On the Subtle Brilliance of CAPTAIN MARVEL’s SKRULLS

Still from 'Captain Marvel'
Credit: Marvel Studios
Credit: Marvel Studios

So we’ve all seen Captain Marvel by now, right? We can proceed with only minor spoilers warnings?

Over the last week respected comic book veteran Roy Thomas has been cited regarding his disappointment that Marvel Studios did not portray the Skrulls in their more classic villainous light in Captain Marvel… at least not ultimately. We all thought they were villains throughout most of the film. But then the rug was pulled out from under us. 

Actually, the one thing I really hated in the film was turning the Skrulls into a peace-loving race, with the Kree as the heavies,” Thomas first told our good, good friends at Bleeding Cool. “As far as I’m concerned as the principal conceptualizer of the Kree/Skrull War (and I suspect Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would’ve agreed with me), the Skrulls and the Kree are each as bad as each other, as they say. Having the Skrulls all mushy and family-friendly at the end left a bad taste in my mouth… but I loved ’em for most of the movie, when they were doing shape-shifting stuff that looked (and as far as I’m concerned, were) downright evil.”

Now I have something of a personal policy to respect anyone’s own personal opinion of a film or song or comic book. And certainly a creator of Thomas’ storied career and stature in the comic book industry receives that courtesy in spades, especially considering his role as the original co-creator of Carol Danvers along with Gene Colan.

But I also happen to disagree with Mr. Thomas on principle on the topic and I’m going to explain why.

I think Marvel Studios use of the Skrulls was subtly brilliant. Because it utterly ... no, ultimately respected what makes the Skrulls the Skrulls.

Credit: Marvel Studios

While we don’t articulate it much, as knowledgeable comic book fans (as I assume most of you reading this are) we likely experience comic book movies differently than most other moviegoers.

For us, seeing the latest superhero adaptation can be kind of like listening to a cover song for the first time. Take Toto’s “Africa” along with Weezer’s recent surprise hit redo. As fans we know the song by heart, almost note-by-note. Every note, every change, every stylistic choice by the vocalist. When we listen to a new cover, it’s nearly impossible not to do mental side-by-side comparisons in our heads. As opposed to experiencing the song on its own terms, we’re forced by our prior experience to compare and contrast.

In the case of "Africa" it was hard to tell the difference, but that's neither here nor there.

I had this experience watching a preview of Warner Bros. Shazam! just this past weekend. While my daughter who accompanied me was more or less experiencing every aspect of the Shazam! mythos for the very first time, I found myself distracted by and focused on a particular aspect of the character’s canon (recent canon, as it were) I was familiar with. I couldn’t help but speculate and anticipate whether they were going to go in a certain story direction, or if they were going to save it for a sequel.

Now I’m not going to reveal what that story direction was and/or whether they did or did not go in it, but it was near impossible to forget what I already knew and I couldn’t help but track the clues as to whether or not it was coming.

We all do that to some degree as fans of Marvel and DC films. We all have mental checklists of story elements we do or don’t like or think are important and mental energy is expended on accounting for those elements as we watch a new adaptation.

Did they remember that cool storyline from 1995? Will this obscure character be namechecked? Is this respecting established continuity?

Which is what was subtly brilliant about the Skrull story choice. It used our acquired knowledge against us, paying homage in what I propose is a purer form as to what it is that makes the Skrulls special in the Marvel Universe.

The Skrulls aren’t just one of the oldest alien races/villains in the comic books. The Marvel Comics universe has dozens if not hundreds of malevolent alien races and literally thousands of villains. Their resume isn’t just about tenure and inertia.

What actually makes the Skrulls unique is deception. They hide in plain site, disguised as things we’ve come to trust. That’s the entire point of them I’d argue, more than just being evil.

So instead of telling, directors Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and their small army of screenwriters showed.

They could have easily just given us their version of what we knew and expected and allowed us our mental exercises testing how faithful they were to those expectations. But they disguised a twist in plain site.

They sure fooled Newsarama. We spent the better part of the last year speculating who in the contemporary MCU was a sleeper Skrull agent (and were kind of/sort of right on one guess on a technicality). We trusted in their villainy.

Credit: Gabrielle Dell'Otto (Marvel Comics)

But instead, Marvel Studios meta-Skrulled us. They used our trust in what we knew to fool the most knowledgeable. If everyone is the hero of their own story, they shapeshifted on our heroes. The MCU Skrulls didn’t transform from good guy to surprise lizardy-bad guy as is their comic book M.O. They transformed from lizardly bad guy to surprise good guy.

They allowed the super-informed audience to which true story surprises are a rarity to experience the Skrulls in their purest version.

[golf clap]

Now is it legitimate to not want to be deceived in this way? To not appreciate the meta performance art of their choice?

Is it okay to still want to see a faithful MCU version of the MU staples adapted more in line to what we expect, like Mr. Thomas?

Of course, to all. Again, I don’t make a habit of telling people what they should or shouldn’t like or appreciate.

But I haven’t seen much ink on why I think the choice was made and the clever, backhanded but foundational ultimate respect it pays to classic Marvel comic book lore.

There is more than one way to skin a Flerken and more than one way to be faithful to the source material.

I, for one, think they chose the most faithful way. 


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