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Captain Marvel

Posted March 11, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Marvel set themselves up for this.

When half of all life got snapped out of existence and Fury made that distress call, it sent the unmistakable message that Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) would somehow be the key to beating Thanos and saving the universe. Thus she would play a pivotal role in the movie that this whole damn superfranchise had been leading up to, and may therefore be a crucial factor in deciding where the MCU goes next. Moreover, this was Marvel’s first female-led picture in a time when profitable, iconic, critically successful, and… well, good female-driven superhero films are all the rage.

The message was clear: Captain Marvel would be the savior of the MCU. The character and her namesake movie would be the future of Marvel, lighting the way to the future of the studio, the MCU, and superhero cinema as a whole. Looking back, I think we all should’ve known what that meant we’d be getting. After a solid decade of watching and dissecting these movies every which way, you’d think we’d know the playbook by now.

To be clear, Captain Marvel — the movie and the character — are not bad by any means. Carol Danvers (or Vers, as she’s initially known) is quickly established as a stubborn smartassed hotshot whose first solution to everything is to charge in solo and blow something up. Trouble is, she’s an amnesiac fighting for the Kree side in the interplanetary Kree-Skrull War against an alien species of shapeshifters. Obviously, the shapeshifters are a deceptive bunch, but our heroine learns over the course of the plot that maybe her memories are unreliable and she may not have reason to trust the Kree either.

Carol is a soldier who always takes the simplest and most direct solution to any problem, learning how to sort through the moral ambiguities of war; even as she’s rebuilding her identity, sorting truth from lies, and deciding how much of her true history she wants to integrate into who she is moving forward. I’ve seen Larson earn an Oscar when she had less to work with. Also, the amnesia angle is a neat new spin on the threadbare “origin story” framework, and the filmmakers did a solid job of devising a new origin that’s faithful to the source material without looking like a Green Lantern ripoff.

(Side note: Hal Jordan made his debut as the Green Lantern in 1959. Carol Danvers’ origin story as Ms. Marvel was first published in 1968. So yes, it is entirely possible that the brain trust at Marvel ripped off the iconic Green Lantern origin story for this air force pilot who crashed her plane and got powers from an alien.)

What’s even better is how Carol has been weighed down by the system without even knowing it. Everyone from Carol’s commanding officer (Yon-Rogg, played by Jude Law) to the Kree Supreme Intelligence (it’s a long story) tells her that all she needs to do is keep her emotions in check and she’ll succeed. The Kree are working to mold her identity and keep her full potential in check, a nicely coded feminist allegory for any woman who ever had to act more masculine to fit in. The subtle execution of that is brilliant, dovetailing beautifully with Captain Marvel’s choices and actions and breakthroughs over the course of the plot.

That said, there’s a significant drawback: We already know that this character is destined to be a force great enough to take on goddamn Thanos. The guy who already beat all the Avengers put together, plus Wakanda, and the entire Asgardian race, and the Xandarians, and God knows who else. And then he wiped out half of all life on the universe.

The movie has to show us and prove to us that Captain Marvel really is powerful enough to plausibly defeat such a cosmic-level threat. And it succeeds beautifully. The drawback is that once she shows that level of power, the movie’s basically over. That’s it. There is nothing this movie could possibly throw at her that has even a remote chance at taking her down. Takes a lot of wind out of the climax, is all I’m saying.

Larson does well enough with the material, and she’s surrounded on all sides by capable performers. Ben Mendelsohn turns his typical villain schtick on its ear, and with fascinating results. Jude Law has more than enough charm and authority to make his character work. And we’ve also got Annette Bening, who… um… well, she got a paycheck, I guess. Good for her.

Elsewhere, we have Maria Rambeau and her daughter (respectively played by Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar) bringing the picture some much-needed heart as the best friends who help Carol rediscover her humanity. For comic relief, we have Goose, known as Chewie in the comics. And if you know anything about this character from the source material… well, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, we’ll put it that way. I have no idea where Goose came from or how he got here, but I think we’re all glad that he’s here.

Samuel L. Jackson is apparently having the time of his life, playing young Nick Fury as Captain Marvel’s new sidekick (also, his introduction to the Kree-Skrull war was ingeniously handled). Clark Gregg is sadly underutilized as a young Phil Coulson, but it’s still a nice throwback to when the character was an unflappable cipher. We’ve also got Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace reprising their one-dimensional roles from Guardians of the Galaxy. They’re still one-dimensional in this movie, to be clear, but at least we get to see them as overzealous pawns in a vicious and bloody war, providing some welcome context to explain why these characters are so one-dimensional.

Oh, and by the way, that CGI de-aging process is officially perfected. Gregg and Jackson both went through an entire movie as their younger selves and they looked flawless from start to finish. I wish I could say the same for Goose and Captain Marvel — they both got CGI doubles that looked pretty sketchy at times.

To recap: We’ve got a beautifully uplifting and empowering origin story for a strong female protagonist. We’ve got solid ties to the existing MCU. We’ve got a premise that opens up the MCU in a big way, significantly fleshing out two alien species and the long, bloody war between them. We’ve got a cast full of proven and solid talents.

All the ingredients are here, and they’re all good. And yet somehow, they don’t quite mesh together.

My first instinct was to blame the writing/directing team of husband/wife duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both previously known for smaller and more personal fare like It’s Kind of a Funny Story. While unorthodox directing hires can and have worked in the past, it’s patently obvious from the outset that these two were in way over their heads here. The fight scenes look like they were edited with a food processor, which is proof enough that these two had no business directing any kind of blockbuster action movie.

But that brings me to the next big problem: What genre are we dealing with here? One of Marvel’s biggest innovations has been its successful blend of superhero cinema with other genres, giving us a spy thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), a heist thriller (the first Ant-Man movie), a screwball comedy (the second Ant-Man movie), high school dramedies (Spider-Man: Homecoming and its sequel), etc. Alternatively, we have movies like Doctor Strange (with its trippy and psychedelic visuals), Black Panther (with its strong and powerful Wakandan aesthetic), Guardians of the Galaxy (irreverent misfit underdogs kicking ass and cracking wise to a classic rock soundtrack), and so on.

By contrast, Captain Marvel has so many plot threads going on at once, switching between them with such frequency, I honestly couldn’t tell you what genre it is. Moreover, neither of the alien species is prominent enough for their aesthetic to define the film, and the ’90s setting on Earth — aside from a couple of sight gags and soundtrack choices — contributes nothing. There’s also the fact that Brie Larson — for all her talent and effort — is simply not a towering force of personality on the level of RDJ’s Stark or any of the Guardians. She’s good, but not good enough to define an entire movie with her presence alone.

Yes, this is a movie with a strong female lead, but this superfranchise has already given us Black Widow, Maria Hill, Gamora, Hope Van Dyne, and Agent Peggy Motherfucking Carter. A female lead getting front and center in her own namesake movie is good and all, but that’s still not enough to make it truly unique. Without a powerhouse main character, a clearly identifiable genre, a new and consistent aesthetic, or even a memorable main theme, there’s nothing to give this movie any sense of identity or personality.

And as a reminder, this is a movie in which the villains are shapeshifting aliens, whatever we think we know by way of the protagonist’s amnesia could be disproven at any time, and allegiances can switch without warning. By its very nature, this movie needed a solid director with a consistent vision to keep the plot from getting too squirrelly, and the absence of such a director is keenly felt.

With all of that said, this movie does a fantastic job of setting up Captain Marvel, the Kree, the Skrulls, and potentially other elements that could be useful in other movies and under more competent direction. And therein lies the rub.

As a movie on its own merit, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As a checklist of things to introduce and establish for future movies and the greater MCU, it makes a lot of sense. This is a housekeeping movie, the kind that Marvel occasionally makes to open up the MCU and lay the groundwork for future installments.

Iron Man 2 is probably the most infamous example, but Captain America: Civil War also comes to mind. That said, Iron Man 2 had a distinct advantage in that it was a sequel, with a cast and crew that already had the experience of making one movie and a property that the audience was already familiar with. Civil War had even more established history to pull from, plus the genuinely compelling question of where each hero came down on the dilemma of freedom versus security.

Captain Marvel didn’t have any of those advantages, yet it still managed to be more entertaining and fulfilling than Iron Man 2. Of course, it doesn’t have anything so entertaining or instantly iconic as the airport battle royale in Civil War, but that was never in the cards for this movie.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the late Stan Lee. He does indeed get a cameo appearance here, playing himself in a neat little throwback to his many cameo appearances outside Marvel. And of course there’s the pre-credits tribute that Marvel put together — I’m sure somebody had a lot of fun putting that together when they weren’t crying their eyes out.)

I’ll gladly admit that I had fun with Captain Marvel, but it works far more effectively as a part of the greater MCU, rather than a movie on its own. There are so many disparate elements in here (Captain Marvel herself, the Kree, the Skrulls, etc.) that are good, and I look forward to seeing them better developed in future movies, but they’re not great enough to make a compelling or memorable film here and now. I want to say that the movie needed a better director — and to be clear, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were the wrong choices to make this picture — but I honestly don’t know who could’ve taken this same checklist and made a better picture out of it. Maybe the Russo Brothers, if they weren’t so busy elsewhere.

I saw this movie in 2D IMAX, and I strongly advise you to not waste your money on the premiums. By all means, go see the movie and have a good time, but keep your expectations in check.