Sunday, March 10, 2019

Super-Empowered - Captain Marvel, Reviewed

So, lemme tell y'all the problem with Marvel movies:
  • Too many of them are origin stories
  • Origin stories are okay except when they are so similar
  • They are all about white guys, (except one black guy and another fella who's green half the time)
  • The villains tend to suck
Happily, Captain Marvel has precisely none of these problems and is a well-paced adventure film topped off with genuine emotional resonance to boot. (And that isn't even counting the two very sweet tributes to Stan Lee in there.)

Very few people outside of comics knew about either Captain Marvel or her alter ego Carol Danvers until Kevin Feige and co. greenlit this film a while back. Even within nerdy subcultures, I am sure there are plenty who think she appeared in the comics only six or seven years ago. Ms. Danvers' lineage actually dates back to the '60s, appearing as an unpowered USAF officer who encounters the secret identity of the original Captain Marvel. Later on, through an origin story that is ambiguous and contrived even by comics standards, she is imbued with alien powers and becomes Ms. Marvel.

She carries this role through a couple of frankly embarrassing and sexist costumes before having her powers stolen by Rogue (who eventually joins the X-Men), then getting new powers from Galactus and becoming his new herald, Binary. That power set eventually diminished and she became Ms. Marvel once again, but later adopted the name Warbird, before reverting to Ms. Marvel once again.

In 2012, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick took the character back to her air force roots and Kree-linked power set, taking the name Captain Marvel because, well, why not?

I mention all this just so you don't think that maybe this film was some sort of cookie cutter adaptation. The very first thing the writers did (and there were five of them, so I am amazed that the film is actually coherent, let alone good) was deconstruct the origin one more time, and wrap it up in a mystery. This time, the hero doesn't need to learn humility, they need to learn who they are and where they came from. Using the canonical origin for inspiration only allowed co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck to unravel the backstory in a satisfying manner that could still surprise those of us who had a pull file at a comics shop in our formative years.

Set in the mid-90s, much of Captain Marvel plays like a buddy-cop movie from the period. This movie would go nowhere without the considerable chemistry between Sam Jackson's Nick Fury and Brie Larson's titular Captain, known only as "Vers" (pronounced "Veers").

Vers believes herself to be a member of the Kree, one of Marvel's longest established alien empires, but they waste very little time on fish out of water humour. To a member of an elite military unit called Star Force, Earth - sorry, planet C-53 - is not exotic or offputting so much as a boring backwater, or as one of her comrades calls it, "a real shithole." Brie Larson plays the character pitch perfect - unwaveringly confident in her missions to defeat the shapeshifting Skrulls, even as she deals with the dreams that hint about her true identity.

Samuel L. Jackson, on the other hand, turns in a brilliant performance as a younger version of a character he's played since the end credits scene in the very first Iron Man movie. Yes, the VFX that so seamlessly depict him as nearly a quarter-century younger version of himself are impressive, but conveying a slightly less cynical, less jaded version of the MCU's lynchpin? That is all Samuel L. my friends.

On the villain front, Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) lets us hear his natural Australian accent for once as the Skrull leader Talos, which I found delightful. He is a cunning and brutal opponent, but not necessarily completely ruthless, and unlike so many MCU villains, his motivations are actually relatable. He is also funny, which is a characteristic I appreciate in my bad guys.

I suppose Captain Marvel is a lot like most of the other Marvel movies in some ways: it keeps things moving at a brisk pace and the action set pieces are creative, thrilling and well executed.  Most importantly, it balances off the emotional pathos of scenes like Carol Danvers meeting her best friend six years after being presumed dead with liberal amounts of jokes and subverted expectations. The best of these is watching Nick Fury making cutesy baby-talk towards a cat through a number of scenes, but there are others, to be sure. An not once does it require a stupid person to advance the plot, which is good, because I was looking for them and never saw a one of them.

And the fan service! The (eventual costume) is pitch perfect. They bring back Ronan the Accuser and Korath the Pursuer from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. They find a way to depict the Kree Supreme Intelligence that vastly improves upon the original blobby wirehead from the comics, giving it almost spiritual gravitas at the same time. They reference a quadjet, an obvious precursor to the S.H.I.E.L.D. quinjet introduced in The Avengers. And we get to see a young Phil Coulson, the "new guy." Building a history and backstory for the MCU is a great added feature of this movie.

Because it features a woman in a role and space that in cinema has normally been exclusively male up until recently, it is inevitable that Captain Marvel will be characterized as a feminist movie. And you know what, that's okay because I think they do it right. I was so wrapped up in the story, I didn't take any particular note of just when they passed the Bechdel Test, and the movie isn't festooned with dudes talking down to Vers because of her gender. As an ersatz alien, she doesn't realize the obstacles placed before her (or the fact that she should apparently smile more for males), so Brie Larson can focus on making her the troubled ass-kicker she was meant to be. And this may have the added effect of making the girls who see it feel not only a bit more represented but even inspired, and that is nothing but a good thing.

But for those of us who had already figured out that there is no earthly (or unearthly, I suppose) reason for women not to be at the center of a big-budget, sci-fi-action movie comic book adaptation? There's no polemic here, just a vastly entertaining movie.

Which is good, because with two daughters in tow, I felt obliged to buy a couple of the deluxe metal popcorn buckets before we even sat down.

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