Captain Marvel: The Problem With The Skrull Twist

This article contains spoilers for Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel is an alright film. It entertains with funny jokes and pretty visuals like most Marvel movies do, but it has a lot of problems. Chief among these problems is the characterization, or lack thereof, of the titular hero, but as criminally underdeveloped as protagonist Carol Danvers is, what interested me most about Captain Marvel were its main villains, the shapeshifters known as the Skrull.

A quick recap: the film features two alien races that have been embattled for centuries. The Kree, a group of technologically advanced warriors led by an artificial intelligence, fight against their mortal enemies, the terrorists known as the Skrull. These insidious, green-skinned, pointy-eared creatures have the ability to shapeshift into any person within their sight, replicating them perfectly to the DNA level. Because of this power, the Skrull have been able to terrorize the Kree for many years while remaining largely undetected.

At least, that’s the story that the Kree present to Carol and to the audience. The truth, which is introduced to Captain Marvel around the midpoint of the movie, is far darker: the Skrull aren’t terrorists. They are actually refugees searching for an escape from the Kree, whom have hunted them relentlessly for years. All the Skrull desire is to find a new home where they will be free from any persecution.

Normally, I’m all in favor of the evil, shapeshifting aliens being more than just malevolent monsters, but this reveal strips the conflict of any nuance and logic. This twist transforms a conflict of good versus evil into… a conflict of good versus evil. It doesn’t add more complexity to the tale or flesh out the history of their endless “wars”, it simply swaps the roles of the players. Rather than the Kree being purely good and the Skrull being purely evil, the Skrull are now purely good and the Kree are now purely evil.

You may accuse me of simplifying this conflict and point out that while the Skrull are largely the victims here, they’ve surely done some bad things. You may point out that the Kree must have done some good things, too. That may be the case, but the movie gives us little to no evidence to believe this; at the very least, it doesn’t give us significant evidence. The only real reference we get to the Skrull being more than victims of genocide is one line of dialogue from the Skrull leader, General Talos, who says, “My hands, too, are dirty from war.” In the film, Talos is as nonaggressive as possible, however, and it’s made explicitly clear that any violence on his part is justified. So with the exception of this one largely inconsequential sentence, the Skrull are painted clearly and explicitly as victims who are vastly underpowered in their struggle against their oppressors; any room for inference or interpretation is obliterated by the astonishing lack of information about their conflict. This brings me to my second point: the war between these two alien species doesn’t make sense.

Why are the Kree fully devoted to wiping out the Skrull if the Skrull aren’t a serious threat to them? It’s clear that all the propaganda about the Skrull has been fabricated in order to justify a war against a desperate, possibly even endangered species… but why? What do the Kree have to gain by spending enormous amounts of time, money, and resources building up their military in order to genocide a race that doesn’t pose a true threat to them?

All we know about the Kree is that their sole motivation is to wipe out the Skrull. Their entire society, which encompasses not only their home planet of Hala, but also numerous other planets that they have colonized, seems to exist solely to fight this war against a ragtag group of scattered shapeshifters; once again, I don’t see how the Skrull stand any chance of defeating the massive might of the Kree military, as they don’t even appear to be trying to infiltrate Hala. In the first act, when Carol and her Kree combat squad are sent on a mission, the Skrull they encounter are literally just hanging around, bothering nobody. Captain Marvel doesn’t show another side of the Kree civilization besides the vast, powerful organization of soldiers seemingly spearheaded by the artificial intelligence known as Supreme Intelligence, yet it seems entirely unnecessary for their society to be structured this way.

What exactly is the Supreme Intelligence, you ask? Yes, it’s a powerful artificial intelligence, but what is it? Despite the ludicrous amount of exposition in the first act, I honestly couldn’t tell you. Captain Marvel doesn’t show us or tell us about some sort of Kree political structure, so the Supreme Intelligence appears to be the unequivocal ruler of Kree society, who is hellbent on destroying the Skrull for some unclear reason.

In general, it seems odd that the paranoia aspect of the Skrull wasn’t played up. Some of the best scenes in Captain Marvel were when one of the characters had been replicated by a Skrull, or simply when I thought that one of the characters could have been replicated by a Skrull. That looming threat, the implication that anybody could be a traitor, really added a lot of tension to the earlier scenes. Once it’s revealed that the Skrull aren’t devious evildoers, however, all of that tension evaporates.

If the writers wanted to execute a twist where the Skrull aren’t the monsters they are initially presented as, that’s great. As I stated earlier, I almost unequivocally prefer villains who have more depth to them than “We are the evil space goblins and we are coming to kill you.” It’s clear that the writers intended for the plight of the Skrull to be a major emotional pull of this movie, but it’s hard for that emotion to come through when so much of the Skrull’s story is either missing or nonsensical.

I would argue that the majority of Captain Marvel’s problems come from its lack of focus, which unfortunately permeates its entirety. Nearly every aspect of the film feels underdeveloped because not enough time is devoted to exploring its many characters and plotlines. For all the emphasis placed on Carol Danvers’ amnesia and journey of self-discovery, we know far too little about who Carol Danvers is and was. Carol’s mentor, a Kree named Yon-Rogg, spends some time with her and the rest of their squad at the beginning of the film, but he and Carol aren’t reunited until the very end, so their relationship doesn’t have to time to develop. It never feels like a real relationship between two real people. Similarly, the Kree civilization is glanced at, but never explored at any deeper level. I wasn’t expecting this movie to provide intricately detailed histories of an alien war or to set a new high bar for worldbuilding in the sci-fi genre. I did, however, expect it to give me something in that regard, something to explain the barebones how and why, something that highlights the difference between the ideologies of the Kree and the Skrull beyond “We want to kill you” and “We don’t want to be killed”.

To the movie’s credit, it’s not easy to balance a personal origin story with the lore of a centuries-long war in two hours. But the Kree-Skrull war is a central conflict to the story that is deeply intertwined with what’s supposed to be the most emotional moment of the movie: when Carol finds out that she has been lied to by the Kree all along. If that central conflict doesn’t make sense on the most basic of levels, then your movie has a problem. I think this twist would have been much more effective if we saw a more positive side to the Kree and a more negative side to the Skrull, even after the truth is revealed.

It wouldn’t have taken much to include several environmental details on Hala, such as billboards that not only mark the Skrull as terrorists (which are present in the film), but also promote the benevolence of the Skrull. We might see the masses being supplied with food and medical supplies from Kree officials, and we would at least have some idea as to why people would support this authority and be fearful of the Skrull, even if they are unaware of how irrational that fear is. Instead of Carol’s squad’s mission being to retrieve a Kree operative possessing valuable intel, maybe they are escorting supplies being shipped to an ailing Kree colony. Maybe the Skrull need those supplies to give to their own people, and conflict erupts there as a result. There’s a lot of different ways to convey why people buy into the ideology of the Kree and why the Skrull are more complex than pure villains or pure victims, and it wouldn’t take much screen time to portray this. Implementing larger changes might require restructuring and reworking the entire movie, so I’m going to avoid that here. As I already said, we don’t need a detailed catalogue of every aspect of Kree society and Skrull society for the Skrull twist to work; we just need more than there was in the theatrical release of the film.

Changes like these would allow us to better understand the motives of Carol’s mentor, Yon-Rogg. Yon-Rogg ultimately betrays Carol by covering up the truth of her past and the truth behind the war against the Skrull, and this poses another logistical problem. Yon-Rogg and the rest of his squad knew the truth about the Skrull from the start, yet they remain loyal to the Kree. Perhaps he believes that even if the Kree civilization has committed atrocities, even if it is lying to its populace, it is still worth standing by the Kree because a Kree presence in the galaxy is ultimately a positive thing. We don’t really see any direct evidence of the positive side of the Kree in the movie, but there is an argument to be made that the Kree bring advancements and prosperity to their citizens as their power grows. This argument would be strengthened if we are shown the benefits of the Kree civilization in the film. Essentially, Yon-Rogg might believe that the ends justify the means because of this, but we have no real way of knowing why he is so loyal in the actual version of the movie.

As it stands now, Yon-Rogg and his squad knowing that the Kree are deliberately vilifying the Skrull to push an agenda raises several questions that the movie isn’t able to answer. If Yon-Rogg and his combat squad know the truth, who else does? Is this information exclusive to high-ranking members on Hala? What is the flow of information like in Kree society? Is the truth about the Skrull privy only to members of their military, or does the general public know as well? Is there a general public?

To be perfectly clear, I am not saying that I could have written this twist or this movie better. With any of my articles, I am never claiming that I could do a better job or make a better movie than the people who made the movie. Filmmaking is a ridiculously complex process, and it is always easier to identify the flaws in a work after it has been released as opposed to when it is being made. Hindsight is 20/20, after all, and making a film or writing a feature length script requires a level of talent and experience that is far behind my own. All I am doing here is offering my own input, opinions, and arguments.

I don’t think Captain Marvel is a good movie. I don’t think it’s a particularly bad movie, either; despite its sloppy script, it’s still entertaining—this is Marvel, after all—but it’s below the quality that I’ve come to expect from Marvel movies in recent years. I’m honestly confused that so many of the problems plaguing the filmended up in the final version, but it will nonetheless be interesting to see how Carol Danvers interacts with the roster of heroes in next month’s Avengers: Endgame. If we ever get a Captain Marvel 2—which seems likely given its exceptional performance at the box office—I hope that movie has a script that truly allows the character of Captain Marvel, and her villains, to shine.

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