When Captain Marvel opened on 8 March 2019 it was kind of a big deal. After a decade of dragging their feet, Marvel Studios was finally putting the solo spotlight on one of their female superheroes. Brie Larson was bringing Earth’s mightiest hero – Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel – to life! This film would also mark the entrance of the Skrulls into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Skrulls, a shapeshifting alien race, have plagued the (comic) Marvel Universe since the ‘60s. As happened with Black Panther/Avengers: Infinity War the year before, it was a shame Avengers: Endgame came out so soon after Captain Marvel. Attention from this brilliant film was quickly redirected first to speculation about, then reaction to, and finally analysis of Avengers: Endgame. But there is so much in Captain Marvel that warrants a closer look, one point in particular being the Skrulls themselves.
The Skrulls first appeared in the second issue of Marvel’s flagship comic, The Fantastic Four. Released in January 1962, “The Fantastic Four Meet the Skrulls from Outer Space!” sees an advance team of Skrulls arrive on Earth as scouts before a planetary invasion. Fearing the Fantastic Four would be a threat to their plans, they take on the likeness of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Sue Storm (the Invisible Girl), her brother Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), and Ben Grimm (the Thing) to commit four different crimes. While on the run, the real FF eventually capture the Skrulls, trick their forces into believing the Earth is too dangerous to invade, hypnotize the Skrulls who doubled them into believing they’re really cows (it…it makes a li’l more sense in the story), and clear their good names with the authorities along the way.
While the story obviously has some general parallels to the Red Scare (there could be Communists anywhere!! your neighbor could be one!!), by and large the Skrulls in this issue were a classic example of a B-movie-esque alien menace. They were this race of creepy creatures from outer space looking to invade the planet. They’d go on to become one of the Fantastic Four’s most iconic villains.
The most recent example of a “major” Skrull story comes care of Secret Invasion. This ninety-eight issue event (including all tie-ins) ran from April to December of 2008. Here the Skrulls are decidedly more insidious with more intentional development and specific motivations. After the destruction of the Skrull homeworld during the Annihilation War, Princess Veranke comes to power. She’s the leader of a group of religious extremists within the Skrull people who believe Earth is to be theirs as recompense for their destroyed home. So begins the “secret invasion,” with Skrulls quietly infiltrating every conceivable level of protection on the planet – from local governments to the Avengers themselves. As the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and others look to save the world, paranoia grows as they are left desperately trying to figure out who within their ranks they can trust. While still the villains, the Skrulls in this series are far more aggressive and far more fanatical than their earlier incarnations.
If Civil War was, in part, a reaction to the Patriot Act, Secret Invasion seems to carry intentional echoes of the War on Terror. The extremist nature of the Skrulls feels like it’s meant to directly parallel (a little too closely at times for my comfort) groups like Al Qaeda or the Taliban. And the question of “Who among us could be a threat?” seems to embody many post-9/11 fears that haunted the United States. These religious extremists, intent on destroying our society – our very way of life! – are all around us and we have no way of telling who’s safe and who isn’t. Given the reality of the persecution of innocent Muslims within our country after 9/11, the “hidden religious extremist” nature of the Skrulls sat uncomfortably with me. Personal qualms aside, the nature and mission of the Skrulls were radically changed from the Red Scare-tinged alien invasion force they were in 1962. By 2008 they’d become a mirror for the paranoid fear we saw around us in the years of the War on Terror when mosques in the United States had to be rebranded as “Islamic cultural centers” and some called for the hijab to be outlawed.
In Captain Marvel, the nature of the Skrulls would be transformed yet again. In one of the MCU’s most culturally important moves to date, the Skrulls become a powerful allegory for the immigration debate – and the demonization we often see of immigrants – within the United States in 2019. Immigration is among the most pressing humanitarian, religious, moral, and political issues of our time. As such, Captain Marvel doesn’t just stand with the most enjoyable of MCU films. It’s also one Marvel Studios should be most proud of. It challenges us to examine the world we live in as only the best comic narratives through time have done.
Captain Marvel opens with Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) living on Hala, the Kree homeworld, believing herself to be “Vers,” a Kree soldier injured in a Skrull attack six years ago that cost her her memory. The general public opinion of the Skrulls – or rather, the image of the Skrulls created and fostered by the government and the media on Hala – is almost immediately apparent. As Carol (I’m not calling her “Vers,” even if I’m writing about a part of the film before she regained her memory; she’s Carol freakin’ Danvers) and Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) ride a train (of sorts) to see the Supreme Intelligence (the super A.I. leader of the Kree (Annette Bening)) we hear a recorded voice proclaim “120 days since the last Skrull attack.”
This evokes the feeling of a modern news report about terrorist attacks as well as the free-floating anxiety with varying degrees of intensity that’s been a part of our culture since 9/11. Importantly too, it’s something we, the viewers, already believe about the Skrulls from the comics. We’ve been expecting this dangerous, terrorist race since the first Captain Marvel trailer arrived. We never think to question it. This is further underscored as the Supreme Intelligence tells Carol, “You are just one victim of the Skrull expansion that has threatened our civilization for centuries. Imposters who silently infiltrate and then take over our planets.” Shortly thereafter, on their way to rescue an imbedded asset Yon-Rogg tells his Starforce team, “The Skrulls have invaded another border planet, this time Torfa.” The team is also told “the Skrull general Talos has sent kill units” to apprehend their operative.
Look at this language, all of it intentional. The Skrulls’ “expansion” has “threatened our civilization” as they “silently infiltrate and then take over planets.” They “have invaded another border planet” and employ “kill units.” The image is clear. These are dangerous creatures, comfortable with killing, who threaten the borders of the Kree Empire and if they are not stopped and expelled their threat will ultimately destroy the Kree civilization. The tension between the Skrulls and the Kree has a long history in the comics, most iconically illustrated in the “Kree-Skrull War,” a storyline running through The Avengers #89-97, from June 1971 to March 1972.
As the movie unfolds, we learn all of this untrue. But the Kree (at least all the Kree we see) either accept this intentionally manufactured, inaccurate vision of the Skrulls without question or help to willingly perpetuate it. In this way, we as viewers share Carol’s experience. Everything she’s been told about the Skrulls mirrors what we, as comic fans, have known about them for years and/or what the previews for the film led us to believe about them. We too bought into our preconceived expectations unquestioningly.
The reality of intentionally hateful yet verifiably false rhetoric about immigrants and immigration has become a fiery part of daily life in the United States. In the speeches at his rallies, Trump has regularly referred to the immigrant and refugee populations seeking to enter the United States as “an invasion.” Calling undocumented immigrants “thugs” and “animals,” Trump has warned that without his infamous wall American will cease to be America. In one of many tragic failures of the Fourth Estate during this presidency, the bigotry of anti-immigrations group’s rhetoric “has also been normalized by the media, which provides a context- free platform for anti-immigrant spokespeople and their talking points.” The goal of all of this is to sow fear, a fear that will mobilize his base as well as frighten the immigrant population of this country – documented as well as undocumented – into leaving faster than ICE can detain and deport them.
The fear most central to all of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric is “the idea that whites will be replaced by others.” This is exactly what the Kree are warning the Skrulls will do. The Skrulls are an invasion that threaten Kree civilization and can literally replace them by the fact that they are shapeshifters. But while the Skrulls may be shapeshifters, the rest of these charges are shown to be weaponized slander, an intentional misrepresentation of reality to sell a particular political agenda.
The brilliance in how the film presents the Skrulls continues when Starforce lands on Torfa. As Yon-Rogg, Carol, and their team advance looking for their embedded agent and the Skrulls who are threatening him, they find “civilians on the periphery” who look like refugees gathered around campfires. We shortly learn they are Skrulls and a brutal battle with Starforce ensues. However, as the film unfolds we realize, Skrulls or not, they were in fact refugees.
In this light, the conflict between the Kree Starforce and Skrull refugees on Torfa is less a cinematic revisioning of the Kree-Skrull War as it is an intergalactic rendering of an ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid. While it quickly becomes a sort of classic sci-fi blaster battle, it’s clear what the filmmakers were trying to evoke with this scene. Starforce descends on the camp, weapons drawn, voices raised – without clearly identifying themselves – and shouting commands. As a result, chaos ensues. This is all textbook ICE methodology. Surprise, shock, and intimidation are key weapons of an ICE raid because they yield chaos.
As Yon-Rogg and his team advance we see weapons drawn and shouts of not wanting to hurt these people huddled around their campfires. Starforce orders them to stand back and shout demands for identification. As with the overwhelming majority of ICE raids, it’s clear the battle with the Skrulls they found on Torfa wasn’t, “about security or safety or terrorism. They targeted immigrants while they worked to support their families.” There is no mistaking they are a refugee population. With clear care and intention, the Skrulls serve as a stand-in for the immigrants/refugees/IDPs (internationally displaced people) in our world. They can “look like us” but it’s still a strain to survive on the margins of society. They are often unwelcome and thus unable to draw the resources from the community natural-born citizens can. The Skrulls can look the same but they struggle to truly belong.
In the name of closed borders and domination, the Kree demonize the Skrulls and deny them what should be universally recognized rights – home, safety, a sense of belonging. As they do this, they intentionally misrepresent a group of migrant people as monstrous others. Fear and hatemongering allow the Kree to claim a faux moral high ground and cast the evil nature of their actions in the light of justice and protection for their people. When the Skrull general Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) presents the truth of their situation to Carol, she struggles to push past her Kree programming.
Talos – “Now you understand.”
Carol – “What? What do I understand now?”
Talos – “Yon-Rogg killed Mar-Vell. He killed her. ‘Cause she found out she was on the wrong side of an unjust war.”
Carol – “No. Your people are terrorists. They kill innocents. I saw the ruins on Torfa.”
Talos – “Ruins that the Accusers are responsible for. My people lived as refugees on Torfa, homeless ever since we resisted Kree rule and they destroyed our planet. And the handful of us that are left will be slaughtered next unless you help me finish what Mar-Vell started. The core that she found would’ve powered a light speed ship capable of carrying us to safety – a new home, where the Kree can’t reach us.”
Maria – “Lawson always told us that her work at Pegasus wasn’t to fight wars but to end them.”
Talos – “She wanted you to help us find the core.”
Carol – “Well I already destroyed it.”
Talos – “No you destroyed the engine. The core that powered it is in a remote location. If you help us decode those coordinates we can find it.”
Carol – “You’ll use it to destroy us.”
Talos – “We just want a home. You and I lost everything at the hands of the Kree. Can’t you see it now? You’re not one of them.”
Carol – “You don’t know me. You have no idea who I am. I don’t even know who I am!”
Maria – “You are Carol Danvers. You are the woman on that black box risking her life to do the right thing. You’re my best friend. You supported me as a mother and a pilot when no one else did. You are smart and funny and a huge pain in the ass. And you were the most powerful person I knew, way before you could shoot fire from your fists.”
Note the interplay in this dialogue. Talos is being very clear, very direct with Carol. “We just want a home.” My heart aches at that line! This is a universal human longing and (according to Catholic Social Teaching and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights) a universal human right. But Carol still first defaults to her programming; shaped as she has been by the Kree propaganda machine – a reality fed to her through the media, the military, her leaders, and her friends. “No. Your people are terrorists. They kill innocents. I saw the ruins on Torfa….You’ll use it to destroy us,” Carol says. But none of that is true. The ruins on Torfa were created by the Kree to fuel their propaganda. All Talos and his people are seeking is a home.
The plight of the Skrulls mirrors the leading causes of immigration in our own world. Why do people leave the land of their birth and seek to settle elsewhere? Most often they are fleeing persecution, violence, and war; poor wages and lack of jobs; crop failure and famine, natural disaster, and pollution; or limited opportunities, lack of services, and family separation. All of these causes, directly or indirectly, are reflected in the Skrulls’ struggle in this film.
In a film where she faces everything from alien armies to Ronan the Accuser and his fleet, we see Carol’s single greatest act of bravery in this exchange with Talos and her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). While impressive, none of those other acts showcase the bravery Carol demonstrates in this conversation at Maria’s home. Carol is a soldier, a warrior, a hero. Those sorts of acts – from the Skrull soldiers to Ronan’s fleet – are just what she does. But when she’s confronted with the truth of the Skrulls’ plight, starring at a reality that undercuts everything she’s learned over the past six years, Carol has the courage to admit she was wrong and do the right thing.
Admitting we’re wrong and then actively changing our actions are two of the hardest things for human beings to do. It requires a grace and a humility often found in short supply. Yet Carol does this, a move that’s not unintentionally tied to the moment in the narrative where Maria reminds her who she really is. Maria, Carol’s best friend, her sister through a connection stronger than blood, reminders her of who she really is with love and compassion and a soul-stirring certainty. In accepting the reality of her identity, Carol finds the courage to admit she was wrong about the Skrulls and then chose to fight for those who need her.
This fight takes them to Mar-Vell’s orbiting lab, where Talos reunites with the Skrull refugee population. The scene where he calls them from hiding is as beautiful as it is telling. These aren’t “terrorists” nor “an infestation.” This isn’t a group of “imposters who infiltrate and then silently take over planets” and they certainly aren’t a “kill unit.” These are civilian noncombatants. Women, men, and children who are desperately seeking a home after the Kree destroyed their homeworld. They come out tentatively, holding each other as much for courage as for protection. They are quiet, wary. This too, sadly, reflects real life. Immigrant communities, especially their children, constantly living in fear is one of the terrors wrought by our current state of ICE raids.
But amidst this fear we also see the beauty of the reunion between Talos and his wife Soren (Sharon Blynn) and their daughter. This is a scene of intimacy and tenderness – and it’s important. These people are not monsters or terrorists in any sense of the word.
Carol – “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Talos – “She led me to you.”
Carol – “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
Talos – “Carol, this is war. My hands are filthy from it too. But we’re here now. You found my family. This is just the beginning. There are thousands of us separated from each other, scattered throughout the galaxy.”
This exchange is also important. We see the pain that comes with Carol’s realization that she’s been on the wrong side and that the Skrulls aren’t who she thought they were. But we also see Talos wave that aside. He doesn’t blame her. He acknowledges his own wrongdoing too. “But we’re here now,” he tells her. This moment is what’s important. This moment is where Carol, Talos, and Maria decide who they will be and how they will act. This is true for us as well. The here and now – every moment of every day – affords us the chance and the power to choose how we live.
No matter where we stand on or how active we are in the human rights issues of immigration, asylum, and borders, we always have the chance to choose to learn more – to see “the other” as a human being just like ourselves – and to do all we can to help them. Regardless of the past, the ever-present moment of now always brings us the potential for transformation and, in that transformation, the chance to find some redemption. This is one of the most beautiful, most powerful things about human beings. We can change. We can choose.
Carol does just that and, in so doing, she firmly establishes herself as the strongest hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, her power set is not unimpressive. She towers over everyone the MCU’s offered up so far. (Sorry Thor, I don’t care if you’re wielding Mjölnir or Stormbreaker or both, you’ve got nothing on Captain Marvel.) And, should we ever see some cinematic crossover (unlikely) or another comic book crossover (unrumored at the moment but not as unlikely), Carol could give ol’ Superman a serious run for his money.
But it is her power set coupled with the humility, grace, and courage to admit she was wrong and to change her actions to help those in need where Carol Danvers shows us the nature of a true hero and establishes herself as the strongest one there is in the MCU. And while I may not be able to fly through space, deflect and absorb energy attacks, carry spaceships, or shoot fire from my hands, I can constantly evaluate what I’m doing/what I believe in the service of seeking truth and ways to help those in need.
By her model, Carol Danvers challenges us all to follow in her footsteps. We live in an age where the United States of America has detention centers with booming populations and horrid conditions, drawing comparisons to the concentration camps of the Holocaust; an age where children are separated indefinitely from their parents and people are detained at a rate costing far more – both morally and economically – than we may imagine. Captain Marvel uses comic book allegory to show us a little of the reality of suffering turning a blind eye to the immigration struggle causes. It also shows us the power our choices can carry when we refuse to ignore the issue and instead see the truth of human experience instead of the manipulative lies of selfish and opportunistic rhetoric. Perhaps though it is most challenging not in allegorically highlighting this humanitarian crisis nor in showing us Carol’s willingness to admit her mistakes but rather in begging the question of whether or not we are courageous enough to be as brave as Captain Marvel.
 Katayoun Kishi, “Assaults against Muslims in the U.S. surpass 2001 levels,” Pew Research Center. Published November 15, 2017. Accessed September 3, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/11/15/assaults-against-muslims-in-u-s-surpass-2001-level/
 Anti-Defamation League, “Mainstreaming Hate: The Anti-Immigrant Movement in the U.S.” Published November 2018. Accessed September 6, 2019. https://www.adl.org/the-anti-immigrant-movement-in-the-us
 Philip Rucker, “‘How do you stop these people?’: Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric looms over El Paso massacre,” The Washington Post. Published August 4, 2019. Accessed September 6, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-do-you-stop-these-people-trumps-anti-immigrant-rhetoric-looms-over-el-paso-massacre/2019/08/04/62d0435a-b6ce-11e9-a091-6a96e67d9cce_story.html
 Anti-Defamation League.
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 Philip Rucker.
 Adam Harris, “When ICE Raids Homes: For years, immigration agents targeted people at businesses, but in recent years, knocking on the doors of houses and apartments has become more common,” The Atlantic. Published July 17, 2019. Accessed September 3, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/07/when-ice-raids-homes-immigration/594112/
 Nuria Marquez Martinez, “A Father and Daughter Tell Their Story of the Terrifying Immigration Raid in Mississippi,” Mother Jones. Published August 28, 2019. Accessed September 3, 2019. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/08/mississippi-ice-raids-oral-history-father-daughter/
 Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, “What Happens During an ICE Raid: From two young people who have lived through it,” Teen Vogue. Published August 17, 2019. Accessed September 3, 2019. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/what-happens-during-an-ice-raid
 Hemanth C. Gundavaram, “The ICE raids aren’t just wrong – they’re expensive,” Politico, Published August 9, 2019. Accessed September 3, 2019. https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2019/08/09/immigration-customs-enforcement-raids-000941
 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Root Causes of Migration,” Justice for Immigrants. Published February 14, 2017. Accessed September 7, 2019. https://justiceforimmigrants.org/what-we-are-working-on/immigration/root-causes-of-migration/
 Ashton Pittman, “‘No one is coming out’: Ice raids leave Latino community paralyzed with fear,” The Guardian. Published August 11, 2019. Accessed September 3, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/11/ice-raids-latino-community-mississippi-fear
 Hemanth C. Gundavaram.
 Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Squalid Conditions at Border Detention Centers, Government Report Finds,” The New York Times. Published July 2, 2019. Accessed September 7, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/02/us/politics/border-center-migrant-detention.html
 Miles Howard, “Detention of Concentration Camps? The Language Debate Is A Sideshow,” WBUR.org. Published June 20, 2019. Accessed September 7, 2019. https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/06/20/detention-concentration-camps-miles-howard
 American Civil Liberties Union, “Family Separation By The Numbers.” Accessed September 7, 2019. https://www.aclu.org/issues/immigrants-rights/immigrants-rights-and-detention/family-separation
 Hemanth C. Gundavaram.
 While I did some doctoring/editing/framing/etc. myself, the inspiration for the featured image in this post comes care of ComicBookResources.com and the original can be found here – https://www.cbr.com/captain-marvel-how-skrulls-shapeshift/