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Skrulls aren't real; no one is bigoted against Skrulls. So why don't' Skrulls get to be the heroes of Captain Marvel?
The obvious answer to that question is that Captain Marvel is about Captain Marvel; the hero is in the title. But if you think about the narrative itself, it's obvious that the story that's supposed to be about Carol Danvers isn't about Carol Danvers at all. The main, central conflict of the movie is between two alien races, the Kree and the Skrull. The Kree are a warrior race of imperial conquerors who are trying to exterminate the shape-shifting Skrulls.
The Skrulls in the story are the persecuted people; Captain Marvel is about their tragedy, their resistance, their brave fight and their eventual triumph against superior forces. Yet the Skrulls are oddly marginal to the story. We don't see the destruction of their homeworld, we don't know much about their society, their hopes, or their struggles. Even the nature of their conflict with the Kree is confused. At times the Skrull seem like a real military threat to the Kree. At others they seem to be tottering on the verge of complete obliteration. The fight between Kree and Skrulls is often referred to as a war, but it often looks more like a genocide.
The Kree/Skrull conflict is so vague because, again, the film is devoted to Carol. Captain Marvel fills in Carol's backstory—we learn that she's a human fighter pilot who gained superpowers in the explosion of a cosmic weapon, was mindwiped by the Kree, and eventually recognizes she's been lied to about the supposed evil of the Skrull.
But filling in that story doesn't really tell us much about the narrative's actual conflict. Carol is a deus ex machina who solves the Skrull's problems with her cosmic abilities. But if you spend all your time focused on the deus ex machina, you never explain the stakes that the deus is machining away. This is why Captain Marvelis so emotionally disjointed: the hero is celebrated for saving people that the film doesn't actually care about.
Or, to put it anther way, Captain Marvel is a white savior film. The Skrull are immigrants and refugees. Most pointedly, they are Jews—a shape-shifting, assimilating diasporic group persecuted by a genocidal militaristic culture. The white, blonde Carol Danvers is persuaded by Kree propaganda, and seduced by a vision of superiority, discipline, and power. But eventually—like that other Nazi, Otto Schindler—she recognizes that the Kree are liars and the Skrulls are persecuted. So she swoops in to help them. She's John Adams in Amistad, or the FBI agents in Mississippi Burning or…well, you know the drill.
White savior stories usually work by drawing poignant seriousness and serious poignance from the plight of marginalized groups. Take a giant historical injustice—the Holocaust, slavery, Jim Crow, whatever—and find some white person to solve it. This assures white people in the audience that they are on the right side of the fight against giant historical injustice.
The problem with Captain Marvel is, again, that the Skrulls aren't real. We don't know of any historical injustice committed against them, because no historical injustice was committed against them, because they are fictional. You can't just dump a bunch of Skrulls on screen and tell us that saving them makes us virtuous, because we don't know a Skrull from our cat. You can tell the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of some gentile, because we all broadly know the story of the Holocaust. But if you want us to care about the Skrulls, you need to first of all tell us something about the Skrulls.
And by all rights, telling us about the Skrulls shouldn't be a problem. White savior narratives are powered by prejudice. Mainstream storytellers want to assure mainstream audiences that they are good people, who bear no guilt for prejudice and hate. Mainstream storytellers see marginalized people as ineffectual, weak, and unable to care for themselves. So you get narratives in which white people help the weak and powerless. The message to white audiencesis that they are good because (a) they really do like marginalized people and also because (b) all their prejudices against marginalized people are justified.
But no one feels guilty about hating Skrulls, since there are no Skrulls. No one needs to have their prejudices about Skrulls confirmed, for the same reason. There should be nothing stopping big Hollywood studios from giving us a Skrull hero for whom even the whitest of audience members can cheer.
And Captain Marvel could be a Skrull easily enough. In the film we're presented with, Carol's alliance with the Skrull and her decision to devote the rest of her life to defeating the Kree both seem unmotivated. In an alternate movie, though, Carol the Skrull had her mind wiped and was forced into a Kree shape. But then she realizes the people she's hunting are actually her people. She's their champion not out of a sudden burst of altruism, but because she's them. That's a much more straightforward tale, with a more viscerally satisfying emotional arc.
Unfortunately, though, white savior stories have a life of their own. No one hates Skrulls. But Skrulls in Captain Marvel are in the narrative position reserved for people who are hated. The Skrull's have taken the shape of the despised, rejected others—they're the victims of genocide and persecution. And the victims of genocide and persecution are, in mainstream cultural narratives, imaginatively separate from the people who bravely fight against persecution. The targets of violence and prejudice do not lead the battle against violence and prejudice; that role is for white people.
Of course wedon't hate Skrulls; it's nothing personal. When those green, lizard-like guys show up in the casting room, no one turns them down out of animus. It's just that Skrulls don't look like heroes. You understand.
Captain Marvel, is, supposedly, about how Carol learns that she is not Kree. The Kree's hatred and violence and prejudice is not who Carol really is. By extension, it's not who the film viewers are either.
And yet, those film viewers are encouraged to believe that the Skrulls have no heroes of their own. Their only hope is a woman powered by technology invented by the Kree and trained by the Kree. The Kree, through the film, are still lying to Carol, and to us. They're telling us that Kree are the only saviors; that strength and power must come from the Kree if they come from anywhere. We think we don't have a stake in this conflict. And yet, somehow, over and over, those we claim to want to save are given the shape of hate.