Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson Star in Marvel’s First Female-led Superhero Film.
DIRECTED BY ANNA BODEN & RYAN FLECK/2019
Having read an entire series of comic books starring the title character, I’m confident in pronouncing Marvel’s latest superhero super-excursion, Captain Marvel, to be an adaptation faithful in spirit to the four-color source material. While this is more than can be said for many Marvel Studios outings, in the case of Carol Danvers, aka Ms. Marvel, aka Captain Marvel, it’s not a compliment.
Sourced from a series that launched in the 1970s that couldn’t be bothered to be consistent with its own protagonist’s backstory, (Is she human? Is she an alien? Was she a peace-time fighter pilot? Or a combatant for the Kree Empire?) the cinematic Captain Marvel manages to straighten up much of the inherentmess, while also sporting its share of incoherent space oddity. Unfortunately, that’s not in any kind of good way. The first twenty minutes of the film are rough going- a lot of visual effects, some muddled exposition about the noble Kree Empire versus their sworn enemies, the green-skinned shape-shifting Skrull race (headed up here by go-to villain actor Ben Mendelsohn), and their ongoing war. Thankfully though, it does get better…
If the origin story of MCU newcomer Carol Danvers is lacking, at least the movie’s other origin story is 20/20. Captain Marvel, set in the year 1995, also serves as a partial origin story of Samuel L. Jackson’s perennial super-spy, Nicolas J. Fury. Being that this is set twenty-four years ago (!), Fury is a younger man (Jackson digitally de-aged for the entire film, an ambitious application of technology that Marvel has heretofore used only sparingly) sporting a full head of hair, two eyes, and a more robust attitude about life. (Boy, does he just looooves kitty cats). The crazy $&!# he lives through in this cosmic adventure reveals why some, if not all of that, changed in the ensuing years. Young, lower-ranking Fury (already an agent of SHIELD) suddenly finds that he’s become part of a bigger universe. It’s in large part thanks to Jackson’s charisma and our built-in investment with his character that Captain Marvel works as well as it does.
Academy Award winner Brie Larson (Room) suits up to become the Captain. While Larson has proven herself potently brilliant in drama, her track record with escapist fare remains sketchy at best. Ben Wheatley’s trigger happy Free Fire failed to ignite with fans or critics, and the less said about her part in Kong: Skull Island the better. But- and essential to the missed opportunity in Captain Marvel– Larson’s interactions with survivors of sexual trauma during her 2016 Oscar run truly was heroic. If only Boden and Fleck could’ve figured out how to channel that democratizing empathy into the confines of a Marvel film. Instead, they work overtime to graft a cocksure humor onto the character, which never lands. Every head twitch and quip is a tell rather than a treat. And so, this film marks the first time a central Marvel character has been obviously miscast. And of course, due to the overarching superstructure of the MCU (“Marvel Cinematic Universe”), Larson’s Captain Marvel is already locked into future films. Here’s hoping that the inherent tragedy being dealt with in Avengers: Endgame is more in Brie Larson’s high-drama wheelhouse. (For another example of her outstanding skill in this area, see her breakthrough lead role in 2013’s Short Term 12).
In true 1990s storytelling fashion, Captain Marvel runs with a central story of a character struggling to realize who she is, and the accompanying fact that everything she knows is about to be turned on its head. In what may be a gutsier move than multiplex audience are ready for, the film begins on a cosmic scale, in space, rife with militaristic alien mumbo-jumbo mixed with intrusive memory flashes. It’s supposed to make some sense and be engaging, but… it isn’t. This extended portion goes on for what seems like at least twenty minutes, as Carol, known only as “Vers” at this point, is a carefully trained special soldier for the Knee Empire.
Mentored in the skills of combat by Kree superior Yon-Rogg (an under-utilized and effectively icy Jude Law), Vers finds that even a one-on-one visit with the Kree leadership entity known as The Supreme Intelligence (the great Annette Bening scoring a paycheck in one of two roles) can’t help her discern her past. Soon enough though, she finds herself on Earth (smashing through the roof of a Blockbuster Video store). The Skrulls follow, and soon the intergalactic Kree-Skrull War has come to our planet. SHIELD gets involved, and things are off and running- much as one would expect.
Despite Marvel Studios’ willingness to throw tons of money and resources into Captain Marvel, the movie still manages to fumble. While not a poor film, there’s no way to qualify it as the kind of satisfying experience with which we’ve become accustomed to from this particular studio. But hey, when you’ve got a batting average of twenty (give or take) impressive hits, perhaps one is due for an uncontrolled pop fly. For perspective, Captain Marvel exceeds Thor: The Dark World and The Incredible Hulk, but otherwise lingers on the low end of the batch. But of course, being that this film funnels directly into the must-see Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel nonetheless sells itself.
Marvel Studios’ willingness to bring promising and noteworthy directorial talent to play in its major sandbox has been a terrific thing, gambles that have truly paid off. (James Gunn, Taika Waititi, the Russo Brothers). This time, though, previous smalltime filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Mississippi Grind, a humble movie that also features Ben Mendelsohn, albeit in a very different type of role) are clearly in over their heads. Doubling as co-writers, as MCU directors are wont to do, Boden and Fleck often find themselves narratively flailing when they need to be confidently flying. Placing greater weight upon them their film, similar to last year’s Black Panther, is saddled with large expectations in terms of gender representation within its genre, an aspect that must be precisely navigated amid everything else. In short, the needs and demands of Captain Marvel are too much for such relatively green filmmakers, particularly when they’ve got a miscast lead.
It’s entirely likely that in the not-to-distant future, the wallopingly overt messages of minority-affirmations so prevalent in current popular culture and youth fashions will, in any given film, TV show or t-shirt, register the way that past clunky steps to progress do now. (See: contemporary audiences snickering at brick-sized mobile phones and even the primitive Alta Vista web browser utilized in this movie). Captain Marvel may not be literal in its girl-power pronouncements, but this being the long, long overdue first female-led MCU film, it can’t help but make a little bit of that. For the most part, though, the film is wisely content to lead by example rather than by blatant proclamation. Ideally, in terms of true equality in representation, this should (in theory) be enough- craft a compelling hero, and let her do her thing; ‘nuff said, true believer. The problem is that the former aspect of that statement falls far short- Carol Danvers never truly becomes a compelling character in the way that Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Peter Quill did. The makers of Captain Marvel commit the central mistake of believing that putting a capable female in a super-suit, having her crack some jokes, and ultimately whoop up on the baddies is enough.
Being that Captain Marvel carries the weight and importance of being Marvel Studios’ first female superhero movie, it’s unfortunate that it isn’t any better than it is. There are many of us who still long to see Carol Danvers soar as a vital part of the MCU, just as she’s managed to do in recent years in the comic books. This is a hero who’s yet to be all that she can be, but the potential, both cosmic and personal, remains.