I didn’t understand Captain Marvel.
The film is about an interplanetary war between the Kree (a rationalistic, technologically advanced race of blue-skinned aliens, who readily admit outsiders and rule their benign and multi-ethnic empire with a firm but welcoming hand) and the Skrulls (an orcish race of shapeshifting terrorists with Australian accents). Obviously, the Kree are the villains. They are also, quite clearly, a sci-fi version of America.
The hero of Captain Marvel is a kidnapped US Air Force pilot who ends up rebelling against her Kree masters, and the military was highly involved in its production. Fifty soldiers worked as extras in the film, military officers were used as consultants, and multiple scenes were shot on an Air Force base. Female RAF pilots, in uniform, surrounded Larson at the film’s European gala screening in London; for the Los Angeles premiere, the Air Force supplied six F-16 jets for a celebratory flyover. In return – and this is the usual deal – the military was given substantial editorial control over the film’s script. The Marcel Cinematic Universe is, as everyone knows, the cultural wing of the military-industrial complex. This isn’t really an anomaly. These films form the vernacular folklore of post-industrial society, and mythic cycles tend to be martial and heroic narratives. It’s all a lot dumber than the Homeric epics or the Nibelungenlied, but then so are we.
Is it possible that Americans simply can’t see themselves in the screen? Do empires fail the mirror self-recognition test? This seems like too easy an answer. The question we should be asking isn’t how an anti-imperialist message managed to ‘sneak past’ the military censors. Instead, how is it that what appears to be an anti-imperialist message has actually been recuperated by empire?
Anyway, this is what was exercising me after I saw Captain Marvel. I couldn’t sleep that night, but I find it hard to sleep most nights. I took a sleeping pill before bed, and then another after an hour of anxious sweat and irritation, and then another. So I was neither asleep nor awake, but woozily skimming just above the surface of reality, when a group of orcish aliens with Australian accents kidnapped me, took me up to their spaceship, and fed me into their memory-harvesting machine. ‘Go back,’ they said, ‘go back.’ They made me watch Captain Marvel again. But this time, the story was very different to the one I thought I’d seen.
I can’t tell you which one is real. All I know is that I don’t understand.
* * *
It’s 1995, and former US Air Force pilot Carol Danvers falls from a very great height into a Blockbuster Video store outside of Los Angeles. She levitates between the racks of VHS tapes: the mocking green grin of The Mask, the stern half-face of Van Damme in Timecop. Her fingers trail across stacked plastic edges, and they’re scabbed and filthy. The other customers stare: clearly, this woman doesn’t belong here. She’s come from somewhere distant and unknown, and she’s wearing strange armour; she doesn’t look entirely human. She doesn’t seem to disagree. As she drifts, she’s whispering to herself. ‘It isn’t real,’ she says, ‘it isn’t real, you’re not here, you’re in outer space.’
It’s 1988, and Carol Danvers is at the first of her obligatory therapy sessions. Dr Nicholas Fury’s manner doesn’t match his name. He’s still a military psychotherapist, he sits with his back perfectly straight, but his face is open, and there’s a box of tissues on the low table between them. This is where you can say the things you couldn’t say outside. This is where you don’t have to be strong.
‘There must have been a lot of pressure,’ he says, ‘being the first female combat pilot. That’s a whole lot of expectation riding on you.’ Carol smirks mirthlessly. ‘The first,’ she says, ‘and the last. They won’t make that mistake again.’ Dr Fury purses his lips. ‘It’s interesting that you respond with humour,’ he says. ‘Why do you think that is?’ It’s because every time some braying Air Force frat-boy told her women had no place flying a plane, that was always somehow just a joke. ‘Because it’s true,’ she says. ‘I read the internal report,’ says Dr Fury. ‘There were a lot of reasons for what happened, and maybe some of them have to do with you, and maybe some of them don’t. But what I need you to understand is that none of this is simply because you’re a woman.’ And Carol nods, but she’s not convinced. Because there had simply never been a woman combat pilot before, and the system just wasn’t built for someone like her. The flight suits didn’t fit properly; the controls were just slightly too far away; there weren’t separate showers or separate bathrooms. And while the flyboys all necked their go pills before each mission, little methamphetamine tablets to keep them alert, the standard doses had been calculated for a man’s body. The other pilots had been alert. She’d been tweaking.
Up there in the sky, the edges of her vision had blurred, and the centre pulsed. Everywhere she looked was a bloating, living heart. The gumminess and grinding inside her mouth, the crawling on the edge of her skin, the uncontrollable strobe-flash flutter in her eyes, and the strange objects that darted out of the darkness to linger in the sky. Shameful to admit now, but she’d loved it, the cranked-up intensity of it all. The only thing better than drugs is flying, and the only thing better than flying is flying on drugs. Maybe this is just what perfect alertness feels like, she’d thought – but she knew she was making mistakes, the kind of rookie errors a pilot as good as she was shouldn’t be making, and it wasn’t just nerves. Her fingers shook over the controls. She saw shapes in the clouds. AWACS that turned out to be cirrus drifts; zeppelins roiling out of the nimbus. And a hostile F-14, flying aggressively out towards US Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, which was actually Iran Air Flight 655, with two hundred and ninety civilians on board.
Back when she was at high school in Boston, a friend of hers had gotten wasted at a party and then tried to drive home. He’d gone too fast, accelerated sloppily around corners, spun out of control in that fucked–up maze of crooked streets, and knocked down an old lady taking her dog out for a walk. The dog had to be put down. The old lady died instantly. Ralph: his name was Ralph; she couldn’t remember the old lady’s name. And it was hard, when she visited Ralph in jail, to see him crying in handcuffs. ‘I can’t go to prison,’ he’d whimpered, ‘it wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t in control.’ It had been awful. This kid had killed; he’d taken away someone’s life for no good reason. He wasn’t the friend she’d known, but something else, someone else’s death, a living tragedy plunged into someone else’s world, and he disgusted her. And what is Carol Danvers now? Everyone on that plane had died. Nearly three hundred people. Sixty-six children. And she’d killed them.
Carol Danvers goes home, grabs a bottle of go pills out the bathroom cabinet, and necks three of them at once.
It’s 1989, and Carol Danvers is being stalked by the skulls. They could be anyone. They change their form. Iranians, Carol has learned, have a doctrine called taqqiyah: they’re allowed to hide their religion and deny their God; they disguise themselves to blend in. Maybe that’s why this Wal-Mart is full of monsters. Carol twitches between the aisles, piling up her basket with cakes and candies, high-energy things for when she remembers to eat – and the faces of the other shoppers keep changing. She knows she shouldn’t have flushed the pills, but the two were interacting unpleasantly, and between meds and meth, she was always going to go for the meth. Things are under control, she tells herself. She’s not on the streets. She has her Air Force pension and her disability checks. She has Dr Fury. It’s under control, just not her control. Because when she shuffles over to the cashier and dumps her basket full of oily sugary snacks, the kid bagging her groceries turns his dumb head, and his flesh chars and drifts away in motes of burning dust, leaving only the perfect fire-stripped scream of a passenger as the plane is atomised around him, one of the two hundred and ninety, one of the Iranians, one of the skulls.
It’s 1991, and Dr Fury is being briefed. ‘I know her background,’ he says, waving a dismissive arm. ‘I treated her for two years after the incident.’ The ward superintendent tries to cough as mildly as possible. ‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Well, you might, ah, find that her psychosis has deteriorated considerably since that time. We still have her on the antipsychotics, but the, ah, pattern of her delusions is unfortunately conforming to a fairly classical schizoid type.’ Dr Fury glances over his notes. ‘The influencing machine,’ he says. ‘That’s correct,’ says the superintendent. ‘As it happens, I’m composing a paper on the subject. Are you aware of the, ah, James Tilly Matthews case?’ Dr Fury looks impatient. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘Quite a landmark in clinical history,’ says the superintendent. ‘A merchant in the eighteenth century, who came to believe a gang of criminals was remotely torturing him with a machine he called the Air Loom, a system of pipes and, ah, valves, that could interfere with his mind and body through magnetic rays. Dawn of the industrial revolution. I suppose he wasn’t entirely wrong. Machines always seems to carry certain, ah, potencies. There’s a fellow named Francis in Long Island who seems to have something similar, keeps mailing letters about it to random addresses. You know that when I was starting out in the fifties, I had multiple patients who believed Sputnik was beaming messages directly into their brains?’
Carol’s sitting peacefully on a plastic chair in the rec room. Fury sits next to her. ‘Do you remember me?’ he says. Her eyes light up. ‘Dr Fury,’ she says, ‘thank God, you have to help me. We have to go to Cree River.’ Out comes the notepad. ‘Cree River,’ he says. ‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Cree River Air Force Base, in Montana. You’re still in the Air Force, you know what they’ve built there.’ Dr Fury shakes his head. ‘Remind me,’ he says. ‘It’s the AI,’ says Carol. ‘There’s a supercomputer in a bunker under the airfield, the Air Force is using it to model the movements of Iraqi tank columns. But listen: it’s got too smart for them. Reality is just a highly accurate simulation, and it’s simulating the whole universe now. Don’t you get it? We’re in that simulation. It thinks it’s a god. It’s sending messages through time. We have to destroy it, we have to get in a plane right now and destroy the Supreme Intelligence.’ ‘You said it sends messages,’ says Dr Fury. Carol gives him a canny glance. ‘You want to know if the Supreme Intelligence shot down that plane,’ she says. ‘You don’t believe me, do you? You think this is all in my head. Well it is. It’s in my head, and yours, and it’s in the trees outside, and it’s everywhere, it’s everything, and it wasn’t my fault, do you hear me, it wasn’t my fault.’ She’s smiling now. ‘How can you look so concerned,’ she says, ‘when you don’t even have a face?’
Afterwards, outside, Dr Fury notices as if for the first time how all the cars stop at a red light, and how there’s always someone to sweep the leaves off the sidewalk; how perfectly everything in the world fits together, as if this were all just part of the plan.
It’s 1993, and someone has detonated a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center in New York. TV footage shows rescue teams pulling the wounded out of the collapsed garage. Carol Danvers watches the devastation from a quiet air-conditioned bar out in the California desert, and Maria Rambeau watches her. It had all sounded so much simpler when Carol’s doctor had phoned her out of the blue. ‘I’m not asking you to be her nurse or her carer,’ the man had said. ‘I’m just asking you to be her friend.’ Being friends with Carol had been easy, once, when they’d both been bright-eyed and ambitious kids at Basic Training in Texas. And it’s not as if the Carol she knew is gone, not exactly. Days and weeks can go past without incident. Long periods in which she’s a little off, a little scarred, but basically fine. She always was resilient. The drugs are working – and, as Dr Fury keeps telling her, what’s more important is that Carol has her. Friends, a job, a bar she can go to, where they can sing karaoke duets again and drink whiskey straight, something like an ordinary life. But being friends with someone like Carol really is like being a nurse or a carer, it is a chore, and as much as she loves her, sometimes Maria wishes it could all just be someone else’s problem. Like now. Maria’s country is under attack. People have died, and she would rather be anywhere other than here. This bar in the desert, with pictures of fighter jets on the walls and ballads twanging tinny on the speakers, with her, her best friend, watching them pull the wounded out of the World Trade Center, and mumbling a constant stream of insane drivel into her glass. Rogue computers, weaponised syntax, Islamic doctrine as a metaphor for quantum energy weapons, faster-than-light drives schematically represented in the traditional patterns of Persian carpets, a hole opening in the sky above New York, and flying lizards streaming through. Maria wants to grab her friend by the shoulders and scream: girl, you fucked up bad, and that’s on you; don’t make me your two hundred and ninety-first victim. But instead she just nods, and bears it, and orders another drink.
It’s 1995, and Carol Danvers is in outer space. She turns back a barrage of ballistic missiles; she swoops through an enemy spaceship in a trail of gorgeous explosions. She’s saved the skulls, the innocents and their children. She’s put back flesh to repair their wounds. She builds universes. She makes and unmakes empires at will. Every flicker in her fingers is significant, every motion changes the world. Lasers sparkle like confetti around her, as she chases the Imperial warships deep into the interstellar void.
And inside the simulation, the false world, the flat world, the dead zone of magnetic tape and digital signals, Carol Danvers is levitating between the racks of VHS tapes in her aluminium-foil armour, as laurels of light wind and unwind around her stained and scabbing hands.