Captain Marvel: Subverting Expectations


Last year, a wild, devastating galactic ride called Infinity War roared into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I shared my thoughts in a post here at the Rabbit Room because I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. Now I find myself in the same situation, this time with the newest MCU film, Captain Marvel. So just like last time, let me emphasize that this article assumes you have seen the movie. Major spoilers ahead!

One can’t be too careful in an internet conversation, so let’s start our discussion with a high-five and an agreement that we’re allowed to disagree. What I’m about to share are my own reactions to the film, and I’d love to listen to yours if you’ll listen to mine.

But me? I loved it. Every high-soaring, shape-shifting, flerken minute of it.

This was a movie of delightful surprises, from the sweet Stan Lee tribute in the opening to the a-ha reveals of MCU continuity to the ‘90s throwback details. We not only saw younger versions of our S.H.I.E.L.D. pals Fury and Coulton, but also a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy Ronan, and a surprising—and significant—appearance by the tesseract, the Infinity Stone that started it all. I’m still giddy about the revelation that Carol Danvers is an Infinity Stone horcrux. Brilliant!

But the film’s best surprise, the game-changing heart of the movie, was its major plot twist. After two acts of savage battle against the devious, goblin-like Skrulls, Carol learns something unthinkable: everything she knows about the Skrulls is wrong. The Skrulls are good guys.

But in the comics, the Skrulls have never been good guys.

The Skrulls debuted way back in 1961, in issue #2 of Fantastic Four, the comic book series that launched the Marvel universe as we know it. That issue begins with the Fantastic Four using their powers maliciously—Mister Fantastic switches off the power for the city, Invisible Woman steals diamonds, the Thing smashes a drilling tower, and the Human Torch scorches through a statue dedication ceremony and melts the statue. If this sounds completely out of character for our heroes (except maybe the Human Torch), well, say hello to the Skrulls. A quartet of shape-shifting Skrulls has taken the place of the Fantastic Four, to discredit them and turn humanity against them. Once this threat has been neutralized, “no power on earth can stop the Skrull invasion!”

Though the Fantastic Four stop the invasion within twenty-three pages, the pattern continued for the next fifty-plus years of comics: the Skrulls invade and conquer planets, but thanks to our Marvel superheroes, the earth was a nut they could never quite crack. Meanwhile, major wars raged on between the Kree and Skrulls. Although the Kree were often brutal and duplicitous, in their war against the Skrulls, root for the Kree. The Skrulls are bad news.

The story engaged me more fully due to my familiarity with the source material, not because it was represented faithfully, but because it was subverted.

Jonny Jimison

But that made them great villains. 2008’s Secret Invasion series revealed that Skrulls have been living on earth for years, using their shape-shifting abilities to assume the identities of powerful individuals—sleeper agents, preparing for the Skrull invasion. The series tagline was also its theme: “Who do you trust?” In the months leading up to Captain Marvel, it was a safe bet that we were about to see ground laid for a cinematic Secret Invasion: the crafty aliens would integrate themselves into society in this ‘90s-era prequel, so that in modern-day films, we could see our heroes discover that some of them had been Skrulls for years.

As I entered the theater to watch Captain Marvel, the thought of trusting the Skrulls never entered my mind.

But everything I knew about the Skrulls was wrong.

Carol Danvers had to unlearn years of Kree training to see the Skrulls for who they really were. I had to unlearn years of Marvel comics to see the Skrulls for who they really were. And thus Marvel undermined their own sixty-year storytelling tradition to take me on Carol’s journey. The story engaged me more fully due to my familiarity with the source material, not because it was represented faithfully, but because it was subverted.

But sometimes I want the story to stay true to the source material. When a movie undoes my expectations, sometimes I love it, and sometimes I hate it. 

On a recent episode of the Libromania podcast, Jeffrey Overstreet and Steven Greydanus had a thoughtful conversation about some of their favorite movie adaptations. I’m quoting from Greydanus here:

There are multiple ways in which a film can engage its source material: you can try to make a film that’s as faithful as possible. You can also try to be faithful in spirit. But then there’s a third kind of engagement which I think is very interesting, where the filmmaker is subversive of the source material in some way, where they engage it critically. What I think provides an interesting challenge to these kinds of questions, though, is when a film departs from its source material in such a way that you feel like something has been lost and something more interesting has not been put in its place.

As a storyteller, I want to understand more fully when to deliver on expectations and when to subvert them. Captain Marvel gave me what I think is a pretty good reference point—by undermining everything that I knew about the Skrulls, they helped me identify more directly with the hero and her journey. In a word, the result in me was empathy.

I feel for you, Carol Danvers. And we both feel for the Skrulls—misunderstood, in desperate times, in a desperate galaxy. Aren’t we all?

But that’s just one example, so let’s keep the ball rolling. Has a story ever subverted your expectations in a good way? If so, feel free to share in the comments section below.

Jonny Jimison is a talented cartoonist and graphic novelist. In addition to a long history of web-based cartoons, he's the author of Dragon Lord Saga series of graphic novels, including Martin & Marco and The River Fox. Jonny lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida.


  1. William E Arbaugh

    A decade or so ago I watched the Guy Ritchie gangster film “Revolver”. I picked it off of the rack because I thought it would be his quick witted paint by numbers (with a couple interesting choices) action scenes. Somewhere in the middle of the film there was a flip. Suddenly I’m watching not a revenge story but a redemption story as the men the main character owes his life to start ordering him to do things that make no sense to the main character’s way of thinking; things that fly in the face of every gangster instinct. I realized that they weren’t humiliating him; the were humbling him. There was some spiritual heavy lifting going on in my dumb action movie. Finally the two men allow the main character to confront the villain and you think he is going to get his revenge. You think there will be a massive gunfight leading to a satisfying death or humiliation that all revenge stories have to give all parties closure. But the main character reflects on everything, has the opportunity for revenge…and forgives the villain and walks out. At that moment my interest was so piqued because I’d never seen this before and had no idea how a storyteller could make a satisfying ending out of forgiveness.
    I won’t detail it here because it is pure genius.

  2. Jesse Hayden


    John Carney’s movie “Once” did that for me. I was expecting it to be a typical story about an ill-fated romance, and instead discovered a story about two people choosing to love each other self-sacrificially. Each character makes some hard choices that help the other to grow into the person they’re meant to become. It was a great picture of a deeper kind of love, which wasn’t romance, but was no less beautiful for that. The way that the movie ends is just perfect – bittersweet and yet full of hope.

  3. Shigé Clark


    Thank you for this reflection, Jonny! You hit one of the things that impacted me most about the movie. I initially wrote a super-long explanation about it, but I’ll compact it to this:

    My brother and I are in the military, and we saw Captain Marvel together. Neither of us were familiar enough with the Marvel comics to even know who the Skrulls were, but when the they first appeared on screen in their natural form, my brother turned to me and said in a tired voice, “The green, goblin-lookin dudes are always the bad guys,” and I agreed. We’d seen this before a million times. We knew how this story went.

    But, as you pointed out, the movie turned this expectation on its head. The theme of questioning not only what you’ve been ordered to do but the very information you’ve been supplied in order to make your own ethical decision is portrayed throughout the movie – first Fury aiding Carol, then Coulson aiding Fury, then Carol aiding the Skrulls. It was profoundly impactful, as a soldier, to see a dehumanized “enemy” revealed as a victim, and, as a member of the audience, to have my assumptions about villainy subverted. I thought this was the most powerful theme of the film – though there were some other good ones – and hearing your take has confirmed and solidified my appreciation of it. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Reagan Dregge


    That episode of Libromania was so great, I need to listen to it again!
    I think Till We Have Faces is my favorite experience of subverted expectations. Star Trek can pull it off on occasion, too.

  5. Matthew Cyr


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jonny. I’d been pining to see Coulson again for a long time, so that was a treat, though I didn’t expect to get a ’90s version of him. Who would have guessed that Fury lost his eye to the scratch of an octopus-cat? And one of my favorite little moments is when the science-nerd Skrull is trying to use the internet to get information, and as they all wait while the old-school dial-up sloooooowly connects, he gives this little sigh. Us too, Skrull guy – we who lived it, we feel ya.

    Your musings on subverted expectations helped me think more deeply about that aspect of the movie and to appreciate it more than I had. In response to your parting question, I just happened a couple days ago to read an excellent short story by Wilbur Daniel Steele called “The Man Who Saw Through Heaven.” I’m not sure what conclusion I had expected as I followed the unfolding of events with dread and fascination toward what was sure to be an ominous climax, but it wasn’t the one that I got. I recommend it heartily. Another I discovered not too long ago from an older post here on the site, is Tolstoy’s “The Three Hermits.” Thought-provoking and lovely.

  6. Peter Brunone


    All I can think of is Cohen the Barbarian in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series — although, to be honest, there are probably loads of Doctor Who episodes that subvert the usual sci-fi and horror tropes.

    For what it’s worth, I had very little exposure to (the real) Captain Marvel before seeing this film, but I loved the angle they took; like Shigé and her brother, I was disappointed at the apparent direction of the conflict at first.

    For what it’s worth, the movie was even better the second time; having seen the big picture, I was able to focus on the all the character arcs — and in particular, Carol’s tumultuous journey of self-(re)discovery.

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