Movie review: “Captain Marvel” (2019)

captain-marvel

“What is this?”

“It’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. logo.”

“Does announcing your identity, with branded clothing, help with the covert part of the job?”

“…Said the space soldier who’s wearing a rubber suit.”

Captain Marvel, the latest but hardly last in the current glut of attempts to shoehorn yet another theoretically resonant new standalone superhero into our already righteously taxed moviegoing consciousness – bookended at the box office by DC’s Aquaman and, gulp, Shazam! – arrives at a precarious moment for the formerly sturdy Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), whose equally hyped and hype-worthy Infinity War event saw an unprecedented, slightly ridiculous number of Avengers assemble across multiple worlds in a last ditch effort to beat back the intergalactic threat posed by jewelry enthusiast/genocidal sociologist/city planner run amok Thanos. Sorry, but I think we’ve evolved well past spoiler territory here. In staking out its prestigious perch/plateau amongst the tentpoles, the ongoing MCU has become an all-or-nothing proposition, and Infinity War represented the zenith of its cheerful dismissal of the casual fan. With approximately half of all life everywhere reduced to so much topsoil by its gut-wrenching end, including a somewhat less indiscriminate half of our hero home team seemingly spared for reasons of seniority, some seriously underused talent is going to have to come off the bench – to say nothing of having conveniently survived in the first place – to help save the day. Chief among these, as we learned last spring, will be Captain Marvel, whose own titular origin story searches doggedly for something, anything, new under the sun, aware of the limits and difficulties, many for which the MCU bears direct responsibility, involved in delivering a new superhero into such an oversaturated marketplace. Perhaps a bit too aware.

captain marvel posterIt sucks enough to begin your life as a throwaway plot point in someone else’s movie. Even Black Panther, during his own brief hello, was gifted a rallying speech and accompanying action set piece that somehow still stood out amidst all the beautiful chaos of Captain America: Civil War. All Captain Marvel got was her name on a beeper. Not even her name, actually, but her symbol, which, of course, is not even really her symbol, but…hmm, I guess somebody should explain. (Not it!) Captain Marvel arrives – following the vastly more assured if not particularly more resonant Captain America: The First Avenger – as the modern day MCU’s second official prequel, with all of the form’s attendant pitfalls and inevitable compromises. And, really, who doesn’t love a prequel right down to their bones? From such humble beginnings, of course, Captain America’s subsequent lead adventures, The Winter Soldier and Civil War, would become cornerstones within the greater MCU, benchmarks in terms of action architecture, storytelling, and character development that would outstrip anything else Marvel could throw at us, including the vaunted Black Panther standalone or the Avengers at their most impressive. As the MCU undergoes a painful but inevitable transition, passing the proverbial torch from its top tier heroes to an ascendant new generation, many of whom were technically dead at press time, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine they intend an Iron Man or Captain America level of prominence for Captain Marvel, whose onscreen debut at least suggests comparable room to grow, with fearsome potential to do so.

The good news then is that Oscar winner Brie Larson (Room, also Kong: Skull Island) is exceptional in the role, unforced and appealing, imbuing the amnesiac alien flamethrower with a damned near perfect balance of levity and gravitas, snark and seriousness, grunge and glamour, soul-searching and ass-kicking. Next woman up in the continuing cavalcade of sublime casting choices that, as much as any single aspect, has been responsible for the MCU’s longevity and overarching success, Larson is so good, in fact, that the steady reveal of her quality in the role actually had an inverse proportional effect on my personal perceptions of the film around her, an oddly grey-gilled enterprise for which she bears the (almost) sole responsibility of holding aloft. The year is 1996, or thereabouts, and on the faraway planet of Hala, nestled in another towering but otherwise nondescript Art Deco cityscape, two proud warriors in molded dark rubber bodysuits spar intensely. These are, we shall soon discover, emissaries of the Kree Empire, a self-aggrandizing, aggressively martial race of blue-skinned, aspiring Alexanders the Great* that tweaked/agitated/plagued greater Marveldom from its galactic periphery for years before spilling over fully into the MCU. Though one is clearly master and the other apprentice, their competition is fierce, approaching even. The mentor barks at his charge to maintain focus and to not let emotion cloud her attack, though at a particularly close moment energy blasts erupt from her fists sufficient to catapult him across the room. All at once, the session is over.

*An interesting bit of trivia as conjecture, strongly suggested though not quite confirmed by “Captain Marvel”, is that the Kree operate within their own cosmetic caste system, with a certain chosen few of the upper crust (at least two) not appearing blue at all but, rather, boasting the hue of a perfectly tanned Caucasian human. Perhaps this is some additional physical manifestation of power, or indication of achievement, though, since the two in question are played by gorgeous California blonde Larson and noted 2000s heartthrob Jude Law, I think sheer prettiness and box office potential are the more likely delineators. There’s surely an official explanation half-buried somewhere in the Kree’s ample lore, but I choose to neither listen nor care in favor of my own hypothesis. Pettiness is universal.

If all Kree had access to such destructive ability, of course, they would step over each other’s corpses to make it so. It’d be a veritable turquoise bloodbath as far as the eye could see. Where did this power come from, then, and why does it seem isolated to one soldier, named “Veers” (Larson), a steely idealist brimming with talent, potential, and a nebulous past riddled with blind spots, outright craters, and dangling loose ends? Eh, we’ll get to that later, kinda. The Kree are currently at war with one of presumably several ancient adversaries in the Skrulls, a race of shadowy shapeshifters infamous for using their talents for disguise as the means of infiltrating and “infesting” unsuspecting worlds. A battlefield mishap while out on patrol (already restless, I admittedly zoned out a bit during this sequence and missed some no doubt fascinating specifics) spirits her across space to primitive planet C-53, known locally as “Earth”, where Veers, who has long been beset by fragmented memories of a seemingly impossible alternate life as a human military test pilot, complete with a surrogate family and second mentor (Annette Bening) who doesn’t alternate yelling at her with smoldering suggestively in the background, finally finds some leads worth pursuing. Veers’ initial misadventures as a superpowered alien adjusting to crude and pushy humanity land her on the radar of nascent law enforcement-adjacent organization S.H.I.E.L.D., who immediately prove powerless to impede her investigations, and a tenacious but scattershot field agent named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, binge drinking from the fountain of CGI-enhanced youth), whom she adopts as a sort of mascot/traveling companion.

Although blessed with a heroine who is effortlessly effervescent even in the moments when she is not literally glowing, Captain Marvel is still only about half as charming in practice as it imagines it is. Without Larson’s indispensable, unifying presence, the movie would not only be an unwieldy mess but a shockingly uninteresting one as well, combining perhaps my two least favorite of all shopworn comic book tropes – the earnest John/Jane Doe type lead with the haunted, hidden past, coupled with extended time spent in drab, bloodless, character-free outer space – into a limp narrative entirely dependent on periodic personality infusions to run. Historically, Marvel has done dependably well with accentuating strengths and camouflaging weaknesses in its more problematic properties. The issue with Captain Marvel is that it only boasts a single significant strength – Larson, confident and luminous in the title role – surrounded but rarely supported by an assortment of dull and/or diluted distractions. Jackson offers an interesting if incongruous, visually perplexing take on the enigmatic S.H.I.E.L.D. leader, playing him as a font of youthful earnestness bordering on naivete.** The mid-1990s period trappings are amusing enough, I suppose, when our otherworldly fish out of water demolishes the Blockbuster Video store in which she first awakens on Earth, but quickly degrade into a bunch of desperately random signifiers (all the archaic technology; the relentless MTV jukebox soundtrack – TLC! No Doubt! Nirvana! – where traditional score would’ve worked better; the prototypical “grunge” ensemble she steals off a department store mannequin – featuring the kind of generic white nine inch nails shirt rarely glimpsed in the wild, fit for inclusion in either a garage sale or high fashion line) with no greater purpose than to distract from the wheel-spinning plot.

**Now that the technology not only exists but is backed up by a movie with a $100 million opening weekend, expect to see more, perhaps much more, of wholly digital Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., in the not-too-distant future. Somewhere, there’s gotta be room for the prequel where he magically transforms from the bumbling do-gooder of “Captain Marvel” to the medium cool, leather jacketed rule breaker whose surprise cameos we’d grow to happily tolerate. I don’t want this movie personally, because the class of ‘96 Fury is such a mixed bag but, having foreseen it, feel I have a responsibility to warn people. Jar Jar Binks never got his “Star Wars” spinoff thanks to a definitive ruling by the audience, but don’t think Lucas wasn’t sorely tempted. Computers can inspire men to try unnatural things.

To any viewers the least bit surprised by Captain Marvel‘s second-act twist – that, after most of a movie’s worth of fumbling with the puzzle of her past, our budding young supernova should find her entire worldview summarily upended and trusted friends betraying her to advance the twin causes of unapologetic hatred and war for its own sake – I offer a shiny new dime in sympathy and appreciation. You’ve obviously seen just as many Marvel movies as she has, while we’ve already established that the MCU itself really digs recycling. Every time I hear mention of the Kree, who have yet to be even a neutral element in any property in which they’ve featured – prolonged exposure to Kree aristocracy at its most noxious was the biggest reason among several the most recent season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was such an ugly slog – I reflexively tense up and await inevitable disappointment. I’m always amused that in exchange for the privilege of watching a prequel, longtime fans are expected to check their wealth of accumulated knowledge at the door. Must everyone in the audience suffer selective amnesia in addition to the heroine? Perhaps if a palpable sense of wonder or discovery was to emerge, the proposed equation wouldn’t seem so one-sided. But, then again, if we were truly witnessing something new here (and not just in the welcome sense of the MCU’s first ever unstoppable female lead***, or the strange spectacle of de-aged Nick Fury stripped of much of his world-weary swagger), we probably wouldn’t mind suspending disbelief as much.

***Yes, yes, Scarlet Witch would like a word…or would if she wasn’t (temporarily) dead.

The first half of Captain Marvel is no sort of spellbinding mystery, more a glimpse at an uninspiring alien culture followed by an excuse to loiter/meander in the embarrassingly recent past. Thankfully, once the Captain discovers both who she is and isn’t, redirects her priorities, and sets to work exploring the awesome scope of her Endgame-changing powers, dispatching shock troops by the glowing handful and beating back an invading space armada like a little kid gleefully demolishing a fleet of squeaky bath toys, Captain Marvel becomes a steadily increasing lot of fun. As the Skrull leader, Ben Mendelsohn reveals unexpected depth and humor, while Lashana Lynch and young Akira Akbar provide dramatic grounding as the keys to Veers’ past on Earth. For all my quibbles, Jackson does entirely okay by a tricky role, though he’s upstaged early and often by a deceptively cuddly cat, and it’s always a treat to see Clark Gregg pop up on the big screen as S.H.I.E.L.D. number two Phil Coulsen. I’ll never get used to the convention – like Neo in The Matrix or Rey in The Force Awakens – of the hero coming into sudden full possession of their gift and immediately being able to expertly wield it like a fifty-pound razor scythe decimating a wheatfield at harvest, but, in the process of retconning the MCU to introduce a heretofore conspicuously unmentioned ringer just in time for Avengers: Endgame, this new Captain is being couched as something special, and I suppose it would be a disappointment to see her in any lesser light. This is a good, not great, introduction, but there’s greatness in the offing. I would definitely want her on my side. I do hope everything works out against Thanos, both for the MCU and, by extension, for figurative life everywhere. I’ve become pretty attached to at least one of them.

“Captain Marvel” (2019) 2.5/4 stars                                                                                       dae2.5

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