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.
Well, it’s been 14 years and we finally got the thing that Pixar should have known we’d throw money at, a sequel to Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. I can only assume the delay was because Sam Jackson was busy being in 113 movies in the meantime. Guy’s the only actor who out-films porn stars.
If you didn’t see the first one, here’s a quick summary of the premise: It’s the 1950s. Superheroes exist. Lawsuits for personal injuries also exist. Lawsuits beat superheroes. Congress makes laws. Laws beat superheroes. Superheroes are forced to retire. Two of them get married and have three kids who also have powers. Now it’s the early ‘60s. The family ends up fighting against a supervillain whose plan is to… make himself a superhero, then sell off technology that would allow everyone to be equal to superheroes. The family beats him, the free world is saved, and superheroes are… still illegal.
The family is basically a twist on the Fantastic Four. The mom stretches, the dad is super-strong and invulnerable, the daughter can become invisible and create forcefields, and the eldest son is superfast because if he had fire-based powers Disney would have sued. As Disney now owns Fantastic Four, but not their movie rights (yet), I guess that’s a good call. Jack-Jack, in the short that was on the DVD for the film and for a few moments in the movie, is revealed to have a huge number of superhuman abilities (later described as “limitless potential”), much like Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman’s son, Franklin Richards, whose powers are basically only outmatched by the One-Above-All, AKA GOD.
So, the movie picks up shortly after the end of the last film… by like 2 minutes. We immediately see the Parr family trying to resume superheroics and get our quick re-introductions. Bob, AKA Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), is the father whose life is defined by superheroics more than his family or career, though the last movie taught him how much more his family means to him. Helen, AKA Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), is the mother who is the more active parent and, arguably, the more successful superhero, except from a marketing and name-recognition perspective. In the last movie, she learned… nothing. She’s basically perfect, so she doesn’t really get a character arc. Violet, the daughter (Sarah Vowell), is a social outcast who has just started to become more open and outgoing. Dash, the middle son (Huck Milner), is the troublemaker who has learned to be more disciplined. Jack-Jack, the baby, is a baby. Their only real friend is Lucius Best, AKA Frozone (Samuel L. Motherf*cking Jackson).
Basically, the premise is that a guy wants to make superheroes legal again, so he has Helen put her costume back on and fight crime, while Bob looks after the family. Now, the general premise here is pretty interesting because, remember, this takes place in the early 1960s. Bob genuinely seems shocked when Helen proposes that she get a job, because he’s “the man of the house.” Throughout much of the movie, he’s struggling to deal with being a stay-at-home parent, something that he cannot use any of his natural superhuman abilities to help with. It gets even worse when the baby starts to show off his superpowers, which include a number of abilities that make him problematic to babysit.
Meanwhile, Helen… well, she doesn’t really have any problems being a superhero again. Honestly, that’s one of the things I loved most about the movie, that they didn’t try to portray Helen as having trouble being a working woman again in some attempt to add conflict. Instead, she’s portrayed as strong, intelligent, tactically brilliant, and resourceful as hell. The movie’s supervillain nemesis is a little corny, but still provides enough of a contest for Elastigirl to show off how good she is at what she does.
Without really spoiling anything, at the end of the movie, the family comes together, saves the day, roll credits. If you didn’t see that coming, I have to assume you don’t know how childrens’ movies work.
First off, everything about this movie, from a technical and storytelling standpoint, was amazing. The characters are well-crafted, the dialogue is amazing, the locations are creative, the villain is pretty well done (see below), and the pacing is basically perfect. I almost think it’s better than the original, honestly. The animation is wonderful, but I found it funny that it really highlights exactly how much Pixar’s animation has improved in the past 14 years, because even the explicitly cartoonish and exaggerated characters from the previous film are now given an extraordinary amount of detail. They’re still less realistic than they could be, but the hair movement and muscle movement in some of the scenes is really elaborate. And the message about the power of family is always good. I loved this film the whole way through, right until something started bugging me on the ride home.
Alright, so, a lot of people had issues with the message of the first movie, since the main family is naturally gifted with superpowers, while the villains are all people who use technology to even the playing field (Bomb Voyage, The Underminer, Syndrome). It gives sort of a “the special are genetically special and trying to change that is evil.” Some people called it reminiscent of Ayn Rand, but those people apparently never read Ayn Rand. While it’s true that Rand believed that society should support the superior people (i.e. the wealthy) at the expense of the lesser peoples (i.e. the working class), the concept of a superhero would have offended her sensibilities, since she claimed altruism was the worst thing in the world in her essay collection The Virtue of Selfishness. Yes, that’s actually its title. Even if Mr. Incredible does enjoy superheroics because of the fame it brings him, he still risks his life constantly to save other people for no reward. When he is stuck at a desk job, he still is trying to help people within the insurance company, to the point that his boss threatens to fire him for it. So, no, not Rand, never Rand. If you’re going to criticize something, read the thing you’re criticizing first (*cough* Everyone on the internet *cough*).
Still, the idea that people born with gifts are heroes and people who use their minds are villains isn’t stopped during this movie. As far as I can recall, there is no Batman equivalent in this. There is no tech-based superhero like Iron Man. There doesn’t even appear to be someone like the Hulk or the Flash, who has artificially-granted superpowers, although the movie doesn’t really explore this much. My point is, they definitely didn’t shy away from that criticism. And, let’s be honest, when you go into “some people are born genetically superior” territory, you really open up a lot of issues that tend to rhyme with “Race-based Bin-o-slide.” But, the movie does try to at least portray that there are superheroes in every country, from every genetic background, which I think is them trying to equate superheroes not to race or ethnicity, but to people born with natural aptitudes. If you look at it from that lens, the movie’s message is “use your natural talents to the benefit of everyone,” and it’s only people who choose to use them for selfish reasons or out of spite, that are bad. After all, all the villains are naturally superhumanly intelligent in order to make their devices, but they could easily just do what Syndrome suggests in the first movie: Sell all of their gadgets and make everyone super. It’s meant to be villainous in the way that Syndrome is suggesting it, but, seriously, how is that a bad idea?
Well, in this movie, we’re actually given hints that some other people have done exactly that. While the movie still takes place in 1963 (based on The Outer Limits airing in one scene and the fact that the last movie took place over several months), we see some technology which is far ahead of its time, like digital video files and a commercial mag-lev train. So, maybe, there are some people who are using their talents for the betterment of mankind. Granted, you’d think that Syndrome’s patents alone would have moved us forward 50 years, but maybe he just kept most of his stuff secret. Still, the movie series does have a tone of “super-strong = good, super-smart=bad,” which, to be honest, is a common thing in superhero comics (Superman v. Lex Luthor). Without a Batman or a Mr. Terrific or a Tony Stark to counter it, though, it does just stay at “strong good, smart bad.” And I’m not a fan of that message, even if not deliberate.
But, all of that aside, I’d like to address another message that really comes up more in this film. The premise of the film is a debate about whether or not we should have superheroes. It’s pretty similar in some ways to the debate in Captain America: Civil War, only in this one every country has a ton of supers, as opposed to Civil War, where there really are only a hundred or so on Earth until the Inhuman spread happens… and even then, it still seems like there are less than a few thousand (I’m not caught up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). And that debate is something I’m gonna address more in the future, but for now, let me state how I see both sides, at present.
On the one side, the supers, who want the freedom to do good works and help people without the government getting in the way. On the other, the government, who see supers as a giant problem since they’re basically destructive vigilantes who are not held accountable for most of their actions. Since the focus of the movie is on the supers, who do you think seems more reasonable in the narrative? Hell, at one point, a government agent says that politicians don’t like altruism, because they don’t understand it. That’s mostly true, if a cheap generalization that reflects poorly upon the American people, but that’s not why you wouldn’t want superheroes fighting in your cities. You don’t want supers because they cause a ton of collateral damage. The movie even acknowledges this when they state that A) when Mr. Incredible tries to thwart crime, he causes a huge amount of the city to be destroyed and B) when it’s revealed that his cost/benefit analysis to the city is not good. That’s actually why they choose his wife, who can avoid collateral damage and casualties, to be the face of superheroics. And that’s where we kind of run into an issue.
See, no one should have a problem with Elastigirl being a superhero. She’s well-trained, she prioritizes minimizing casualties and collateral damage, and she tries to avoid conflict when possible. In an age of Man of Steel, this is a reminder of the right way to do things. But what about Mr. Incredible? He’s done nothing to earn being a superhero besides being born super-strong and deciding to help people. His attempts to stop one of the villains takes out several buildings. In the first film, failing to effectively dispose of a bomb (like, by throwing it upwards?) results in him having to stop an elevated train, causing massive injuries onboard. While a good Samaritan law would probably protect him when he saves a suicidal jumper, this one is probably a lot more ambiguous and might actually have cost him his immunity from liability, since he’s saving them from what could be considered his own reckless actions.
And what about all the public works? The movie actually points out that it’s easier to just let some of the villains get away with insured funds than to risk destroying significantly greater amounts in property by fighting them. It actually reminded me of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls, where the girls blow up a multi-million dollar bridge to stop robbers from stealing a few hundred dollars. It’s pretty reasonable for this to piss off city managers. Since supers have been illegal for like 12 years at this point, clearly the authorities actually have ways of dealing with supervillains that’s worked pretty well. It’s not like supers are shown to have a positive effect on crime rates, the world seems more peaceful in the present, if anything.
Look, if you can do good, you should, but doing good recklessly can often result in a net bad. And “good” is so nebulous in the real world that it can be a troublesome to even determine it in the first place unless you have both a strong moral compass and a keen mind to direct it. So, is the government in the right? Well, no. In both Civil War and here, the responses to superheroes are too extreme (and moreso in the Marvel Comics “Civil War”). Some superheroes like Elastigirl and Captain America are a net positive that are only slowed down by government control. Superheroes like Tony “I create all of my own villains” Stark, the Hulk, and Mr. Incredib-ly Destructive are not, unless they’re in a situation where the alternative to their involvement is mass devastation. The key here is that your solution doesn’t have to be either “all supers are relatively free from consequences” or “no supers can exist.” There are a ton of fictional worlds that figure out a reasonable middle ground. While they don’t elaborate, hopefully, the movie has found one in the new superhero laws.
Then there’s the villain’s monologue justification for why they hate supers. Basically, it’s that relying on supers prevents people from being able to grow and take care of themselves. This basically suggests that humanity should be more Darwinian, with the weak dying off so that the strong can continue, and only those who become strong deserve to. This doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but the movie does make a point that relying solely on help from others does cause issues. Just like with the other issue above, this one is presented as a bit of a binary, with the good guys saying “you can count on others.” Again, the truth is, you can’t always, but most of the time you can. However, since we seem to have an outbreak of mistrust in our fellow man running throughout the world, I do support a movie saying that you can count on other people to help you.
So, basically, the messages in the movie might not always be the clearest, but I think overall it’s not that bad. It’s a kids’ movie, after all, and it hints at some debates about the balance between government regulation and personal liberty that have been going on since the dawn of time. That’s pretty ambitious. Overall, the general message of the movie is “just be a good person and do good things for others,” so I really can’t get down on it too much, and it’s such a great film in general that it’s hard to criticize it. Just see it for yourself.