Captain MarvelReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/06/19 03:00:51
(Worth A Look)
Having sat through pretty much every superhero saga that has hit the big screen over the last couple of decades—it is hard to imagine that there was once a time when such films were few and far-between—I have come to realize that, at least to my eye, most examples of this particular genre tend to fall into one of three categories from a quality perspective. There are the undeniably good-to-great ones that offer thrills, laughs and excitement even to those viewers with no real prior knowledge of the comic books that they came from—films like the original “Superman,” the Christopher Nolan Batman films and such recent triumphs as “Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” There are the one that are noisy, nonsensical duds that offer viewers nothing more than the sight of oddly costumed people whomping the crap out of each other while some form of CGI armageddon rages around them—I won’t list any specific examples but as I am not one especially partial to the genre as a whole, my list is probably a lot longer than yours. Finally, there are the ones that may not be particularly great but which contain an element or two that is so genuinely inspired that one shudders to think of what it might have been like without it—the casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker in “Batman” and of Robert Downey Jr. as “Iron Man” are perfect examples of this. After all the [i]sturm und drang[/i] surrounding its production over the last few months, largely inspired incel twerps waxing wroth over the very notion that those female-type people that terrify them so might actually deserve a place at the pop culture table, it seems a little odd to report that the highly anticipated “Captain Marvel” also falls into the latter category. The movie as a whole is nothing particularly special—it is okay but there is little to it that you haven’t seen before—but there are a couple of things it has going for it, chiefly the presence of Brie Larson in the title role, that keep it moving along and have you leaving the theater thinking that it is better and more satisfying than it really is.Part of my problem with films of this sort in general is that while I am reasonably familiar with the backstories and details of such undeniably A-list superheroes as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, my lack of knowledge of comic book lore tends to leave me more than a little bewildered and confused as I try to retain who has what powers and who is fighting who and why. (This has become even more problematic as the ever-expanding MCU now rival the average Russian novel in terms of the number of characters and plot threads, all of which viewers are supposed to recall with absolute clarity at every given moment, no matter how obscure.) During the opening scenes of “Captain Marvel,” in which we see Vers, as our hero is initially known, going through her daily routine on the distant planet of Kree—training with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her mentor and commander of her elite Starforce battle unit who tries to teach her how to use her evidently astounding powers, conversing with the Supreme Intelligence of Kree (represented by Annette Bening) and preparing for battle against the fearsome shape-shifting Skrulls, I was pretty much baffled by it all but was soon relieved by the fact that Vers seemed to share my confusion with it all. It transpires that is haunted by fragments of memories that turn up in her dreams that she cannot understand or explain that suggest that she has been more than just a Kree warrior. In other words, she is all-powerful but has no real idea of who she actually is.
After a battle with Skrulls goes sideways and Vers is captured, she has some more memories jogged and the new information leads her to take off to a strange and distant world—okay, Earth circa early 1995—to seek out Dr Lawson, a scientist who may hold some key information into Vers’s past and who has evidently developed a new light speed engine that could tip the Kree-Skrull battle to whomever possesses it. No sooner has she landed, complete with a phalanx of Skrull soldiers in pursuit of the same technology, that she makes the acquaintance of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), a mid-level agent at a new government task force known as S.H.I.E.L.D. who naturally does not believe a word of what Vers is saying until he ends up with a dead Skrull in his car. Together, they begin to investigate and discover, of course, that Vers is really Carol Danvers, a military pilot who was part of an incident involving Lawson and the engine that inadvertently made her one of the most powerful beings in the universe. With the help of Fury, former fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and a couple of unexpected additions, including Goose, a cat who seems to turn up everywhere it is needed, Carol takes to the skies to retrieve the top-secret power source that everyone is looking for, right some of the wrongs that she inadvertently committed in the past and, perhaps most importantly, set up her presumed return to save the day in a couple of months in the next “Avengers” movie.
As I was watching “Captain Marvel,” I couldn’t help but think that if it had come out a few years ago, when it seemed as if every single superhero movie was hell-bent on telling the same damn story over and over again, I might have liked it a little more thanks to the various changes and deviations that it adds to the standard narrative template. However, in the wake of such genuinely smart and creative recent takes on the format as “Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” a film of this type really needs to bring something unique to the table in order to stand out and “Captain Marvel” never quite pulls that off. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose previous efforts have included the acclaimed indie dramas “Half Nelson,” “Sugar” and “Mississippi Grind,” are certainly unusual choices to co-direct and co-write (along with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) a film of this size and scope but they are not entirely up to the challenge. They keep things moving along briskly enough but without any of the sense of individual personality or style that filmmakers like Patty Jenkins and Ryan Coogler brought to their films—when the largely perfunctory action beats kick in here, you can practically hear Boden and Fleck leaving the set while the second-unit crew takes their places. Their screenplay is also a bit of a disappointment as well—it is never quite as clever or surprising as it clearly thinks it is and even those who are complete comic-book illiterates will probably figure out most of the allegedly surprising plot twists. Another problem with the film is that while there are a lot of good actors in the cast, most of them are either completely wasted (Djmon Hounsou and Gemma Chang, one of the big breakout stars from “Crazy Rich Asians,” are among Vers’s fellow Starforce soldiers but are pretty much thrown away), simply going through the motions (Jackson, whose performance is more notable for the CGI de-aging treatment used to make him look 25 years younger than by anything he does) or, in the case of Bening and Law, demonstrate that the ability to wear goofy outfits and spout goofier dialogue without looking stiff and uncomfortable is a skill that not all actors, not even ones as good as they are, possess. (Both are pretty much on the level of Natalie Portman in both the “Star Wars” and “Thor” movies.)
That inability to assume a role in a film like this without coming across as a very uncomfortable guest at a costume party is not a problem that Brie Larson has, on the other hand, and it is her performance and presence that brings “Captain Marvel” to life and helps it through its wobblier moments. At first glance, the notion of a gifted young performer who is already in possession of a Best Actress Oscar turning up in the kind of jumbo-sized spectacle where demonstrations of nuanced acting chops usually don’t factor too heavily as part of the creative process may seem either patently absurd or slightly depressing. And yet, she is entirely winning and supremely entertaining throughout, bringing to this film roughly the same shot of pure personality that Robert Downey Jr. brought to the first “Iron Man” and that Gal Gadot lent to “Wonder Woman.” The key to her performance is that you never get a sense that she feels any sort of condescension to the role or is approaching it as anything more than a potential annuity that, if all goes well, could earn her hefty paychecks for the next few years. Instead, she genuinely sells her character as she makes her evolution from Vers back to Carol Danvers and then on to Captain Marvel, both in terms of the overt heroics and the emotional beats that she hits along the way. More importantly, she is clearly having fun with it as well—while many good actors might come across as self-conscious while swinging from elevated trains or punching aliens in the face, she instead projects a sense of genuine joy and fun that you can’t help but respond to even when the surrounding proceedings threaten to get a little too silly for their own.In the ranks of MCU (of which this is, dear God, the 21st), “Captain Marvel” would probably rank somewhere towards the middle but even though it never hits the heights of a genuinely knockout film like “Black Panther,” it still has enough things going for it to rate a recommendation—it moves quickly and avoids the bloated running time that has plagued many of these films, it has some nice bits of humor sprinkled throughout (with the biggest laughs going to Goose and what may be the most inspired Stan Lee cameo to date) and, most importantly, the strong and entertaining Brie Larson performance. If it is not a complete triumph, it is nowhere near the flop that the whinier fanboy contingent seemed to be inexplicably hoping it would be. I don’t know if I would ever voluntarily sit through it again in this lifetime but when I was watching it, I had a reasonably decent time. Now that they have gotten all the introductory stuff out of the way, perhaps future “Captain Marvel” films—and you know they are coming—will live up to the promise inspired by Larson’s performance. After all, how many times at bat did it take before Thor fully clicked as a movie character?
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|