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Film Review: Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel (2019; Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

It must be said, from the top, that Captain Marvel is not a great film, only a competently good one. Given the absurd online campaigns against it by toxic sectors of male fandom, this assessment needs to be exhaustively qualified before being further delved into. The much-hyped latest movie from Marvel Studios is not distinctly average because it is the first out of the culture-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with a female superhero as the lead character, released to coincide with International Woman’s Day. Nor is it because outspoken self-described feminist Brie Larson plays that character, former American fighter pilot-turned-intergalactic energy-blasting super-soldier Carol Danvers. Nor is it because Captain Marvel is imbued with themes of women’s empowerment, self-determination, and solidarity, not to mention a potent metaphor for the gaslighting behaviour of abusive relationships buried deep in Danvers’ interactions with her male mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Neither is Captain Marvel firmly in the middle of the road of quality due to its subtly controversial cross-marketed collaborative relationship with the United States Air Force. Although this likely means that, as is often the case with Hollywood’s insidiously cozy production relationship with the American military, the military had some say over the final script, that oversight did not preclude Captain Marvel from quite openly criticizing propagandistic, militaristic imperial expansion and the atrocities perpetrated against the vulnerable engendered by it.

Indeed, there’s a neat reversal to Captain Marvel‘s core ideology that reflects the contemporary political moment as well as the arc of personal conflict and resolution (such as it is) of Carol Danvers in the film. To discuss it properly, we will need to venture deep into plot detail, so spoilers ahead (hashtag that if need be). When we first meet Larson’s character, she is called Vers, and acts as a rubber-suit-clad member of the elite Starforce of the Kree Civilization. The Kree are a galaxy-spanning empire-coalition of diverse alien races ruled by the Supreme Intelligence, an organic AI that offers bland know-it-all advice about controlling emotions and subordinating your agency to the greater good of the empire like the smuggest offspring of the Jedi, the Vulcans, and army recruiters.

Vers has been with the Kree for 6 years and fights for the civilization in their ongoing war against their archenemies the Skrulls, Bat Boy-lookalike extraterrestrial shapeshifters who are branded terrorist infiltrators and earmarked for annihilation. But she is also haunted by flashes of memory from her life before Kree-ification, on what looks to us like Earth: at an airbase with a fellow pilot, smashing up a go-cart as a child and being admonished by her father, jeered on a military training ground by fellow cadets, and at a charred crash site alongside a woman who, if the same woman’s manifestation as Supreme Intelligence is any indication, Vers admires more than anyone else.

It’s not only Vers who wants to know more about these memories. When a band of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) springs an ambush on Vers and her Starforce unit, it’s to capture her and plumb the depths of her mind for more details about the woman she sees, who is named Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) and who was last seen on Planet C-53, ie. Earth. Vers escapes the Krulls and crash-lands in Los Angeles in 1995. Meeting young S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Vers causes havoc on a L.A. elevated train in pursuit of a form-changing Skrull agent (a few French Connection homages in this otherwise unremarkable action sequence). She then joins forces with Fury to seek out clues of Lawson and her Pegasus project, coming across a cat named Goose (who steals half a dozen moments, and is no ordinary feline besides that), her former best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and learning much about Lawson, Pegasus, the Kree, the Skrulls, and herself that will shake her reality and shift her perspective and her allegiance.

Lawson, our heroine discovers, was a Kree scientist named Mar-Vell working covertly on Earth to build an energy-core engine which, when destroyed by her top pilot Carol Danvers, grants the latter superhuman powers and mostly erases her memory. Returned to the Kree homeworld by Yon-Rogg – who, she recalls with horror, killed Lawson – and transfused with his Kree blood, the soldier now known as Vers is told nothing of her old life, nor of Lawson/Mar-Vell’s true, rebellious intent: to reveal the propagandistic lies of the Kree and aid the Skrulls, who are little more than hunted refugees in search of a home and are victims of an ongoing genocide by the side that Vers fights for. Talos reveals much of this history to the woman who can now call herself Carol, and the casting of Mendelsohn, even behind layers of Skrull prosthetics, becomes a minor masterstroke: he’s mostly been used as a villain by Hollywood and fills that role well enough earlier in Captain Marvel (he appears without makeup as Talos shapeshifting into the form of Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. boss, Keller), but the Skrulls-are-actually-good twist allows Mendelsohn to mine deep reserves of desperate, soul-felt sympathy. Along with the steely Lynch and Jackson, having a fine old time as his aged-down self (that CG effect has come some way since Marvel Studios test-drove it a bit awkwardly with Robert Downey, Jr. in Captain America: Civil War), Mendelsohn is a supporting highlight.

But back to the point: Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (whose previous directorial highlight is probably the indie dramedy Half Nelson, with a then-ascending Ryan Gosling), features a hegemonic military power ethnically cleansing a landless minority of oppressed people labelled shifty terrorists. Besides the Starforce (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s Korath, who appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy earlier in the MCU release slate but later in the in-universe chronology), the Kree also project the Supreme Intelligence’s unquestioned technocratic will through their enforcer Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, also from Guardians, where he was the haughtily humourless villain tricked and defeated by Peter Quill’s cheeky distraction dance), who is summoned by Yon-Rogg to carpet-bomb Earth’s surface at the climax. Echoes of America’s (and, even more provocatively, Israel’s) imperial power-flexing in the Middle East and its humanitarian collateral damage run through these elements of the film, and an important part of Carol Danvers’ self-actualizing awakening has to do with her throwing off her Kree brainwashing, and then questioning and finally pledging herself to fight against its malevolent expansionist ambitions.

Vers’ conversion to Carol Danvers follows the established parametres of MCU heroes’ arcs while also firmly and a bit rousingly taking the form of women’s empowerment. Like a lot of Marvel superheroes, Larson’s embryonic Captain Marvel (not to be confused with DC’s male superhero of the same name, who will be incarnated onscreen as Shazam a month after this film’s release) begins her origin film as a very powerful badass warrior already. Much like Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in particular, she’s comfortable and cocksure (Larson plays this quality very well, with a keen comedic timing) with her formidable powers before being limited in them by circumstances and challenged by self-doubt. Like many a male MCU protagonist, Carol doesn’t so much undergo a real shift in her fundamental character (Larson does not handle the identity-questioning as well, which is surprising given her Oscar-winning dramatic pedigree) as stubbornly re-affirm who she was all along, and thus gains a decisive boost in power and heroism that allows her to triumph over adversity and her enemies.

Applying this familiar heroes’ arc to a female protagonist represents Marvel Studios’ careful, formula-savvy conventionality at its most noticeable, assuring fans as it does that even with a woman as a lead, matters remain comfortingly secure in the MCU, thematically speaking. But Captain Marvel rises to the implied feminist agency in its premise and marketed profile as well, no doubt shepherded forward by the numerous women in the creative team: not only co-director Boden, who also co-wrote the film with Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, but the trio is joined in the story credits by Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve. Carol Danvers’ emergence as a flying, super-strong, photon-blasting superhuman god in the last act is couched as a moment of female empowerment both literal and figurative.

Though she has already recaptured many of her memories from Earth and reconnected with her sister-in-arms Maria Rambeau and realized the errors of her Kree imperial-subaltern ways, Carol’s climactic overcoming of the hegemonic Kree (who are, nominally at least, a kind of scrubbed-clean patriarchy) is catalyzed by her memory-mining realization that her true power is the true power of all women who are marginalized and underestimated: the strength and bravery to get up when they are knocked down, to rise when others, especially men, would see them fall. This idea is imparted in a montage of Larson and the girls playing younger flashback versions of herself rising to their feet with a look of defiance and determination as Pinar Toprak’s score swells with on-the-nose inspirational flourishes. I’ll take the more metaphorical No Man’s Land sequence in Wonder Woman over a scene like this any day (in the representation of women and basically nothing else, the DC films, or at least that single, mostly non-representative DC film, have to be said to have been ahead of the Marvel ones), but it’s Captain Marvel‘s most moving moment. It may be upstaged, however, by Carol’s more viscerally satisfying defeat of her paternalistic mentor Yon-Rogg, who patronizingly chides her not to be so emotional and impulsive in a martial-arts training sequence at the film’s beginning and whose last-ditch effort to beat his now-overwhelmingly-powerful opponent at the film’s end is to patronize her again in insisting on a photon-less hand-to-hand proving-ground fight. Smacking his sexist gaslighting down with an energy burst, she asserts, with empowered confidence, that she has nothing to prove to him.

Captain Marvel might have a little more to prove. If I’ve gradually warmed to its themes and ideas and the execution thereof in this analysis, I must step back and re-assert its general averageness. It hasn’t really a memorable action scene to its name, and Larson slips into stiffness when the plot requires her not to remember important things that the movie never really adequately accounts for her not remembering. The Skrulls’ turn feels a tad whiplash-quick; perhaps a second viewing would make their actions and presentation seem less openly antagonistic before Talos bids for Carol’s, and therefore for our, sympathy. It is revealed how Nick Fury loses the use of his eye, and it’s a light, jokey moment rather than the portentous event loyal MCU followers have been led to expect. And of course, whatever Captain Marvel is doing on its own is subverted on a larger scale to its place in the Avengers cycle of the MCU, and the ending exchange of a pager between Carol and Fury and the related mid-credits stinger scene from the forthcoming Infinity War sequel in which Captain Marvel will play a part is a sobering reminder of that.

Captain Marvel‘s period setting offers more pleasures. The mid-’90s milieu winks and nods with references to Blockbuster Video, internet cafes, and comparatively glacial computer processing speeds. But it’s on the soundtrack that Boden and Fleck really kick into the palpable nostalgia, with a series of pitch-perfect needle drops of mostly woman-fronted period alternative rock and R&B. Danvers steals a motorcycle to the power-pop strains of Elastica’s “Connection”, then bombs through the desert towards a half-remembered roadhouse bar to Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains”. She and Fury drive towards the Pegasus facility with TLC’s “Waterfalls” playing on the radio, and Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” is on in the background as she renews acquaintance with Maria Rambeau at her Louisiana country house. She battles her former Starforce mates to the spunky accompaniment of No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” (though the scene is murkily edited, one of the weakest fight sequences in all of the MCU), and the end credits feature the triumphal thunder of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin”. Veruca Salt is conspicuous by their absence (how badass would “Volcano Girls” have been over, say, her climactic devastation of the Kree bomber fleet?), and there are R.E.M. cuts, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” over a Supreme Intelligence interrogation scene, and a spot-on Nine Inch Nails logo shirt worn by Larson for a third of the film, but the overall filmic jukebox tone is one of defiant and brash women’s voices asserting their agency and power.

Captain Marvel is a manifestation of those voices in action-blockbuster form, and thus is a manifestation of our political and cultural moment as well, at least as Hollywood chooses to understand it and profit handsomely from it. If it’s generally good but never close to great, then maybe that’s all right and even mildly encouraging: if big, expensive, obvious movies starring men and chiefly about them and their psychology and social positioning can be massive successes without moving any goalposts in terms of artistry or ideology, then why can’t such movies starring and chiefly about women be so, too? It can even be conceded that Captain Marvel has just enough going on in its surprisingly dense subtext (a subtext only amplified by the culture-wars nonsense that swirls around it online) to push it above the MCU average. As it smashes an important glass ceiling in Hollywood’s most sprawling franchise, Captain Marvel puts another few cracks in a larger and more resilient glass ceiling. But it’s far from a shattering blow, by any measure.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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