Movie Review: Superhero Adventure – Captain Marvel
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Written by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn and Jude Law
Arriving in theaters with the kind of absurd controversy that only a superhero movie with a female lead could generate, Marvel Studio’s latest blockbuster, Captain Marvel, found itself the early target of internet trolls who sought to sabotage its box-office impact through sexist, often mean-spirited pre-release attacks in the user’s section of review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. These were likely the same alt-right trolls who sought, with some success, to torpedo 2017’s multiracial Star Wars epic The Last Jedi. Many of the comments were aimed squarely at Captain Marvel herself, actress Brie Larson, whose somewhat disparaging pre-release comments about the over-abundance of white male film critics and her expressed desire for the film to make a strong feminist statement, sent hordes of insecure incels scurrying to movie message boards in a masculine toxic panic.
None of that seemed to matter as Captain Marvel pummeled competition last weekend with an opening launch of over $450 million worldwide, delivering the sixth biggest opening ever, and single-handedly breathing life into the year’s pallid box-office tallies. But is it the feminist manifesto Larson hoped for and that all the hype and hand-wringing suggested it might be? Well… yes… sort of… and… not really. Captain Marvel delivers its strong, ass-whooping female role model, but it comes off as less a statement on female empowerment than a typical Marvel movie – testosterone driven, overlong by about 20 minutes, paced and edited with so much unrestrained kinetic energy that it becomes at times disorienting, thin on character and plot, entertaining and funny at times but missing the mark overall. And for all its bigger than life characters and top-notch actors, its grand special effects and big-time production values, the character most on your mind as you leave the theater is not a strong woman named Carol Danvers, but a scene-stealing cat named Goose.
The action begins on Hala, home planet of the Kree, where Vers (Larson), a Kree soldier with the special talent of being able to expel orange beams of energy from her hands that can knock people (read men) across rooms, has been recruited by mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to participate in the rescue of a Kree operative from the Skrull, a race of lizard-like shapeshifters with whom the Kree have long been at war. Vers is captured by the Skrull and interrogated by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), a lizard man who inexplicably speaks with an Australian accent and whose mind-invasive interrogations awake hidden memories in Vers of another life and a mysterious older woman (Annette Bening). Using this information, Talos and his Skrull crew head to Planet C-53, a “shithole” otherwise known as 1995 Earth, where they’re followed by the now rogue Vers. There Vers encounters the young, pre-Avengers, Agents of Shield, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and a still two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who assists her in her search for the mysterious women and the life Vers once lived on Earth as Air Force pilot Carol Danvers, a journey that eventually leads to her blossoming into the superhero Captain Marvel.
While this may sound promising, the emphasis on delirious action creates an emotional disconnect with Vers/Carol’s scantly developed emotional struggle. It’s like watching everything through a telescope. We see the action happening, we see Vers/Carol acting out her emotions, but we never feel anything. And the full potential of the movie’s female-centric themes are never satisfyingly expressed. The film is about a female character who becomes empowered, but it never feels empowering. There’s one fleeting moment at the last of what seems like three too many climaxes, when we get a sense of the character’s self-actualization, thanks to a clever smile on Larson’s face, but that’s about it. And there’s no apparent connection between that empowerment and the character’s female identity.
At the risk of being one of those old white guys who judges women by comparing them to each other, it seems fair here to compare the film to DC’s Wonder Woman, given that these are the only two big budget superhero movies ever made with female leads. Larson, an Oscar winner for 2015’s Room, is a superior actress to Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot, and yet we never feel Vers/Carol’s torment or her vulnerability the way we did with Diana Prince, so her transformation into a fully realized god doesn’t resonate. While Wonder Woman wasn’t a feminist movie per se, the placement of Diana’s compassionate feminine energy within the context of her formidability as a fighter made a powerful statement about female empowerment that moved beyond the simple imagery of a woman defeating men in battle. And that’s what made it special. Diana Prince was fully female and fully empowered. Larson’s Carol Danvers might just as well have been a man.
Yes, there is an implied feminism in the mere presence of a strong female lead and a strong female mentor, and maybe that’s the goal – to make female empowerment the norm – but when you think of how female power exploded off the screen in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Carol Danvers becomes just another rote Marvel superhero. And when you think of all the potential this story had to make a statement about the unique power of women, you can’t help but feel that that’s been squandered by a story where the sex of the lead character is inconsequential. This is Marvel’s first female superhero movie. It’s a momentous event just as Black Panther was a momentous event as the first black superhero movie. The studio put their all behind that film. They understood its significance. So why have they wasted the opportunity to make Captain Marvel meaningful by neutering its female energy?
The film is not without entertainment value. As with most of the studio’s pictures, the movie delivers some healthy laughs, mostly involving that particularly adorable cat who isn’t quite what she appears to be. Mendelssohn likewise is a hoot as the cheeky Talos and the film has fun showing us how Ms. Marvel gets her famous look and name, giving a clever nod to the character’s convoluted comic book history under three owners, including, originally, DC. But surprisingly, writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck mine little humor from the film’s 1995 setting, other the fact that Vers/Carol first falls to Earth through the roof of a Blockbuster Video. That joke will resonate with anyone of a certain age, but even this is barely milked for laughs. I can’t even remember what videos Vers looks at, as she investigates the store and that’s a sure sign it wasn’t funny. Maybe it just wasn’t that funny of a decade. But would it have killed Boden and Fleck to have Carol pick up a copy of say, James Cameron’s Terminator movies, or his Alien sequel, Aliens, films with strong female characters and react to them? Something, anything relevant to the movie’s alleged themes.
While there is a minor subplot involving Danvers’ Air Force colleague and her daughter that’s designed to encourage little girls in the audience to dream big, it comes off like a half-hearted addendum, a passing nod to ideas the filmmakers aren’t really interested in. The screenplay misses countless opportunities to emphasize the significance of its female character in the male dominated world of man and superhero, because in truth, it doesn’t really care. It wants to pretend it has a feminist message, but it’s not willing to commit to selling it. A movie isn’t about women, feminism, or female empowerment simply because it has strong women in it or because it throws in songs by Gwen Stefani and Courtney Love. As Radiohead once sang, “just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” But conversely, as Captain Marvel proves, just ‘cause it’s there, doesn’t mean you feel it.
Captain Marvel’s lack of commitment to its ideas might have been easier to overlook if the film had worked otherwise. But on any substantial level, the film falls flat. It’s more concerned with the mechanical side details of its clichéd Star Trek storyline and how they fit in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe than with creating a fully realized story with relatable characters that move the audience beyond anything but oohs and ahhs and the occasional chuckle, a problem with so many of the Marvel Films. They exist as fodder for devoted fans to mull over endlessly, to speculate on, to fit into the larger MCU like pieces of a puzzle. These fans will surely enjoy seeing Shield and the miraculously younger Agent Fury’s first exposure to, and involvement with, a superhero and the earliest origins of the Avengers, as well as the two memorable extras during and proceeding the end titles, which even casual MCU fans such as myself can enjoy. You’d think by now, most people would know better than to leave a Marvel film before the final credits have ended, but I still saw people heading for the exits immediately after the credits began to roll. Too bad, they missed a fun set-up for Captain Marvel’s entry in the next Avengers movie, and the movie’s funniest gag, featuring “guess who?” at the very end. It’s the best joke in a movie that could have used many more to boost this weak vehicle for a character who could have been so much more.
The best superhero movies, like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Richard Donner’s original Superman, and 2002’s Spider-Man, work because they create an emotional bond with their characters and the plot is secondary to that bond. In Captain Marvel, that bond is missing, and with it, our reason for caring. If there’s something to be optimistic about, it’s the fact that the film does a decent job of setting things up for a sequel or two. Like the first two Thor movies, Captain Marvel may have set the stage for something better. Now that her clunky origin story is out of the way, Ms. Danvers has ample room to soar.