishment during the centenary of that war. Captain Marvel is set in the 1980s and 90s and constantly references the US Air Force, and hence was a more effective vehicle for the DOD.
The comparisons between the two films are extensive – two lady superheroes, one a demi-god, the other a semi-alien, save the world from a dastardly army led by a crazy person with no obvious motives. But whereas Wonder Woman looked backwards, using an old war as its setting, Captain Marvel is a futuristic sci-fi alien invasion story. Also, while Wonder Woman began life as a modern-set anti-war movie and became a pro-war historical reflecting pool, as we will see Captain Marvel was a militaristic propaganda movie from the jump.
What makes it stand out, thematically, is that the military’s twin aims of promoting the US Space Force and making a high value recruitment poster aimed at young women took precedence over telling a compelling story. While it proved a commercial smash, the film did far better with critics than with audiences. RottenTomatoes logs a reviewer score of 79% – a lot less than Wonder Woman in the high 90s, but still respectable. The audience score is only 45%, and while this has been put down to review bombing the reality is that Captain Marvel just isn’t a good movie. The plot is overly complex, the central character isn’t very relatable, it is tonally skittish due to trying to be too many different things at once. Audiences notice this stuff, or at least their brains do.
I agree with the sceptics – the best character in this movie is a cat who turns out to be an alien who swallows other aliens whole. Even though the cast includes Jude Law and Samuel L Jackson, both of whom are usually fun to watch, they are given nothing to do. Ditto Captain Miscast, Brie Larson, who has done a bunch of good movies but just didn’t fit in this world, and suffers from her character being underwritten.
It’s a small thing, but if you’re going to make a sassy, girlboss action hero story then you need to find someone who is good in that role. I imagine they envisioned Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel much like Tony Stark/Iron Man – quippy, a bit reckless, but driven and charismatic. But what they got was a character who comes across as snarky rather than sassy, and who wasn’t well suited to the action scenes. This isn’t a criticism of Brie Larson – some people simply run and move in a more cinematic fashion. Compare the running styles of four time Olympic gold winner Michael Johnson to that of eight time Olympic gold winner Usain Bolt. Johnson is a much smoother runner.
There are some things I enjoy about Captain Marvel, mostly the cat and the original soundtrack. But even there, they combine the original score with a bunch of 1990s pop music, including Come as You Are by Nirvana and Just A Girl by No Doubt. These are good songs but they don’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the music, and they’re used in awkward places. Come as You Are is the backdrop for a revelation scene in some surreal alien hologram chamber, while Just a Girl is used in a fight sequence in the third act, shortly following this revelation. I know what they were going for – Come as You Are, i.e. figuring out who you really are and realising your power, which is Danvers’ character arc. And Just a Girl, in a scene where she’s kicking a bunch of alien ass, because women can be violent too. Yay, feminism. You’re really sticking it to the patriarchy by paying a rich, blonde white woman a bunch of money so her stunt double can beat up a bunch of fictional aliens, set to Gwen Stefani.
Three Act Breakdown: Captain Marvel
Keeping in mind these two key themes – some kind of violent feminism as a means for military recruitment, and space as the next important combat frontier – let’s breakdown the film itself.
Act one begins with Danvers doing combat training with Jude Law, a member of the Spartan-like Kree, a militaristic alien race. In these early scenes she is assumed to also be Kree, known as Vers. Vers and her unit are sent to a planet on the edge of Kree space, to rescue an undercover Kree spy who is spying on a rival alien race called Skrulls, who are shape-shifters. They are ambushed, most of the Kree troops are killed and Vers is kidnapped by a Skrull commander. He is trying to get information on a purported faster-than-light warp drive so they strap Brie Larson into the memory machine from Total Recall and start electrocuting her. She has some flashbacks to a past on earth that she cannot remember, where she was a US Air Force test pilot. Like Arnie in Total Recall she busts out of the machine, beats the crap out of some Skrull soldiers and escapes from their ship, crash landing on earth.
So, we have a female protagonist who doesn’t realise how powerful she is and is thrust into a journey of self-discovery. The rest of act one of the story is about alien races warring for territory, i.e. is a tale of violence and colonisation. Vers only triumphs due to her willingness and capacity for violence, which enables her to liberate herself from the shackles of the patriarchy, sorry, the Skrull memory machine, kill a bunch of anonymous male characters and then escape to her natural home. However, that home is apparently threatened by the Skrull, the shape shifters who have infiltrated planet earth and are secretly taking it over. Because what’s a militaristic psychosexual fantasy without a bit of David Icke thrown in for good measure?
In Act Two, Vers meets Nick Fury and they – of course – team up and set out to solve the mystery and find the culprits. This is the only cinematic cliché in the whole script that I approve of. Naturally, they have to make sure that the other one isn’t a Skrull in disguise as a Hollywood actor, so Fury explains his background in the Army, and as a spy, before he joined S.H.I.E.L.D.. He comments, “Been riding a desk for the past few years, trying to figure out where our future enemies are coming from. Never occurred to me that they’d be coming from above.”
For her part, Vers builds trust with Fury by demonstrating her alien superpowers, destroying an innocent bystander – the jukebox in the bar where they’re talking. The casual nature of her violence, indeed the whole notion of bonding with someone by vandalising someone else’s property, is childish and troubling. While this scene is, superficially, about our two protagonists figuring each other out, the underlying message is that space is full of threats and we need to meet those threats with violence.
Interestingly, NASA had nothing to do with Captain Marvel – the film is not mentioned in their annual reports covering entertainment industry outreach. The agency is mentioned only once in Captain Marvel, when Vers and Fury sneak into an air force facility, trying to find out more about Project Pegasus. What is Project Pegasus? If you cast your mind back to the start of the first Avengers movie, Fury is at a NASA facility conducting some sort of dark matter experiments on the glowing cubic MacGuffin.
Those scenes were filmed at a real NASA facility and their logo and branding is all over the place. And in that film, an astrophysicist provides Black Widow with the key information on how to stop the alien invasion non-violently. But in Captain Marvel NASA, and any other approach to solving problems except destruction and violence, are sidelined almost completely.
While at the Pegasus facility, Vers learns that she was a test pilot, Carol Danvers, and she has another flashback where she recalls flying a plane equipped with an experimental faster-than-light drive built by a Dr Wendy Lawson. The plane is shot down by a Kree fighter, crashes, and when Danvers destroys the engine to prevent the Kree from stealing it, she absorbs a bunch of weird energy and develops superpowers. She is then rescued by the Kree, given a transfusion of alien blood, and wakes up a superhero.
Let’s pause again. The dramatic conflict and revelation of Danvers’ backstory is plagued by violence and destruction, and space is populated by evil demons who want to kill us, and which we cannot defend ourselves against. Consider that Danvers’ was originally a test pilot then became a security chief at NASA but in the film NASA are ignored and Vers’ only relevant experience is in the military.
Act three sees Fury and Danvers trying to find Maria Rambeau – another former air force test pilot from the 1980s, and apparently the last person to see Lawson and Danvers prior to the test flight where she was shot down and got superpowers. We get another flashback, to Rambeau and Danvers enjoying some banter as they get ready to fly. Rambeau says, “About to show these boys how to do it. You ready?” Danvers responds, “Higher, further, faster, baby”. This is an Air Force motto, written directly into the dialogue.
Then, we get a plot twist – it is not the evil shape shifting Skrull who are trying to take over earth, but actually the Kree who are engaged in a genocidal war against the Skrull, who are taking refuge on earth. Refugee, terrorist, terrorist, refugee. Then there’s a lot of whizz bang nonsense space battle in earth’s orbit where Captain Marvel uses her superpowers to defeat the Kree, and Rambeau plays a crucial role in helping to escape and rescue some Skrull, thanks to her military pilot training she can fly alien spacecraft without ever having set foot in them before. Our story concludes with Fury developing plans for a team to defend against future alien invasions, which he names after Danvers’s air force call sign: Avenger.
Thus, the plot reiterates that Americans, preferably Aryan Americans, have the right to commit violence in order to complete their journey of self-discovery and repel adversaries. So progressive. OK, Maria Rambeau is black but that’s an example of retroactive multiculturalism – the truth is that the US Air Force didn’t have any black female fighter pilots until the late 90s, and Rambeau is depicted being a test pilot in the 1980s. Again, an exchange of symbolic territory for ideological territory. The movie also repeatedly sends the signal that space is the place where the next generation of conflicts and wars are going to be fought. While the movie shows two former air force pilots beating back an alien invasion, the aliens are humanoid, played by human actors rather than CGI monstrosities. So, just substitute in the Chinese or Russian militaries and space agencies and you get to the heart of what this film is all about.
The US Air Force and Captain Marvel
I actually broke the story of the US Air Force’s involvement on Captain Marvel. In the summer of 2017 the two co-directors of the film, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, went on the Air Force’s tour of Space Command, as did producer Mary Livanos and others from the Marvel stable including writer Jonathan Spaihts and producer Jonathan Schwartz. When I got the list of the attendees I posted it on Spy Culture and said that this was the rebirth of the military-Marvel relationship and that the Air Force would likely be supporting Captain Marvel.
It seems they were keeping this quiet, because at the time there was no other information out there about this. But within a few weeks the Air Force started posting pictures on social media of Brie Larson’s visit to Nellis AFB, talking about her flying in an F-16. This had actually taken place approximately a year earlier, in January 2018 – it wasn’t until late 2018 that I got the Space Command documents and started writing about this.
Naturally, I put in a FOIA request with the Air Force for everything they could provide on Captain Marvel, and they responded with 1423 pages of material, but no script notes. Their letter responding to my request said that there are no notes because they were involved at such an early stage of development that it seems there was no script review in the normal sense.
The documents include tons of internal emails, copies of photo albums showing 1980s pilot uniforms, pictures of uniform patches, and a bunch of communications around the film scouting tours and other visits to Air Force bases. Then there’s Phil Strub’s letter approving the project for support, and a load of administrative stuff about the filming, then organising the promotional events, which we’ll look at in the next section.
NOTICE This report contains information on the development and progress of TV programs, feature films and other entertainment media projects. This information is shared with the Air force for the purpose of determining whether the project qualifies for Dept of the AF and DoD support. It is pre-decisional information for our chain of command. The information contained in this report, if publicly disclosed, could be financially and professionally detrimental to the entertainment media production entity or individual filmmaker providing the information, and would deter these companies and individuals from seeking AF assistance. IT IS NOT INTENDED FOR PUBLIC DISSEMINATION.
It’s curious, this is an excuse they’ve used with me when trying to deny my requests – that I’m ‘hampering program effectiveness’, i.e. by publishing all of this material I’m making it harder for the military to work with Hollywood. At any rate, the reports refer to the production company as Warbird Productions, and call the film by its working title – Open World. They mention the commercial success of Marvel films and the key themes that they liked about the project.
For example, one report by Nathan Broshear, the head of the Air Force ELO and project officer on Captain Marvel, says, ‘this would offer the Air Force a great opportunity to showcase a strong female Air Force character in a multibillion dollar franchise’. Of course, by ‘strong’ both the military and Hollywood mean ‘violent’. Brig Gen Edward Thomas, Director of Air Force Public Affairs, said, ‘Captain Marvel embodies the barrier-breaking spirit of Airmen, and her story attests to the power of service and sacrifice. The US Air Force is proud to be a part of Captain Marvel’s story and to continue our creative partnership with Marvel storytellers.’
A summary of Air Force support to the movie lists the ‘Themes & Messages’ that got them excited, namely:
The Air Force and Captain Marvel share common goals “Higher, Further, and Faster.”
As the first female character to headline a Marvel franchise, Capt. Carol Danvers exemplifies the barrier breaking spirit found in every generation of Airmen going back to 1947.
Captain Marvel may be fiction but her story represents generations of real women who broke through barriers to serve their nation in air, space, and cyberspace.
Air Force Support to Entertainment
Access to Airmen, aircraft, and equipment provides unbeatable production value and authenticity to productions targeting key recruiting demographics.
Stories like Captain Marvel exemplify our fighting spirit and allow audiences everywhere to understand Air Force core values.
This summary also confirms my suspicion – that it was the 2017 Space Command tour where the relationship began, and that as early as December 2017:
Lead actress Brie Larson, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, along with Producer Jonathan Schwartz visited Nellis Air Force Base. The Marvel team spent one-on-one time with Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing Commander and the military’s first female fighter pilot. Additional engagement aggressor pilot Capt. Dani “Kazi’ Kanga, the Thunderbirds, and other Air Force personnel positively impacted character development and storylines.
Jeannie Leavitt actually became the basis for Carol Danvers, at least in terms of her military experience.
The Air Force supported filming at both Nellis and Edwards AFBs, including one scene shot at military housing on Edwards where Captain Marvel talks with Maria Rambeau’s daughter. The daughter suggests new colours for Danvers’ spacesuit – the colours of the US Air Force.
The daughter wears an Air Force t-shirt in every scene that she’s in, which reminded me of what happened on Battleship, also an alien invasion film. The US Army pushed the producers so that:
Wounded Warrior character was expanded significantly from the original cameo appearance to a major character instrumental to defeating the invading aliens and saving the planet—all while wearing an ARMY t-shirt.
The report goes on to say, ‘the $200 million project is a pro-military chest-thumper with corresponding recruiting benefits.’ So, it seems pretty likely to me that this t-shirt was a costume choice made by the Air Force ELO, just like the Army did on Battleship.
The US Military’s Promotion of Captain Marvel
It wasn’t just production where the Air Force and the DOD were involved. When it came to promoting Captain Marvel, they went full Top Gun. The Thunderbirds did a flyover of the premiere, Air Force members were on the red carpet, and Jeannie Leavitt was interviewed by the Hollywood media.
However, this was just the beginning. A few days after the premiere, the Air Force supported at event at the Air and Space Museum which included a screening of the film for military members and interviews on Good Morning America to help promote the Air Force’s involvement in Captain Marvel.
Then, there were the endless youtube videos and appearances on talk shows like Jimmy Kimmel, often with Air Force pilots in the audience. Over and over Brie parroted lines about the ‘spirit’ of the Air Force and their pilots, and how spending time with them helped her bring that spirit to her performance. Just as the Air Force’s documents foretold. One appearance in particular saw Brie Larson answering questions sent in by Air Force members.
I’m sure you get the idea – this was a full court press, trying to both fuel the hype around the release of Captain Marvel, but also tap into it for their own purposes. This is emphasised by DOD documents that record how, the day before the premiere, “Air Force hosted the co-directors at the Pentagon” where Boden and Fleck “attended office calls and had lunch with Air Force leaders. They also participated in a personal development session” for public affairs officers from both the Air Force and the DOD.
Alongside this, the Air Force launched an expensive recruitment campaign aimed at women, using imagery that evoked the Captain Marvel trailers and promo videos. The campaign was called Origin Story, and was produced in partnership with the PR agency GSD&M. A series of video spots were put out in cinemas, on youtube and social media, and were timed around the release of the movie and International Women’s Day, which was, of course, the same day.
As cheesy as this is, it has proven successful. The video got something like 11 million views, and months later the Air Force Academy announced that it had received the highest number of applications and the highest proportion of female applicants in years, which was largely attributed to Captain Marvel.
Thus, the movie did exactly what the Air Force and the DOD wanted it to – put a feminist gloss using a ‘strong female character’ on this militaristic fantasy to entice more women to join the Air Force. This troubles me, because aside from not wanting people to join the military in any country the message appears to be that frustrated women should take up arms. Tooling up the gender war just seems like a recipe for disaster to me, but that is what the US military’s influence on this film implies, and encourages.
The Big Picture: The Militarisation of Space
There is something even bigger at stake, namely Captain Marvel’s role in the establishment of Space Force, the latest incarnation of US attempts to militarise space. Consider the following timeline:
- 2015-16, the US military including Lt General Steven Kwast start encouraging Hollywood to make more space-based stories, especially depicting threats from space. This includes meeting Marvel producer Jeremy Latcham.
- 2016: The Air Force begins its own Space Force Mission, to train Space Command officers in space-based and space-related combat.
- July 2017: The Air Force hosts a tour of Space Command for Hollywood bigshots. This is the start of the relationship with the Captain Marvel film-makers.
- June 2018: Trump orders the creation of US Space Force, the sixth branch of the military.
- March 2019: Captain Marvel is released.
- December 2019: Space Force is founded.
Does this sound like a bunch of coincidence to you? Or does it sound like Captain Marvel was the Hollywood centrepiece to a process going back several years, and which originated in the US military, not the Trump White House?
After all, aliens in the film are two-faced, viciously destructive and even genocidal, not unlike the popular news images of the Chinese and Russian governments. The film practically screams that we need Space Force, we need US dominance in space because otherwise those evil shapeshifting Russian bots or slanty-eyed billionaires will get there before us. The fact that Space Force’s logo is taken from Star Trek and the name for their members is ‘Guardians’, it is fair to suggest that this curious, paranoid thought experiment has more in common with sci-fi movies than it does with reality. But, in order to sell this complex delusion to the public who are going to pay for all this, and one day have it land on their heads, you need a hero, and an origin story.
Meanwhile, Jeannie Leavitt got a promotion, and was made head of Air Force recruiting. Having been immortalised on screen by Brie Larson, she became the person in charge of convincing more young women to sign up and be fired off into space in the name of national security. Well, as long as Elon Musk isn’t on board, I guess.
Now, I’m all in favour of women being sent into space: it’s obviously the best place for them. But I can’t help but balk at this weird combination of feminism, militarism and sci-fi fantasy. It is part of a trend I have noted before, whereby the classic science fiction story is in decline in favour of more violence-based drama. In the last couple of decades we’ve had War of the Worlds, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Battle Los Angeles, Battleship, Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, Independence Day: Resurgence and the sixteen Transformers films – all supported by the US military.
It’s almost as though the military wants to be seen fighting threats from outer space, and wants us to see them in those terms. Almost as though they’ve been pushing this since a lot earlier than 2015, and this is the latest chapter in the military’s relationships with UFOs, the UFOlogy community and the Hollywood movies exploring and weaponising these themes. But that’s a question for Robbie Graham to answer.