Samuel L. Jackson
2 Hrs., 4 Mins.
Captain Marvel March 21, 2019
s the first Marvel film to be headed by a woman, Captain Marvel (2019) marks a major step forward for the male-dominated superhero-movie genre. Though we still have a long way to go to achieve representational gender equality in Marvel — the current ratio of male-to-female-headlined comic-book features is still nigglingly geared more toward the left — it’s nonetheless a thrill to witness this long-delayed progress. As
efforts to make inclusion and diversity in mainstream American cinema a reality rather than a conversation piece, the superhero movie is, given its accessibility and cultural influence, a high-visibility indicator of the changes to come.
Aside from its landmark casting, though, Captain Marvel, a 1990s-set origin story, is a rote exercise in a now-21-part series that has, more and more, proved itself rather unimaginative when it comes to introducing a new hero to add to its main Avengers mix. Directed by the indie-movie bigwigs Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the film is totally perfunctory — a sometimes-charming feature whose best characteristics are bogged down by languorous action and CGI spectacle.
We never know the title character as Captain Marvel; the name's alluded to but never actually uttered in the movie. She's instead first presented to us as Vers (Brie Larson), an intergalactic soldier who, as the film opens, battles on behalf of the Kree, an alien race.
Vers is an amnesiac. Six years ago, she was taken in by the Kree, her memory blank, and was made to work for them. She sees bits and pieces of her past life in flashes, with the most consistent being an image of her, on the battlefield, bleeding blue while an apparent superior (Annette Bening) looks on.
Like all movies starring an amnesiac, a big portion of Captain Marvel is dedicated to Vers (pronounced “Veers”) getting reacquainted with the life she’s forgotten. For her, the process begins when she crash lands on Earth — specifically in a Blockbuster video in a strip mall in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1995 — amidst a battle with the Skrulls, a shape-shifting class of aliens who are also the utmost enemy of the Kree. Her bombastic arrival will not be a come-and-go affair. Shortly after her “entrance," she attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson (digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg), who are at first wary of her but then align themselves when it becomes clear that neither she nor the Skrulls are not exactly who they appear to be.
Rediscovery is a major element in Captain Marvel, but it is rendered without urgency or much depth. Vers (whom we later discover is actually an erstwhile Air-Force test pilot named Carol Danvers) lacks the emotional depth that would make the process involving. She shuttles between winsome pluckiness, anger, and disbelief. All the descriptors are in service to the plot, whether she be in the midst of a wry exchange or one party against a throng of attackers in a battle sequence. Never, though, does she appear fully formed. The movie is so shackled to its narrative — which leans on the convoluted side of things but is nonetheless important for featuring details that will be important down the road — that it doesn’t prioritize building characters as tactile as the worlds depicted.
Of the worlds highlighted in Captain Marvel, the one in which Boden and Fleck have most vested interest is 1995 Los Angeles. You can tell that they get a kick out of throwing in cute details, like clockwork, to remind us of the era in which the feature takes place. The Blockbuster into which Carol crashes prominently features a display promoting the 1994 action movie True Lies. Carol at one point makes a call in a phone booth, which sits in front of a wall covered in posters advertising the most recent PJ Harvey and The Breeders albums. One of Carol’s primary outfits is a leather jacket, a white Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, a pair of acid-washed jeans, and a flannel wrapped around her waist; stereos blast “Whatta Man” by Salt ’N’ Peppa and “Connection” by Elastica. The film’s closing credits are set to Hole’s “Celebrity Skin”; Jackson’s Fury, who is, as ever, a charmer, invokes grunge at least once.
These references, though, tend to be so vulgarly commercial and on the nose — a climactic fight scene, for example, is complemented by No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” and a crucial meeting with an intergalactic entity called the Supreme Intelligence (also played by Bening) commences just as Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” starts playing — that some of the joy is lost. This is a VH1, Tumblr-feed version of the 1990s made to please. Seen is something that comes across like a commercial for a vacation package you can’t afford but wish you could.
Action sequences — the superhero-movie staple that has grown to be its most monotonous as of late — are generally mechanical. The visuals, though sometimes evocative of the lovably cheapish look of the ‘90s-era big-budget crowdpleaser, are bland. Marvel has a predilection for bringing in directors who are acclaimed on the indie circuit, from Ryan Coogler to Taika Waititi, to helm introductory features as a way to, I think, freshen up the standard formula. Whether directorial voices are squashed by the weight of the genre’s limitations have varied. The latter-mentioned filmmakers, for instance, were able to keep what we loved about them before they became part of the Marvel machine intact, and funnel what made them unique directorial voices into a mammoth of a product.
Boden and Fleck (2006’s Half Nelson and 2015’s Mississippi Grind) get a bit lost in the shuffle. In scenes comprising unvarnished exchanges of dialogue they co-wrote — usually involving Larson and Jackson or Larson and Lashana Lynch, who plays Carol’s best friend before the Kree brain-washing, Maria Rambeau — the feature momentarily becomes alive. The filmmakers have a knack for generating easygoing, witty dialogue that can switch from playful to from-the-heart with panache. The early moments when Larson and Jackson are sizing each other up teeter on the electric, and are my favorite aspect of the movie. (Aside from a supporting-player pet cat named Goose who lunches on far more than Friskies.) But when the film is made to go through the motions of typical superhero lore, Boden's and Fleck's voices don’t shine through.
Captain Marvel never quite finds its footing. But consistently excellent is Larson, who makes this insubstantially written character feel like more than the sum of her parts. Larson, who has received much vexing, misogynistic online pushback for her part in the movie, is the rare sort of actor who can make underwritten material sing as long as the character has a discernible core. Boden and Fleck’s version of Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel cannot much function when not working in tandem with the narrative, but Larson is so good in the role that she manages to pick up the pieces to create someone we can easily root for. She’s a spark in a movie that has a difficult time going alight — marvelous in a movie that, while more than capable of getting the vague “job” done, definitively is not. C+