Monday, April 01, 2019

"Captain Marvel": review

"Captain Marvel" was highly politicized long before it ever hit the theaters. Actress Brie Larson, who stars as the eponymous Captain Marvel, had made statements that were both boldly feminist in nature and—according to some, anyway—antagonistic toward white men. This produced a viewer backlash that resulted in the "review-bombing" of the movie's page on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie-review site. The end result, though, was nary a dent in the box-office performance of "Captain Marvel," which is currently the highest earner of 2019 and only a few tens of millions of dollars away from reaching the billion-dollar milestone. I almost feel sorry for all the people who tried to sink this movie: Marvel superhero flicks are, at this point, a revered institution, and there's simply no way a group of pissed-off cultural conservatives were going to make even a dent in this film's progress, especially when each movie—part of a complex tapestry of storylines—serves as a sort of Cliff's Notes preparation for the next movie.

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, "Captain Marvel" is the story of Earthling Carol Danvers, a US Air Force pilot who finds herself flung across the galaxy to Hala, the homeworld of an alien race called the Kree (we met the Kree in the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" film). Danvers has lost all conscious memory of her previous life on Earth, and she has been enhanced and retrained to be a warrior in the Kree Star Force. Her harsh trainer is Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who teaches Danvers—now known only as "Vers" (pronounced "Veers") that the key to victory is mastery of one's own emotions. Vers has an implant on her neck whose purpose (which I won't spoil) becomes known much later in the film.

A Star Force special-ops team is sent out to a planet to rescue a Kree operative whose cover has been blown, leaving him vulnerable to the enemy of the Kree, known as the Skrulls. Vers ends up captured by the Skrulls, who can use their shape-shifting ability to gain a tactical advantage in a skirmish. The Star Force's larger mission—part of an ongoing war against the Skrulls—is to eradicate Skrull strongholds wherever they may be found. Vers, now imprisoned aboard a Skrull ship heading for Earth, which is designated as planet C-53, is subjected to a mind probe that reveals memories buried in her subconscious—memories of Earth that may prove helpful to the Skrulls. Summoning a set of mysteriously acquired superpowers, Vers manages to break out of her bonds and ends up bursting out of the Skrull ship and plummeting to 1995-era Earth, where she crashes into a Blockbuster Video store (the first of many, many 90s callbacks in this movie) and attracts the attention of a much younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Mayhem ensues as Carol Danvers tries to piece together her own past while Kree and Skrull forces arrive at our world for their own inscrutable purposes.

Overall, I found the film watchable, but it does contain a raft of plot holes that will bother both comic-book fans and regular filmgoers who expect their chosen movies to be logical. One major plot hole has to do with Captain Marvel's motivations. It's not entirely clear what makes her tick, and unfortunately, she does come off as a Mary Sue, especially when she comes into her own and begins to realize the extent of the power at her command. Later in the film, Captain Marvel experiences a change of loyalties, but the reasoning behind this change is flimsy at best. Other plot holes—as various critics have noted—have to do with how the movie messes with the chronology of the MCU timeline. "Captain Marvel" establishes that Fury's agency, known by the acronym SHIELD, was well aware of powerful extraterrestrials long before "The Avengers" came out, which is not the impression we've had up to now. Also: part of the plot of "Captain Marvel" involves the Tesseract, with which MCU initiates are familiar, but the story complicates the Tesseract's chronology as well. The way the movie deals with the origin of the name "Avengers" also throws unnecessary shade on Captain America, who is normally known as "The First Avenger." Finally, there's the question of how Captain Marvel acquires her powers. This happens in an explosion, but there's another character in the blast radius who is wholly unaffected by the weird output from the detonation. Why?

Then you've got the aspects of the movie that simply don't make sense. How is it that a Skrull can mimic an alien life form, like a human, right down to the DNA simply by looking at the human? And how does DNA-mimicry also translate to mimicry of clothing? How is an airplane not designed for space travel able to fly into space without blowing out its windows or leaking air out of a thousand different seams? As Tim Pool noted in his own ranty review, how is Carol Danvers able to recognize Nirvana's "Come As You Are," which was released in 1992, when she was whisked away from Earth in 1989? For that matter, how was she able to steal a dude's motorcycle without also stealing his keys? And how are the Kree and Skrulls able to speak and read English, and why do they use Roman letters in their secret codes and their designations for planets?

As I said, the film was watchable, but it also represents something of a disruption in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Quite a few details of the MCU that we've accepted up to now may have been retconned by this movie. Perhaps most frustrating for many MCU faithfuls will be the movie's explanation for how Nick Fury lost his eye. Viewers will remember Fury's quote from several years back: "The last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye." The movie plays this loss for comedy.

And none of my complaints about the film have anything to do with its supposedly feminist agenda. To be honest, I came away feeling that the film didn't do a very good job of showing us exactly what makes Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel tick, so if anything, the film should have doubled down on the feminism aspect to show in clearer detail the sorts of trials and tribulations that Danvers—first as a girl, and then as a young woman—had to go through to become a USAF pilot, and then to become a steely warrior on a different world. This would have helped us understand her character better. As things stand, Captain Marvel really is little more than a Mary Sue, and she doesn't get much of a character arc. This, too, is disruptive of the MCU timeline in that she ends up being the shallowest superhero yet, and being shallowly written shouldn't be the quality that sets one hero apart from the others in this universe.

But there were positives. Samuel Jackson and Brie Larson radiate a good buddy-cop vibe whenever they're together. I wish the movie had delved more deeply into that relationship. We see Nick Fury doing things in front of Carol Danvers that he'd never do in front of the other Avengers: he coos at a cat named Goose, and he sings while washing the dishes, to name two things. He's a warmer man, more human, and he opens up to Danvers in ways he never does with anyone else (keeping in mind that this version of Nick Fury is also twenty-some years younger than the bald, dour spy we know from previous movies). I thought I caught a whiff of a possible romance between Fury and Danvers, or at least the possibility of a deep friendship. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't do anything more than hint at that depth. Another positive, though, is the CGI de-aging of both Samuel Jackson's Fury and Clark Gregg's Coulson. In both cases, the effects are excellent, and you really do stop noticing how much younger the actors look, which means you've skipped right over the uncanny valley and settled into computer-enhanced naturalness, if that's not a contradiction in terms.

Alas, there are two other negatives to discuss, and they both have to do with the directors and scriptwriters' handling of the story. First, there's the question of how the hand-to-hand fights were blocked out (by which I mean staged, not obscured). Following the fights, especially one major fight sequence inside a Skrull vessel orbiting Earth, was hard work, and it didn't help that the orbital scene was poorly lit throughout its length. (It also didn't help that our cinema's movie projector suffered from feeble luminosity, making everything darker than it should have been.) Second, the editing was choppy enough to make me confused about certain sequences of events, e.g., when Danvers escapes from the Skrulls early in the film and suddenly ends up plunging through Earth's atmosphere. How did she get to Earth, again? I must not have caught the dialogue that said the Skrull ship was heading toward planet C-53. Some of the choppiness was, I suppose, inevitable, given that the directors had opted for a "Memento"-style approach to the story, slamming us repeatedly from the past to the present to the past again. In the end, it all made a kind of sense, but it was tough going at times.

I don't normally use a letter-grade system to evaluate films, but I think I'd give "Captain Marvel" a "C+." It was indeed watchable, and it had its good points, but it also suffered from problems with its internal logic and may have ripped some continuity holes in the fabric of the overall MCU. I had no trouble with the movie's feminist agenda; if anything, I felt that the agenda could have been pushed harder as a way to deepen the characterization of Captain Marvel, who comes off for the most part as a flat Mary Sue. One thing I'll note, in closing, is that I'd love to see more of Kree society, given that the Kree apparently submit themselves to an immense overlord A.I. known as the Supreme Intelligence. The Supreme Intelligence (played by Annette Bening in this film) has the stature of a deity among the Kree; it reminded me quite strongly of the machine intelligence in the Matrix movies, given that you have to "jack in" to interact with it. Otherwise, the actors all hit their marks, and the plot moved forward in such a way as not to be boring. I wouldn't rank "Captain Marvel" in the top tier of MCU movies, but it's somewhere in the middle.

ADDENDUM: I saw this Tom Holland-versus-Brie Larson meme a while ago:

Someone joked(?) that Brie Larson may have needed a butt double for some of her scenes in "Captain Marvel." I doubt that's true, but I do have to wonder....

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