2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Gemma Chan, Lee Pace, Annette Bening | directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck | 2 hrs 3 mins |
When a movie becomes the political and social media lightening rod that Captain Marvel did upon release it usually means one thing – it’s not very good. When a movie studio starts promoting a movie as a rallying cry for pop culture representation and social change, predictably sparking the intended indignation from basement-dwelling internet critics, it usually means they are hedging their bets trying to turn an apathetic public into a mobilized army that think buying a ticket to a movie they otherwise wouldn’t will be a form of social protest. This has become all the more popular as – for reason beyond my understanding – the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become some sort of reference point for an entire generation for both how movies should be made and as a yardstick for social progress. I totally understand why Marvel and Disney want to restart the clock of cinema history at 2008’s Iron Man and advertise Marvel “firsts” as “movie” achievements, but I don’t understand why critics go along with it.
Captain Marvel is one of the least revolutionary movies ever made. It’s hero is a woman but she isn’t the first female action hero or female superhero and she isn’t even the first in a Marvel movie. But Captain Marvel also isn’t quite the dog-of-a-movie all of the promotion might indicate. It’s blah. It might impress someone that has never seen a movie before – an impossible demographic given that anyone interested in it will have probably seen 20 Marvel films now. The plot is an origin story with an amnesia kicker. Vers (Brie Larson) is part of an alien species known as the Kree and a member of an elite squad of military soldiers who fight the shape-shifting Skrulls in an intergalactic battle. Vers ends up crash landing on Earth circa 1995 and runs from young SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)
At this point, 10 years and 20 movies in, Marvel films are more tightly overseen than the James Bond franchise, rotating in a group of writers and directors but giving final word to the producers to arrange the films into a cookie cutter assembly line product in the Marvel Template. Captain is very much in that template: it’s visually uninteresting (putting CGI animated spectacle over immersive photography), it’s villain is non-threatening in a focus group tested way, it’s plot is generic, it’s themes are broad and vague as to be unappealing to anyone, it’s humor is the franchise’s usual trademark self-referential observational winking that feels like it was written by the same person and it pairs a younger lead with veteran actors in parental roles – and if true to form one of who will turn out to be the bad guy in a “shocking twist”. Like all of these movies, every role – even those buried unrecognizably under makeup – is played by a name character actor. Captain isn’t that good, but there are enough checks and balances going on here to keep the film, on a base level, competent enough and nimble on it’s feet enough to be entertaining – or at least an entertaining diversion for those only seeing it as an essential piece of episodic connective tissue between the terrific Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming apocalyptic Endgame.
What works here: the reliable charisma of Samuel L. Jackson able to create a chemistry with Larson. The movie’s zippy paced handling with it’s origin story, dropping us in the middle of the action and using an amnesia-with-flashbacks structure to reveal Carol Danvers’ (Larson) backstory. It’s cliché, and barely gets off the ground trying to give Danvers depth, but it circumvents origin story fatigue. Ben Mendolsohn is also reliably good. The film wisely avoids indulging in fish-out-of-water jokes which I appreciated.
What doesn’t work? Here is where it gets interesting. Marvel – and a lot of studios – has been using each episode in their series to turn the keys over to independent filmmakers with the theory that they will elevate these big budget action films with a scrappy humanity and indie film character focus. The assumption being that the action pieces will just take care of itself. Captain Marvel is co-written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck – the filmmaking duo behind movies like Half-Nelson, Sugar and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. But here is the deal – directing action is still a skill. A skill that not everyone can do and the idea that you can just swap directors, writers and stars out with just anyone and can craft an action scene or build a rollicking adventure film is kind of absurd. The Marvel movies that do work play to the strength of their filmmakers whether it’s Joss Wheedon’s sly action comedy of The Avengers, Shane Black’s more subversive take on Iron Man 3, Taika Wakiti turning Thor: Ragnarok into a dry comedy or The Russo Brothers delivering visceral thrills with Winter Soldier and Infinity War.
Under Boden and Fleck, Marvel feels off. Like a song that is just out of tune. The action beats don’t quite hit, the one-liners don’t quite land, the coming-int0-her-power character journey that Carol Danvers takes should be thrilling when she finally reaches her potential. Here it falls flat. Compare that to the rescent, non-MCU triumph Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse that perfectly builds a satisfying character arc for Miles Morales by knocking him down over and over. When Miles finally becomes Spider-Man in Spider-verse it is a deeply satisfying and exciting sequence that goes off like a bomb because the movie earns it. When the same sequence happens in Captain Marvel – almost literally, as both movies show their heroes biggest strength is getting back up when they get knocked down – it gets botched. It hasn’t been earned. We haven’t learned enough about Davers past beyond a few quick flashbacks. We haven’t seen her get knocked down enough. The big arc in Captain Marvel is one of an immensely powerful alien warrior getting slightly more powerful.
Similarly, we get almost no world-building about the Kree and Skrull civilizations or the details behind the war they are locked in other than their function in the plot to tell us who is on the side of “good” and “bad”. Larson seems flat and out of place in the hero role. Her sarcastic, dry sense of humor not translating well. Again, a case of an indie talent (so terrific in Room and Short Term 12) not playing to her strengths. Being a film-leading hero isn’t something everyone can just do. It does take unique talent and charisma. Few people are Robert Downey Jr. and few people are Scarlett Johansson.
Captain Marvel has 90s nostalgia, old technology jokes, lots and lots of prequely MCU easter eggs with lanterns hung on them (Did you wonder how Nick Fury lost his eye?! I didn’t). Jackson and Clark Gregg get digitally aged down, looking like Madam Tussaud’s wax figures. It starts feeling so hollow that it even feels hollow in the area that should be it’s easiest layup. Call me crazy here, but even the points where the film doubles down on the implicit Girl Power theme seem like a tacked on afterthought. Check out a sequence in the third act when a super-powered Danvers starts blasting guys set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl”. This should be the movie’s marquee set piece. It should be Wonder Woman charging through no man’s land. Yet, the action and the music doesn’t work together in a way that it would if the sequence was conceived for that song. It’s one of several times where the soundtrack cues up on-the-nose girl power 90s anthems.
Since “Just a Girl” opened Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion 20 years ago we’ve had 4 Scream films, 3 Tomb Raider movies, 3 more Angelina Jolie action films, 5 Underworld films, countless female led teen slasher movies, a female-led Marvel film in Elektra, DC’s Wonder Woman and 7 Resident Evil movies where a superpowered Mila Jovovich fought a world full of zombies. Captain Marvel falls in the unremarkable low end of the pack, both in Marvel movies and in female-led action movies.