Captain Marvel (2019)

Avengers: Infinity War had an ending that shocked many Marvel fans - well, at least those who don't read the comic books.  The fight against the Mad Titan Thanos doesn't turn out too well, and half of the sentient beings in the universe are wiped out, turning to dust and blowing away in the wind.  This includes Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who manages to use an old-fashioned beeper to get a message out to someone right before he succumbs.

While for once it appears that Avengers: Endgame was already in production, with story and filming  in progress to finally tie up the entire Infinity Stone story arc, it was decided that we needed a detour.  That detour happened to be back to 1995, where Fury first meets an alien from the planet Hala, home of a warrior race called the Kree. 

In reality, Marvel realized that Wonder Woman made a ton of money, and decided that they suddenly needed a female heroine - conveniently forgetting they already had a thoroughly strong woman in Natasha Romanov.  While it looks like we are finally going to get a solo movie for Black Widow in the near future, the powers that be decided to dredge up one of their least popular characters - Captain Marvel.

The only reason Captain Marvel exists in comic books is because Marvel got mad that their rival, DC, came up with a character of the same name.  Thus, DC's Captain Marvel soon became Shazam, who, consequently, got his own movie in 2019 as well.  The deal was that Captain Marvel would have to appear in comic books for Marvel to retain the rights; therefore the character pops up in limited runs every now and then. Even then the character doesn't remain the same person.  Mar-Vell was originally a guy from Kree, while Carol Danvers inherited her powers from a DNA transfer from him, and eventually another woman by the name of Monica Rambeau took on the mantle for a while.  For the movie, though, we get a more simplified version, and Marvel made sure they doubled down on peddling the girl power - and almost sabotaged the film in the process.

Vers (Brie Larson) is a Kree with special powers - she is able to shoot photon bolts from her hands.  Despite her power, her commander and mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) does what he can to keep her power in control.  Still, she is one of the strongest of his soldiers, and one of the most loyal in helping the Kree with their ongoing war against the Skrulls, a goblin-like race of beings with shape-shifting capabilities.  The Skrulls happen to be aware of her as well, and manage to capture her while on a mission.

The thing is that Vers can only remember six years back, although she is starting to have dreams and different flashes.  Due to the efforts of Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of the Skrulls, to extract memories from her regarding a light-speed drive that can give them an advantage in the war, the memories become clearer.  It turns out the woman she sees in her dreams is a Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning), and both the Kree and the Skulls are after her invention.  The conflict leaves Vers stranded on Earth, where she soon teams up with Nick Fury and discovers that her universe is not exactly as she expected.

Captain Marvel is largely a slight and entertaining stopgap movie, largely meant to introduce a deus ex machina character in a way where viewers won't cry foul when she suddenly shows up to help undo Thanos's Snap.  That was largely the one thing that robbed Avengers: Infinity War of the emotional impact with its ending, was knowing that something would be done to reverse everything, even if that what remained a mystery.  Captain Marvel has the usual problem with lacking a strong, central villain, but at least it doesn't pile on cameo appearances, and the pace keeps the proceedings from getting stale.  It is also nice that we don't go through the same tired origin story routine.  We find out how Vers got her powers, but at a point in the movie where it makes sense, and at a key point where it changes the film's direction. 

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck certainly make a good portion of the movie look good, not getting lost in desaturation and filters like most of these films are guilty of.  Most of the special effects work, with the exception of the scene with the cat during acceleration and the fact that the de-aging on Samuel L. Jackson sometimes makes him look like he's wearing a mask made out of Play-Do.  Disney and Marvel could have used the effects team from The Irishman. A fair amount of the humor works, and some of it could have worked better of Brie Larson was better at delivering dialogue.

Unfortunately, its star is the main stumbling block for the movie.  From the original trailer it was obvious that she may not be the greatest choice for the role.  She has a vacant stare and stilted, California-inflected speech pattern.  She may have won an Oscar, but it is hard to tell for what as she walks through the proceedings barely changing expression or emoting.  The role, especially after her true powers are realized, is flying so close to Mary Sue territory that it was important to pull the character back into more believable territory, and Larson ultimately fails.

This leaves Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn to largely carry the movie, which they do wonderfully.  Talos has much more dimension to him than Vers, while it is nice to see Nick Fury get to do something other than sit behind the scenes.  The thing is, that is not supposed to be the way this movie works; it is supposed to focus on the strong female characters and, to that end, Lashana Lynch as former test pilot Marie Rambeau (Monica, in the movie, being her daughter) is much more interesting a character.  For that matter, Akira Akbar as Monica is more interesting.  Too bad they are supporting characters as, even though it is certain some trolls would have screamed themselves hoarse, if they wanted to truly push a strong female character there would have been no harm in making her a person of color as well.

This lack of inhabiting the character was pointed out early on and, instead of taking the criticism to heart and maybe considering coaxing a better performance from her in the future, both Marvel and Larson doubled down.  Unfortunately, this also got tied up in comments made about negative reviews of a movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time as well as criticisms about movie reviewers being, in the majority, white and male.  All this got jumbled up into causing a backlash which Disney almost failed to quell before the film even hit the theaters, though by most accounts it wasn't anywhere near a messy or troubled production as many other films at the time. 

Truth is, the movie still became a hit despite any controversy, deserved or not.  It would have been strange if it did not given that Marvel was dominating the box office in 2019 and seemed to be the only mega-budget series that was doing so, as even the Star Wars saga had begun to falter. 

I had some definite criticisms when it came to Wonder Woman, and it largely had to do with the typical way in which most DC films are made, but this is one of the few places in which DC wins.  While some people got upset about female-only showings at Alamo Drafthouse theaters, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins was more concerned with giving the character a good movie to inhabit, and Gal Gadot manages to do the role the justice it deserves.  Marvel instead went the full pandering route rather than releasing the film on its merits, making it clear that there was a woman director, woman screenwriter and releasing the movie on International Women's Day.  In the end, it seems like overkill to cover up the fact that their keystone female character didn't live up to expectations.

Ironically, the time period that the movie is set in contained strong female characters in movies, but didn't feel the need to announce it with fanfare and in smug, self-congratulatory ways.  The press definitely noticed, as did audiences, and no longer were leading dramatic and action roles limited to men.  The change, like with the blaxploitation films of the '70s, came about without outside forces.  Nothing is going to fix Brie Larson's mediocre performance, but Captain Marvel itself is still a solidly enjoyable film despite its flaws, and in truth it deserved to become a hit as a companion piece to the two Avengers movies that bookended it.  It is only too bad that arrived with so much baggage.

Captain Marvel (2019)
Time: 123 minutes
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Lashana Lynch, Annette Benning
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck


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