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Dreaming of a Shapeshifting Avenger

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Marvel Studios' CAPTAIN MARVELLeft: Talos (Ben Mendelsohn)Photo: Chuck Zlotnick©Marvel Studios 2019

Article contains spoilers for Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel clicked with me. Hell, it was a hit with the packed theater I saw it with. We all gobbled it up. Women and girls especially resonated with the film;  I heard audible gasps of delight when the post-credits scene revealed that Captain Marvel was going to be in Avengers: Endgame. One girl even shouted, “She’s going be an Venger!”

I related to Captain Marvel on a personal level as well. Captain Marvel’s journey mirrors my own experience as a transgender woman — her identity crisis mirrors my own. Her old life and memories were repressed, and she doesn’t remember her own name. The Kree that adopted her lied to Captain Marvel about her origin, even going as far to create a fake identity named Vers. On a cinematic level, we understand her confused feelings towards her past.

Her internal discord, the feeling that something is intrinsically “wrong” with her life, is an emotional state I understand all too well. Unlike many trans kids, I didn’t know I was trans at a young age, only that I had desires and interests that seemed peculiar to me. I was always jealous of other girls, and the fact that I wasn’t a girl dominated my thoughts every day. I was tormented by thoughts like “I enjoy playing games but it would be cool if I could do it as a girl.” or “I love going to heavy metal concert festivals, but seeing all these beautiful women reinforces the fact that I want something that I can never have. Please make it end.”

Captain Marvel struggles the same way on screen until she eventually accepts her true self as U.S. Airforce pilot Carol Danvers. In accepting and fighting for her identity she became stronger; she literally gained the ability to fly.

Danvers is arguably my favorite MCU hero now, and a good model how to construct a future trans hero. The following is what that entails.


“If you could have a superpower, what would it be?” This was a regular talking point during 6th grade lunch period circa 2002. Seated at a round table with trays overflowing with soggy chicken nuggets, my friends and I would declare our super ability of choice and debate the virtues and faults of our respective decisions. The usual proclamations were made: flight, strength, and speed. But it was always my preference that turned heads and resulted in dropped chocolate milk: shapeshifting.

For middle schoolers, this was serious business. My classmates fielded questions and statements as if they were reporters: “Why? Shapeshifters are bad guys! You just wanna sneak into the girls’ locker room!” they’d shout between chuckles.

I generally responded with a shrug. These questions inched dangerously close to my deepest darkest secret: my neverending wish to be a girl. Even though transgender identity was a foreign concept to me at the time, I wasn’t willing to have that honest conversation with anyone, let alone pre-teen boys steeped in jock talk. Like a chameleon, I joined in until the conversation changed.

This childish discussion always stuck with me. After all, my then-friends spun a compelling argument for how shapeshifters like Loki and the alien in John Carpenter’s The Thing were generally portrayed as villains. My favorite X-Men antagonist Mystique as an example of a shapeshifter who uses her transformative powers for deceptive purposes. Before Jennifer Lawrence’s version morally reconfigured the character into a hero, Mystique regularly changed herself into people of influence in order to commit crimes, even wooing a prison guard with a hot bod so she could roofie him in X2: X-Men United.

I still desired those powers, despite the vilification. Fiction’s obsession with body changing deception is perplexing. From my position, changing one’s form doesn’t equate to criminal and/or deviant behavior and can be used for much more than glorified identity theft. The power is teeming with possibilities. I could have a body that more fully reflected my true self beyond what surgery and medicine can currently deliver, but I could also augment myself so that I could literally place myself in other people’s shoes to understand their experience in the world. The shapeshifter could be the ultimate mediator and ambassador. That’s why I want to see a trans Avenger whose primary power is to shapeshift.

Xavin

Captain Marvel contains a blueprint for this potential transgender superhero in the Skrulls. In the comics, the Skrulls are an aggressive shapeshifting race of aliens who invade planets and even pose as fake versions of Marvel’s superheroes as in the Secret Invasion storyline. When watching Captain Marvel, I was initially irritated because it seemed like the filmmakers were going for a similar angle, but then the film pulled off a bait and switch. The Skrulls are actually being slaughtered by the Kree. They are demonized  and hunted by the Kree’s maniacal genocidal oppression. In an ingenious plot twist, the supposedly “deceptive” Skrulls are the good guys.

The Skrulls buck the trend of evil shapeshifters. Unlike Mystique and Loki, the aliens utilize their natural shapeshifting powers in order to survive rather than deceive. Even though the Kree characterize the Skrulls as an invasive threat, the Skrulls are anything but threatening. Captain Marvel portrays the Skrulls more as comic relief than villainous, which makes sense in retrospect because they aren’t the antagonists of the movie. They change their bodies for mostly virtuous reasons and have fun with it along the way. The shapeshifting abilities are just an extension of who they are as living beings.

Thematically, Captain Marvel’s Skrulls represent “the other.” They are a stand-in for different marginalized communities being oppressed by a militaristic superpower. The film uses the deceptive shapeshifter trope as a way to hammer home society’s implicit biases against certain types of people, including trans people. The messaging here isn’t subtle and nor should it be: any entity that discriminates against others for who they are deserves criticism and moral repudiation. Nuance is unnecessary when the problems of right and wrong are crystal clear.

Transgender people are included in this thematic depiction as well. The ranking Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) even uses the transgender phrase “true-self” when referencing his green and alien form. Like the Skrulls and other shapeshifters, trans people are seen as deceptive in real life. They are described as “men pretending to be women” or even referred to as the slur “Trap,” representing the discriminatory belief that we exist to fool people as a “fake” gender.

That’s a very dangerous belief and one that highlights the importance of a transgender Marvel superhero. While CW’s Supergirl broke new ground with the trans hero Dream Girl (played by trans actress Nicole Maines), a Marvel Studios production featuring a transgender superhero on the silver screen would enhance the cause of on screen representation further.

As for who that hero could be, The Runaways’ Xavin (which I learned the existence of while editing this piece!) would fit the mold easily. Afterall, they’re a genderfluid shapeshifting Skrull, though they were in The Runaways Hulu adaptation already, they were not depicted in a way that was accurate to the original comic. Unless Marvel makes a dramatic change to Xavin on that show, the company needs to find another character or create a new one, one with their own unique power set that fits the story and themes they want to tell.

As it is, Captain Marvel can be a jumping off point for a future transgender Avenger. I related to Carol Danvers’ origin story, the Skrulls’ shapeshifting powerset, and the theme of identity on a personal level. While Captain Marvel is a cis woman’s story, I saw the beginnings of what could be expanded into a trans Marvel movie with its own unique themes of transgender identity. In a world of constant vilification, I’m anxious for the day where I can childishly shout at a the end credits of a Marvel movie in excitement that a shapeshifting transgender hero was finally going to be an Avenger.

Riley Constantine
Contributor. Riley Constantine is Iowa's third greatest export behind Slipknot and life insurance. She loves to review movies and games while examining how they often mirror the bizarre world we live in.

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