While in Chicago this past weekend, I had a few hours to kill so I dropped $12 on a sweet luxury seat at AMC’s Dine-in theatre to watch the latest Disney/Marvel superhero blockbuster, Captain Marvel.
I am famously a lifelong fan of Avengers comics. When I was a small immigrant child, I clung to my one issue, and even did a class project on it. The Avengers have always been dear to me, for a multitude of reasons that are conflictingly defensible and embarrassing.
But the character whose name the company decided to hang its identity on –Captain Marvel– was always among my least favourite. Thomas Wells summarized the main reasons that CM is, frankly, a boring creation. In short, her powers are uninspired and banal (super strength, and shoots laser-like things out of her hands). She has no particular motivation in life, has not gone through an episode of suffering, and is not faced with an existential challenge: all traditional facets of the classic superhero genre.
So a film featuring this character would have to overcome the fundamental character weakness of its titular protagonist. Unfortunately, this particular film would also have to overcome the politicized polarity of its social justice marketing drive, both intentional and unintentional.
I’m ignoring the supposed political controversy in this review, because, frankly, in the world of social justice, there is literally nothing less important than a freaking Disney superhero movie. I refuse to give a multibillion dollar corporate product any semblance of societal relevance beyond its basic storytelling qualities.
When I settled into my very comfy chair and was treated to the opening minutes of the movie, I was thrilled to see that it begins on the Kree homeworld, where our heroine Carol Danvers is living as an alien Kree warrior, her memories of Earth mysteriously erased.
Fifteen minutes in, I was mesmerized and was very excited to see where this was going.
About halfway through the movie, though, I realized that this would have been a very good made-for-TV or Netflix movie. But as a big budget theatre-doing experience, is was quite below par. It gets the job done, meaning it introduces the character in preparation for the big Avengers finale movie coming up; so it’s simply adequate. But there’s nothing special here.
In the interests of brevity, let’s do this in the “Good, Bad, Ugly” format:
The acting is great. The actors are excellent. I am always enchanted by Jude Law (possibly because I supposedly look like him), and wanted to see more of his talents on screen. Annette freaking Bening is in this, as is the excellent Ben Mendelsohn. So no complaints here, as far as the performances go.
It looks great. The special effects are, of course, outstanding. Marvel’s de-aging technology makes Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson look effortlessly like they are in their personal primes. It’s so good, as a matter of fact, that you immediately forget that both men are substantially older than how they are portrayed.
Spoilers: I enjoyed the reversal of expectations. I fully expected Jude Law to be playing Mar-Vell, Carol Danvers’s good-guy mentor, and was genuinely shocked to see him as the villain. Similarly, I did not see Mar-Vell being portrayed as an older woman (Bening). Well done. Of course, I should have seen that, since Mar-Vell in his original incarnation (as the first Captain Marvel) adopts the human name of Walter Lawson, the same surname as Bening’s character.
As well, as along time Marvel reader, I know that both the Kree and the Skrulls are enemies of humanity… so seeing the Skrulls shown sympathetically was a nice twist.
Throughout, I felt that Brie Larson was wrong for this role. She was the chipper California blonde throughout, never showing any uncertainty, sense of danger, or lack of direction. Emily Bunt would have been my casting choice.
The premise is that Carol Danvers was plucked from Earth, her memory erased, re-trained as a warrior on the Kree homeworld, then returned to Earth where she re-discovers her identity. Yet, while amongst the Kree, she behaves like a human Earth woman. And when back on Earth, she behaves like she’s right at home. At no point is there any real sense of a “fish out of water” experience.
The character goes through no personal voyage or cycle. She learns nothing important or transformative about herself. She is dull.
She is worse than dull, in fact; she’s a tad sociopathic, and not in the fun sense. In a bar with Nick Fury, she casually destroys a pinball machine to demonstrate her (never fully described or explained) laserhands. She steals a motorcycle from a man who was admittedly being a little douchey; but did he really deserve to have his property stolen? When stuck in an office with Fury, she lets Fury cleverly trick a fingerprint scanner into opening a door, when she could have blasted it open at any point. In fact, she comes across as more of a douche than the douche from whom she told the motorcycle.
There is a hamfisted attempt to describe her journey as one of fighting against sexism. We are told that “they” wouldn’t let her fly the dangerous missions because she’s just a girl. In flashbacks, it seems her daddy didn’t let her race go-carts with the boys. And in a particularly cringe-inducing scene, she has a fist fight set to No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl.”
Yeah we get it, she’s a woman. Unfortunately, there is no sense that the sexism she experienced has framed her personality or her journey. She doesn’t seem to be trying to prove herself anymore, so what is she struggling against in the present?
The blame for this storytelling failure is placed firmly on the shoulders of the film’s directors, who don’t seem able to adhere to rule number one of visual storytelling: show me, don’t tell me. We are told that Carol Danvers’s best friend is Rambeau. We are told that she most admires Annette Benning. We are told a whole bunch of other plot points that are supposed to be meaningful to us, and are then expected to care about a dull character dropped into this fragile narrative frame.
Beyond bad storytelling are the missed opportunities. The movie is set in the 90s for reasons having to do with retconning CM’s importance in the Avengers timeline. So if it has to be set in the 90s, why not have some fun with the 90s?
The filmmakers show us a Blockbuster store and slow dial-up internet. There’s even a brief mention of flannel. But why not show Bill Clinton on a TV? Or a scene set at a grunge concert? Idiot kids wearing one pant leg rolled up? Passers-by wearing fanny-packs? A Sony Discman? People saying stupid slang, like claiming something is “da bomb”? Hell, any under-employed TV hack could write this shit into the movie.
There are no stakes. What is at risk in the plot? There’s a weird McGuffin about a lightspeed drive, which turns out to actually be a bigger McGuffin that is famously part of the Marvel cinematic universe. But if the bad guys get it…. so what? A war between two civilizations we know little about will go one way and not the other. No one really cares.
Late in the film, some more stakes are clumsily created by introducing an alien family that maybe needs saving. But guess what? That family was safely living in hiding well before Brie Larson and her inept friends got involved.
Beyond issues relating specifically to the plot are the fundamental failings of Captain Marvel herself. Much like Superman, who is famously difficult to write for, given his awesome godlike powers, Captain Marvel is, as the kids say, way overpowered.
At no point is there a sense that she is in any danger. Larson’s acting does not suggest any fear or danger or pain. She sleepwalks through fight scenes that are plucked directly from 2nd tier video games.
After decades of Superman storylines, several tools have evolved for creating vulnerability in superhumans: Kryptonite and loved ones. We are not shown any Kryptonite-equivalent for Captain Marvel. And the two loved ones that she seems to have are never in any real danger in the film, despite Danvers’s insistence that one of them (Rambeau) actively place herself in danger, against Rambeau’s actual wishes. (More evidence of Danvers’s douchery).
It’s just bad storytelling.
Spoilers: The supposed cat (or flerken) is never really explained. But one thing is clear: its function in the film is as a superweapon. It is never in danger, and the people who “wield” it are also never in danger.
If you really need to know everything before Avengers: Endgame, then I suppose you have to see Captain Marvel. But the movie added very little to the pleasure of my day, beyond giving my fat ass somewhere to rest itself for a couple of hours. Best seen when it appears on a TV streaming service sometime in the near future.
If this review has triggered you (hey’ it’s a comic book movie, which makes it the most important thing on the Internet), then vent your rage in the comments section below.