Rated PG-13 : 124 min : Released March 8, 2018
Higher, further, faster . . .
Hello, dear reader. Me again.
I know, it’s been a few months since you’ve heard from me. I feel like I’ll spend a decent amount of time in the future doing so, so for the sake of brevity let’s consider this apology a standing declaration.
A few months ago we were hit with the trailer above after it had been announced that Brie Larson was to play the incredibly powerful Carol Danvers, ostensibly the one figure in the current MCU who could stand toe-to-toe with Thanos and win (something our gallery of heroes is in dire need of at the moment.) The trailer charmed, it intrigued, it confused (Larson decks an old lady for a fraction of a second), and more than anything it gave moviegoers a glimpse at the receiving end of that ominous signal Nick Fury sent as he dematerialized into dust at the tail end of Infinity War.
Well, now I’ve seen the movie and I’m here to tell you, dear reader and prospective Marvel viewer – Thanos has reason to worry.
Captain Marvel is an early-year treat, for sure, but not in the same way that Black Panther was to kick off 2018. Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury investigate the invasion of Earth by the Skrull, a shape shifting alien race at war with the Kree – for whom Danvers is a soldier. Together and with the help of a few friends, they hit their requisite plot beats and throw in enough of that trademark Marvel humor to ensure at least a billion worldwide when this thing finally closes shop.
I’d wager good money that Marvel will dominate its opening weekend and every weekend until Endgame premiers, but audiences won’t propel this to the stratospheric domestic run akin to last year’s slate of superhero flicks; Nor do I see this receiving a “placate the masses” nod at the 92nd Academy Awards. It’s a great time, really, but nearly disappointing considering the massive hype machine leading up to release.
I’ll try my hardest not to spoil anything, though there really isn’t much to spoil. Writer and Co-Director Anna Boden imbues the proceedings with a fair bit of levity, cheeky dialogue, twists and turns, and a generally coherent narrative arc that culminates in one hell of a fireworks show; but this film exhibits one of the more common complaints levied against Marvel, particularly for its recent slew of origin stories: It’s too safe.
I’m not referring to the fact that this is Marvel’s first ever female-led superhero film. And I’d be a fool to ignore the social narrative surrounding the film. It’s in the promotional material, the junkets, and is spewing angrily from the slobbering horde of incels that have been tanking the film’s user reviews on sites such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. However, it isn’t really in the movie – not in the terms said incels are accusing Marvel of. It’s present, to be absolutely clear, but in no way does it tackle it’s broader social commentary as explicitly as Black Panther. To be completely honest, any messaging is hidden into the very presentation of Captain Marvel very skillfully.
Danvers’ is often sparring with her superior officer, played by Jude Law, with his frequent instruction being that she remove herself from her emotional impulses – that she restrain herself and play a role. As the film transpires, Danvers’ eventually succeeds specifically because she embraces the traits that make her who she is. The film does this without ever explicitly stating so. Again, very well done. Proponents of this film needn’t worry of a Mary-Sue type argument being thrown their way, either. Danvers struggles tremendously in this film, and relies on her skills and some clever ingenuity early on. Her charisma and strength are two forces working in her favor, but it isn’t until she discovers who she really is, how she earned her powers, that we see her in top form.
No, when I call this movie safe, I’m instead referring to narrative devices, a lack of genuine stakes, and the over-reliance of Marvel on blurry CGI, a muted color palette, and incredibly generic brass wailing for a musical score.
It’s a shame, because by and large the film does so much right. Brie Larson’s Danvers is great. While she may not spout off a whip-smart one-liner every few moments, or growl in anger at her enemies, what she does embody is a kind of resolute heroism. She has fallen often – as a montage late in the film shows – but each and every time she rises to meet her adversary face to face. It’s a blunt tool, her perseverance, but an effective one. She has noticeable star power, a real presence opposite co-stars Sam Jackson, Jude Law, and Ben Mendelsohn. Would we expect anything less of an Academy Award winning actress?
The acting isn’t the problem here. While the dialogue is light and fun, so too are the stakes. At no point are we to believe that Danvers is in genuine danger. This has little to do with her portrayal and more to do with the lack of context surrounding this Kree vs Skrull war going on, and her role in it. After a lengthy and frankly uninspired train chase, the middle of the film commits to fleshing out what we already know of Danvers – that she is from Earth and had a life here prior to intergalactic warfare. Though we are generally aware of her past, we aren’t allowed much time to dwell on it.
The more interesting elements of the plot – Mar Vell, the lightspeed drive, Danvers’ time in the military, her relationship with her best friend Wendy, her childhood – are all given their seemingly mandated five minutes of exposition before we are whisked away toward the next set-piece, or a dig at the antiquated technology of the 90’s (when the film is set.) We see Danvers during her transition from super-powered, to more super-powered, which would fall incredibly flat if we weren’t allowed access to a handful of her memories. We are enlightened to her struggle, enough to dispel arguments to the contrary, but we don’t experience them in a manner that endears us to her as a character – at least as well as it could have.
That these narrative beats feel more like a checklist, however well composed on the screen, stands testament to my next point: This film doesn’t feel like the project of an artist, though it is and of many. There’s no voice. Somewhere during production I have to imagine a memo from corporate circulated with demands for an exact count of humorous character exchanges, some gross-out scenes, the requisite plot twist at around the 2/3rd’s mark, and four or five scenes that be shot with the specific intention of using them for the trailer.
This is an inoffensive movie. One without risk or noteworthy creative flourishes. Explosions are bassy, the CGI flamboyant and excessive, the superhero is punch-happy and posed triumphantly at every occasion. These things exist because they should, no modern superhero film is without them, but the result is a film that leaves one imagining the insane potential of every scene, rather than fall into a unique and engrossing movie-going experience.
I’d liken Captain Marvel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, rather than to Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.
Homecoming was the return of the Spider-Man character to the MCU, and for the most part did its job. The action was uninspired, the CGI apparent, and it was positively stuffed to the brim with lighthearted character interactions. It was . . . fine. It’s villain was introduced with one hell of a twist, but the climax of the film is just a loud, flame-broiled bout of fisticuffs between two steely eyed supers. Which, again, is fine. It just isn’t particularly memorable.
DC’s Wonder Woman stole Marvel’s thunder, admittedly, releasing their female-led adventure a full two years before their rival studio. But at the core of Wonder Woman was a vibrant character, a more compelling fish-out-of-water narrative, genuine stakes in the trenches of The Great War, and one incredible show-stopper of a scene with Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince rising to meet a hail of gunfire with nothing but her shield.
Captain Marvel relies too heavily on Marvel’s already well-worn formula. It introduces little more than a handful of quirky revelations as to the larger plot of the MCU, a few fun scenes, and features an endless string of easter eggs and fan-service. It’s fun, easily worth the cost of entry. The film is more than competent in every department, but a lack of weaknesses does not a strong or memorable movie make. More than a solo outing, this is a stepping stone, a necessary introduction to a character needed to help win the battle coming April 26th.
However, despite these gripes, my lack of enthusiasm for what is obviously the product of studio mandates – and the continued depression of creative expression in Hollywood blockbusters – shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing the movie yourself. This is not a poorly made or uninteresting film. I was thoroughly placated throughout its entirety. Go on and head to the theater. Eat it up.
You’ll see it and smile like a buffoon at the adorable cat, Goose, as well as the many quips and jabs between Danvers and Fury. You’ll cheer as Danvers overcomes her opponents, “aw!” at the Stan Lee cameo, and poke your seat-neighbor each time you spot a reference to another film in the franchise. You’ll also leave the theater having expected a fair bit more. Disappointed but not dismayed by how whisper-close this film came to saying something, to being something more than it was – competent, but certainly not marvelous.
Thank you for stopping by the blog today! I know it’s been a while. I’ve taken on a few projects recently, and will be sure to update you all on those once I can.
In the next few days, look forward to reviews on a few games that I’ve played, maybe a video or two on the Black Beanie Gaming YouTube channel, and new episodes of the That Was Okay I Guess podcast. Other than those projects, I’m working on two long-form pieces of fiction and have started writing freelance.
It’s an exciting time.