The Twenty-First entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe gives us the first superheroine central protagonist, but also displays a huge lack of faith in itself.
Vers (Brie Larson) is a superpowered elite fighter in the Kree Starforce, an alien peacekeeping force, under her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). She is plagued by dreams of her past that she can’t remember. During a mission against the shapeshifting Skrulls, Vers is captured by Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). She escapes and crash lands on Earth in 1995, where she is met by a young-ish Nick Fury (SAMUEL L. MOTHER****ING JACKSON), who must work with her to deal with the impending alien invasions while also finding out that *ONLY KIND OF A SPOILER IF YOU COUNT SOMETHING YOU SEE IN THE OPENING SHOTS OF THE FILM AS A SURPRISE, AND I DON’T* she’s actually Carol Danvers actually from Earth.
If this movie came out in 2000, when X-Men came out, it would be hailed as a revolution in superhero films. If it came out in 2004, when Spider-Man 2 came out, it would have been considered a little familiar, but still fresh. Hell, if it came out in 2008 along with Iron Man, it would still feel mostly new. Unfortunately, unless I managed to get the DeLorean up to 88 MPH while typing this, it’s now 2019 and the last decade has been filled with superhero movies that tend to constantly recycle tropes, and this one recycles the hell out of them while managing to import other old tropes at the same time. The beginning is so chock-full of them that I was actually starting to wonder if the film had a human writer, or if this was the first computer-generated script that actually got produced. It basically felt like someone took most of the common cliche elements from Phase One of the MCU and just switched the gender.
The hero with amnesia is something that the MCU has managed to mostly avoid until now (unless you count Bucky being brainwashed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and this movie is a fresh example of why: Unless you’re going to play with it in clever ways, it basically forces the main character to spend half the movie as a different character. People are defined, in large part, by their experiences, so when you have a character who suddenly remembers most of her life, the character should be at least somewhat different, particularly when her post-amnesia life was so different. It basically robs the audience of some of the time we need to connect with the character, or forces you to make the character act similarly as both their old and new selves. Now, this can really work out, like in Memento or The Usual Suspects if the way that the film is done takes advantage of the lack of information it’s giving to the audience about a character, but this movie doesn’t do that, for the most part. Instead, it’s hard to say where Vers ends and Carol Danvers begins, because her core personality is mostly the same as both.
Now, I want to take a second to make one thing clear: Tropes are not inherently bad. The best comic book movie of last year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, is so filled with tropes that it could be a codicil, but it uses all of them perfectly as a way to enforce the importance of certain storytelling elements. This movie uses them to skip over certain parts of the storytelling and it does show at times. I think my biggest one is that the villain in the film is possibly the worst in the MCU. Everything [it] tries is so miscalculated, so dumb, and so unnecessary, that I almost ended up shouting at the damned screen. The only reason any of it even happens is so that we can eventually get Captain Marvel asserting herself and giving us the character change that leads into the final fight scenes.
Speaking of which, the action sequences range from the fights at the beginning where the shaky-cam and editing renders the shots almost pointless to film to the last fight scene which is, admittedly, pretty freaking awesome and almost worth the ticket cost on its own. Given that the directing duo of Boden and Fleck haven’t really done an action film before now, this is commendable, but it does still make the first act even worse than most of the writing did.
The real problem with this movie is the same flaw that helped make Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2 so bad: This film plays it safe. To be fair, the studio probably pushed this upon them, because when you’re trying to sell something new to an audience, like a female-led Marvel film, it’s tempting to want to give them some familiar elements to keep them from getting lost. If you try to subvert literally everything that the audience expects, then you can end up with a super-divisive film involving space llamas and blue milk. So, I imagine the studio tried to keep the directors “in their lane,” forgetting that the reason why Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War felt so fresh is that the directors were allowed to have a lot more control over the films, giving them more distinct style and original elements than the first few Marvel movies. Even Doctor Strange, which is just Iron Man on shrooms, was at least visually distinct. Captain Marvel didn’t even trust its main character to be the sole focus of the story, instead mostly being a buddy comedy with her and Nick Fury. This film is, sadly, just a lot more generic than it needed to be.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of good parts to it. Some of the shots and worldbuilding elements are excellent. Brie Larson’s performance, while somewhat muted by the way her character is being handled in the film, is solid. Sam Jackson is a treasure, even if he doesn’t exactly feel like the guy who will, 13 years later canonically, be the superspy head of S.H.I.E.L.D. The third act is actually pretty great, including a few of the better moments in the MCU. Heck, it manages to have a scene of a completely overpowered protagonist not feel boring. It makes some changes to Captain Marvel, but nothing too big to piss off the purists. Also, it has solid feminist elements without feeling like they were shoved inorganically into the scenes, which is the best way to get a point across.
Overall, it has a terrible start, but after it finds its feet, it manages to get some good sequences on film. Hopefully what this movie does is allow the studio to trust the directors more in the future and that the next female superhero film (PLEASE GIVE ME SHE-HULK) will be allowed the same leeway now afforded other MCU entries.
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One thought on “Captain Marvel: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back is Still One Step Forward (Spoiler-Free)”
The real problem with this movie is the same flaw that helped make Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2 so bad: This film plays it safe.
Funny . . . I would have said the same about “Iron Man” and “Thor”. The 2008 movie was a paint-by-the-numbers superhero origin movie to me. Only the Tony Stark character rose above it. After ten years, Tony Stark has worn out his welcome to me. “Thor” was a good, solid movie, but only the introduction of Asgard made it unique. Otherwise . . . eh. I just watched it yesterday. Even the final action scenes weren’t that hot.
“Iron Man 2” actually had a more interesting plot to me in which we see how the actions of a Stark (in this case, Howard) affect the future. And I don’t simply mean Stark Enterprises. The movie also hinted that Tony has NOT developed as much as many thought he had . . . or many wanted him to. And “Thor: The Dark World” shook up the Asgardian Royal Family in ways that the 2011 movie did not, left an intriguing cliffhanger that “Thor: Ragnarok” had failed to exploit and had a very original final battle.
The ironic thing is that I do agree with you, on some levels about “Captain Marvel”. It could have been better. I think that the effect of Carol’s memory loss could have been more emotionally effective. As for the last action scene . . . eh. I did like the aerial dogfight between Monica Rambeau and Minn-Erva.
By the way, why is Nick Fury a “low-level” bureaucrat in S.H.I.E.L.D. at this point? If Coulson is with S.H.I.E.L.D., Fury should be at a level high enough to have his own team in 1995. He was the one who had recruited Coulson.