Writing Flawed Characters: What We Can Learn From the Failures of Captain Marvel

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

It is a truth widely acknowledged that a character’s flaws are much more interesting than any abilities they might have.

Iron Man’s suit of armour is the stuff of awesomeness, but let's face it: if he didn’t start his journey as a self-absorbed jerk who only cared about himself, then we would be much less interested in how his story ends.

Darcy’s flaws and struggles far outweigh his material possessions.

Boromir wouldn’t be Boromir if he didn’t already own the inherent weaknesses that made way for his cathartic redemption.

It is these emotion-fraught struggles that elevate a story’s status from “pretty good” to the unforgettable and deeply personal.

Subsequently, it is the deeply personal that most impacts their audiences, turning a good yarn into an instant classic for the ages.

We commune with such stories because they are vessels from which spring not only heroes and victors, but flawed men and women struggling to do the right thing, despite what consequences may arise against them.

As fallen creatures, continually harried by sin in all its forms and guises, we empathize with and admire those heroes who endure the same trials and tribulations which we must also undergo.

To better illustrate this principle, let’s take a look at Captain Marvel—a film that deviated from this long-heralded tradition and subsequently suffered the consequences—and see what we learn from its failure, in order to write compelling characters of our own.

Why Captain Marvel Falls Short of the Marvel Model Many would quickly concur that Marvel Studios has endured the years and become the most renowned film franchise of our generation due to its investment in character growth and development.

The last two Avengers films succeeded because of skilful storytelling; but the reason fans showed up in droves to make them the highest-grossing films of all time, primarily owed to how invested they had become in the ensemble cast. 

Marvel films don’t sell solely due to their trademark humour, escapism, or even their expansive world-building: they sell because they’re some of the best in the business at crafting characters and personalities that connect with their audience.

Doctor Strange is perhaps the most striking example of this phenomenon. 

In terms of plot and overall world-building, it’s okay. It’s good, but not great. However, as many can testify, the saving grace of that film (apart from the humour and visuals) is the person of Doctor Stephen Strange.

When we first see him, he’s portrayed as a medical wizard, with an aptitude for remedying ailments that would have defeated even his celebrated peers. To put it simply: he’s the best there is, and he knows it. His amazing abilities are deftly contrasted with his maddening flaws. We are shown evidence of his astounding track record, only to watch him refuse patients one minute later that might taint his reputation. Yes, he’s a medical genius, but he’s one with a major ego and is, on the whole, an infuriatingly narcissistic individual.

So, what happens next? He’s in his Lamborghini, on his way to accept yet another prestigious award, when his car skids off the road in a freak accident, leaving him physically impaired. 

Next thing, he’s in the hospital, his once-gifted hands filled with needles. He will never perform another surgery again. He’s lost everything, save the love of those who care for him, which he drives away soon after in a fit of anger. 

It takes many more losses for him to finally realize that “it’s not all about you,” and it is only once he learns this essential truth and loses his ego that he is granted the means to defeat the villain.

Compare and contrast with Captain Marvel: Carol Danvers is not only the first female Marvel superhero to get a solo outing, but she’s the strongest. Her seemingly-endless display of powers makes those of every hero before her look puny and unimportant. And yet, for all that, Captain Marvel falls utterly short of the mark set by its predecessors.

Unlike the majority of her MCU counterparts, Danvers doesn’t really have any perceivable flaws, save for maybe being “too emotional”?

This shoddy attempt at grafting in real human conflict is present in one of the opening scenes, wherein Jude Law’s character makes a point of telling her, “There’s nothing more dangerous to a warrior than emotion. You have to let go of the part of yourself that makes you vulnerable.”

According to David Ehrlich of indiewire.com, the “context behind [his] axioms couldn’t be clearer, nor the message more pointed: Women are always being told that they’re too ‘emotional’ to lead, but [Danvers’] convoluted journey will lead her to see that emotions can be a superpower unto themselves, and that her vulnerability is also her greatest strength. If only [Danvers’] movie didn’t treat that sentiment like a self-fulfilling prophecy; if only it earned the beautiful idea that it lays out at the start.”

Gender politics aside, there are still several issues at play with this “flaw,” Number One being that Brie Larson’s persona repeatedly comes off as someone who has the exact opposite problem.

Whether this was intentional or not (an argument can be made for both sides), the idea of being “too emotional” as a flaw doesn’t really work quite that well within the context of the film.

At the end of the day, it’s just simple logic: If the story is trying to say that having emotions are invaluable to growth and success, then such a flaw is no longer a deeply-engrossing flaw—it’s something to aspire to, and not the other way around.

Her only real problem besides this is “being held back.” Throughout the film, she’s constantly searching for who she is and was, or the “best version” of herself. And it’s only when she breaks free (and non-coincidently, casts off the restraints placed upon her by male authority figures), that she becomes the famous Captain Marvel. What Differentiates Captain America from Captain Marvel Now, some might point to her lack of shortcomings and say that Danvers is just the female equivalent of Steve Rogers (and, indeed, the filmmakers referenced the latter in the development of her character); however, there are distinct differences at play here: Steve is an everyman.

He’s patriotic and loves his country; he’s constantly in conflict over what’s the right thing to do; he weeps and grieves and struggles over loss; and his convictions repeatedly come at a high cost to him and those he loves. 

Repeat: his convictions repeatedly come at a high cost to him and those he loves.

Also, stress: as the story of an amnesiac who’s trying to find her identity, Carol Danvers doesn’t yet have any concrete convictions.

As seen in illustrious figures like Superman and Captain America, static characters can work—and can do so exceedingly well—but only if they already have a set of values or morals that are frequently and determinedly challenged throughout the story. The attraction of those conflicts that causes an audience to empathize with such a character is seen in what they must suffer as a result of their beliefs.

However, in the case of Captain Marvel, it is not until the very end of the film that she forms any plausible convictions that might attract conflict; and even then, it’s difficult to pinpoint what those convictions actually are, other than the typical “it’s the right thing to do, so, of course, I’m going to do it.”

And strangely, it’s worth noting that the Captain America films—despite the unbending nature of their primary protagonist—are some of the most emotion-filled, heartstring-tugging films in the entire Marvel franchise. And this is, above all, because Captain America is a man we can feel for and commune with: we’ve seen him as the struggling, scrawny weakling, who eventually proved that it’s the heart, not the outward condition that matters the most. 

We’ve seen him stay true to his convictions, despite the consequences, of which there have been many. And in the end, I think few who would be at variance with the truth that the Star-Spangled Man has, perhaps, the most tragic history out of all his many colleagues.

On the other hand, Captain Marvel is none of that. It’s almost utterly bereft of the emotion and angst that have driven the success of those that came before. In the words of one critic, “Superhero films are not known for their romantic subplots, but Captain Marvel may be the chilliest of the lot. 

Indeed, the most affection we see on screen here is, really, the lavish attention that Nick Fury bestows on Goose, the movie’s enigmatic cat.” It’s a testament that some critics were irritated by the clear lack of heart that their annoyance overbore the fear of being politically incorrect. Indeed, at 78%, Captain Marvel owns one of the lowest ratings for a Marvel film on Rotten Tomatoes to date.

Looking back, Danvers’ perceived lack of a personality was an oft-noted complaint among fans during the marketing that proceeded the release of the film.

Dani Di Placido, a senior contributor at forbes.com, took to the internet to address these criticisms, postulating that the reason why she “looks bored” was, in fact, precisely “the point.” He goes on to say that “What we’ve seen so far indicates that this a story about a superhuman becoming human, rather than the other way around. This is…an emotionally detached character who has to rediscover her humanity in order to become a hero, rather than a super weapon mindlessly fighting on behalf on the Kree. And that is a really interesting concept for a superhero origin story, which tend to stick to the same tropes that were established more than a decade ago.”

At the time, I might have been inclined to concur with Mr. Di Placido. The idea of starting on the opposite side of the spectrum by forcing the most powerful superhero of them all to gain a degree of humanity is, by nature, a very intriguing concept.

However, this stance was taken about four months before said film was released to audiences around the world, and we now know the truth for what it is. And while Captain Marvel is certainly an entertaining film, it is still an objectively bad film, altogether due to the simple fact that she undergoes no real character arc. Let’s Talk About Character Arcs Now, I, and you, and your grandmother, as I’m sure (I would hope?), are well aware of what a character arc is, but let’s just get it out of the way for the sake of this exercise. According to the wonderful, most-blessed Wikipedia, a character arc is the “transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story.” Another authority (lightsfilmschool.com) better defines it as “when a character starts the story off with a certain viewpoint and then through trials and tribulations, that viewpoint changes. Essentially, the arc is the emotional or psychological growth, transformation and development of your character.” Matthew Kadish, at medium.com, further asserts that “…character arcs allow the audiences to see a character transform.”

With this in mind, what does Ms. Danvers learn throughout the course of her story?

How does she transform in a way that fundamentally alters the prospects that face her?

In what way is she forced to change or grow by the end of her arc?

Well, for one, she learns who she once was. She learns that she is on the wrong side of a war. She learns the full extent of her powers. She forges a connection with Nick Fury, which will impact later events in a significant way. She meets a strange, demented cat named Goose. And…that’s all I can really think of.

Maybe you’re beginning to see a problem with all this. All these things are external, not internal. The external should always be the means, not the end. The plot is a vehicle to drive forward crucial character development, and Captain Marvel fails because, while these combined elements manage to change her external circumstances in the Marvel universe, they fail to change her internally in any significant way.

As an audience, we should ask ourselves these questions:

I) What does Danvers stand to lose from these externalities?

II) What inherent struggle must she overcome in order to triumph over the villain?  

III) Why should we (beyond in-the-moment entertainment) care about her story if we’re given nothing concrete to relate to?

The answer is this: Zero. Zip. Nada. Nothing.

For the sake of providing an equal amount of fairness, let’s apply the same questions to other famous superhero flicks of our time.

In what way is Tony Stark different from what saw of him at the beginning of Iron Man?

Well, instead of an extremely narcissistic, greedy individual, we have one, who (though, admittedly, still has a lot more growing to do) is now willing to sacrifice his own selfish ambition to better the interests and wellbeing of others.

In The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker sets aside his restless, rebellious nature in the face of something greater than his personal vendettas and pursuits.

In 2011’s Thor, the arrogant, haughty God of Thunder undergoes a complete evolution.

Even in the much-maligned Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ben Affleck’s Batman, learns to lighten up a bit.

And while many of these films suffer from a multitude of various problems, they all pack some sort of punch at the end because they are the recipients of clear character arcs and deep emotional stakes.

In fact, though I have many issues with Marvel Studios’ approach of sacrificing powerful character moments for yet another joke, I find myself hard-pressed to find a single film in their massively-long Infinity Saga that doesn’t end with the chief protagonist changing in some meaningful way or another (other than the aforementioned Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home & Thor: The Dark World).

Contrast again, and the only thing that changes for Carol Danvers is her circumstances. The “best version” of herself is the same as the one given at the beginning, albeit one that now knows her past and has learned to harness her powers.

However, none of these external alterations truly impact her in any way, shape, or form. Developing Points of Contrast So…how to go about fixing all of this?

First of all—in any character arc—you should always be searching for some point of contrast between then and now. Always. There must be some point of realization, throughout all the many trials and tribulations, where that character changes—for better or for worse—in a way that directly reflects back upon their behaviour in the first act.

Example- The Dark Knight Rises: Bruce Wayne is reforged from a hurting, reclusive exile to one, who at long last, learns to rise above his darkness in escaping the underground prison wherein he dwells confined.

Example- Revenge of the Sith: Anakin Skywalker transforms from the young, over-confident war hero to a man, driven by severe emotional duress, that ends up bringing about the demise of Mace Windu—and subsequently the entire Republic.

Example- The Hobbit Trilogy: Thorin Oakenshield is transfigured from the dwarf who continually rejected the legacy of his grandfather, despised the Elvenking Thranduil, and wished to destroy the dragon Smaug, to a person, who in essence, becomes all three of those figures simultaneously.

All of these illustrious persons make a distinct choice: one that radically reshapes the remaining narrative. They all face a single point of contrast that cements the development of who they are or who they are becoming.

And so, if one wishes to fix such a film as Captain Marvel, one has to thoughtfully consider what story elements might make for a powerful antithesis. 

If the goal of the story is to reverse the trends of previous superhero sagas by commencing at an inhuman level and gradually descending to a deeply-human, emotionally-charged bedrock that aims to provide powerful catharsis, then we need to do just that in the set-up of her arc: Make. Her. Emotionless. Not the bored, occasionally-wry character that exists for the duration of the film, but a merciless, ruthless, utterly-unsparing super weapon used by the Kree to further their political ambitions. 

The current version we were shown in the cinemas is much too agreeable, civil, charismatic, and all of the above. If the Kree are taught to be cold and unfeeling, then she should epitomize those principles to mirror her later desire to break free of their andragogy.

Going forward, you can intersperse the revelations of her past with what she’s assimilating about the Kree in relation to the Skrulls. This can consequently drive her to a much more potent and dynamic moral dilemma, where these two opposing, deeply-entrenched sides of her are forced into direct conflict with each other.

Unfortunately, the Carol Danvers we get is never faced with any great moral or philosophical conundrum. When the moment arrives for her to make a choice between the Kree or Skrulls, the answer comes easy enough.

Of course, she’ll turn against the Kree. She’ll do it, and quite happily, thank you very much, because it’s exactly in line with the character established early on. 

As such, this monumental choice, which should have been placed under much more stress, ends up feeling cheap and thoroughly unrewarding and does absolutely nothing to advance her character growth. What We Can Learn If you develop characters with real, human problems and failings, people will inevitably be drawn to your work. However, if you perform the opposite extreme, don’t be surprised when it fails to attract an audience.

To better aid and abet you in forging characters as dynamic as Doctor Strange, Peter Parker, and Thorin Oakenshield, you should ask yourself those same questions as proposed above:

  1. What does your character learn throughout the course of his or her story?

  2. How does he transform in a way that fundamentally alters the prospects that arise against them?

  3. In what way is he forced to change or grow by the end of his character arc?

Thoughtful foreshadowing and expert plotting can draw anyone in, but it is primarily complex and tangible characters that will keep your readers returning.

If you can’t get this one thing right, then your stories will suffer accordingly.

Plot is almost on level with the former, but we must keep in mind that it’s also just a vehicle to bring your characters into conflict with one another, and drive them to make the hard choices and go through the trials with which we most identify.

Hence why such a film as Avengers: Endgame (despite what plot or cognitive problems it may have had) was so roundly praised and acclaimed.

Complex characters who deal with real-life troubles, give your story something all the world-building and plotting can never achieve on their own: heart.

If you can’t create compelling characters with deep flaws, tangible struggles, and emotional stakes, then your story will become just another one of the many shallow stories that pervade the market.

After all, Captain Marvel was about as marvellous as mildew, and I’m sure you don’t want to reproduce that effect for your stories.

[the above was taken from Matthew's post on KingdomPen.org, which was originally published on June 8, 2020]

26 views0 comments


  • Mail
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Instagram
  • Amazon
  • LinkedIn
  • Goodreads
  • Gravatar
  • RSS


Kingdom Pen