JFR 031 | Captain Marvel (2019)
Updated: Dec 24, 2021
At the risk of blatant hyperbole, there is something potentially rather iconic about the hero of this story crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster Video store circa 1995. In a manner similar to the way in which J.J. Abrams intended to recreate the magic of early Spielberg in his homage to urban sci-fi Super 8 (2011), in Captain Marvel (2019), directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have some knowing fun with the tropes and conventions of 1990s action cinema. They have aimed to emulate and capture the visceral, ground-breaking action filmmaking the likes of James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Bay (untainted by Transformers (2007) shenanigans) excelled at during the 1990s. While not a ground-breaking film in and of itself, much of Captain Marvel nevertheless acts as a love letter to those pivotal action films that defined much early-to-mid 90s pop culture.
Crashing through the roof of Blockbuster Video is key to the film firmly setting out its stall. Blowing the cardboard head off Arnold Schwarzenegger on an advertising display for True Lies (1994) in the window is another. A tacit nod to the ‘clothes, boots and motorcycle’ scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) cements the deal. These moments, far from being derivative or even nostalgic, come across as an affectionate salute to a unique era, and delight in making any 90s action movie buff gleefully revert into their 13-year-old self. The time portal also goes back even further, briefly referencing The Right Stuff (1983) and, perhaps most obviously, Top Gun (1986). (There were moments when I felt the film should have been called ‘Cap Gun’, but mainly for my own amusement). However, Captain Marvel as a time portal is never more potent than in the appearance of a younger, ‘hold-onto-your-butts’-era Samuel L. Jackson – reprising his role as (future) director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. Boden and Fleck’s use of ‘de-aging’ visual effects on both Jackson and Clark Gregg (returning as Phil Coulson, last seen in the cinematic universe in The Avengers (2012)) is flawless. It is a credit to the skill of the visual effects team that you don’t sit there for the whole film marvelling (no pun intended) at the skill of the visual effects team. In other words: job done.
Brie Larson plays the title character, initially known as Vers of Starforce. She is strong-willed, often letting her heart rule her head, something which her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) warns her against. She cannot remember her past, but experiences frequent flashbacks of a mysterious woman (Annette Bening), and has burgeoning powers that she does not yet know the extent of. It is intriguing to meet a superhero who has already attained their powers. Although Captain Marvel doesn’t quite commit to a reverse chronology structure, there are enough back and forth narrative twists to create a satisfying amount of mystery. Gradually the cosmic jigsaw begins to slot into place, as Vers is captured and then pursued across mid-90s Los Angeles by the shape shifting alien race, the Skrulls, led by Ben Mendelsohn's marvellous Talos. Upon reacquainting herself with an old friend, Maria Rambeau (a stoic and sympathetic turn from English actress Lashana Lynch), fragments of her previous life begin to coalesce, piecing together her history. It remains for her to establish her place in the future, which is perhaps symbolic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) itself. With Avengers: Endgame (2019) on the horizon – the cinematic equivalent of the Book of Revelation with regard to the fate of the current crop of Avengers – there is an element of ‘where do they go from here?’ Is Captain Marvel, the character, strong enough to ride the wave and lead the charge into the next chapter of the MCU?
In all honesty, Captain Marvel as a character does not have the immediacy of some of her fellow Avengers. This is not because of Larson. On the contrary, she has charisma and does an excellent job of balancing humour and humanity. The camaraderie and chemistry between Larson and Jackson is magnificently entertaining and an inarguable strength of the film. But there is something amusingly a little off-centre when your main character is regularly upstaged by a cat. A beautiful ginger cat called Goose, no less (another Top Gun reference?) If Netflix weren’t cutting their ties with Marvel, I would have expected ‘Goose and Friends’ (as a friend of mine has rather accurately referred to the film) to have been next in line as a sure-fire hit series. But alas, it is not to be.
Captain Marvel may not be the film crushed under the most weight of expectation in the MCU in 2019; that honour undoubtedly rests with Avengers: Endgame. However, it comes very close, being as it introduces a new, prominent figure in the seemingly unstoppable, ongoing superhero franchise. It skirts around the issue of not having introduced the character earlier in the series by, arguably, just acting as if the other 20 films don’t exist. It sits alongside Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) as a prequel of sorts to the whole saga. This serves it well but ultimately, on first viewing, it doesn’t feel like a particularly standout Marvel film. It admirably does not take itself too seriously, but it may well be too preoccupied with establishing the main character’s standing in the MCU as a whole. On that note, we do know that Captain Marvel will appear in Endgame – and one suspects the remaining Avengers, having saved the universe on numerous occasions without her thus far, will be asking the understandable question: “where have you been all our lives?”
In our brave new world of bifurcated ideologies and instantaneous communication, it is folly in the extreme for an instrument of entertainment to allow itself to get bogged down in political and social turmoil. This is precisely the fate that has befallen Captain Marvel (2019). The need for certain parties to see their supposedly progressive views entrenched in cinema (the irresistible force) has clashed with the rampant paranoia of those who feel threatened by the winds of change (the immovable object), with us ordinary, film loving folk left standing betwixt and between; exasperated to the point of bewilderment, and wondering why every single conversation has now become a blood-soaked battlefield. Adding to this sense of dread is the startling arrogance of Hollywood millionaire Brie Larson, who under the pretence of addressing issues of representation in the media, decided to attack those who dare to question the quality of a motion picture, purely because she does not approve of the colour of their skin.
Such pronounced stupidity earned her the condemnation of fans and her peers alike. Disney - doubtless mindful of the damage done to both Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), after socially-minded sorts attempted to impose their ideology on an established franchise - interceded, and Brie Larson was strongly advised to choose her words more carefully in the future. This unedifying spectacle was, in truth, one of several controversies afflicting the build-up to the film’s release. Speculation concerning the conduct of the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and the credibility (or lack thereof) of many of the pre-release reviews and commentaries, has enflamed the fanbase and mired Captain Marvel in needless partisanship; overshadowing what should’ve been a triumphant moment, as the keys to the MCU are handed over to the next generation with a young, independent and powerful woman taking centre stage.
Instead, identity politics has once again been allowed to force its ugly self upon the twin pillars of entertainment and escapism; the ultimate consequences of which are still to be determined. Why has this happened? I can’t answer that question here, or rather, I choose to look beyond it. Janus Film Review is in the business of discussing, celebrating, and if necessary, criticising the art of filmmaking. Regarding Captain Marvel, a little background context is sadly necessary, for controversy is the proverbial elephant in the room. With that now done, it is time to say bollocks to the politics, and ask the only question that matters to us: Is Captain Marvel a good film?
The beginning of Captain Marvel is something of an intriguing muddle. We meet Vers, the film’s pre-Captain incarnation of Ms. Marvel, a prodigiously gifted soldier within the ranks of Starforce; an elite military unit serving at the pleasure of the Kree Empire. Vers in dogged by recurring amnesiac dreams-come-nightmares. Under the guidance of her commander and mentor Yon-Rogg (a predictably slick Jude Law), she seeks counsel from the Supreme Intelligence - the A.I. leader of Kree society - who advises her to close her mind to distractions and focus on her mission, lest her latent powers render emotional control impossible. The Intelligence plumps for a rather bizarre way to encourage this, choosing as it does to take on the personalised form of a lady present in Vers’ dreams (Annette Bening). Vers proceeds on a mission to infiltrate an enclave of the Kree’s enemy, the shapeshifting Skrulls. She is betrayed and captured, and seemingly tortured for information by the leader of the Skrulls, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). During this process we witness Vers in a different context, as a human being with memories of a life on Earth.
She was a daughter, a loyal friend and most importantly of all, a consummate Top Gun tribute act. After escaping from her captors and literally plummeting to Earth, she awakes to find herself in mid-1990s America, and with questions that very much need answering. One of the abiding traits of this film is its total dedication to pop culture referencing. Such deliberate (if unsubtle) attention to detail is a hallmark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the use of a Blockbuster Video store as Vers’ personal landing pad - as witnessed in the trailers - telegraphs this. We are immediately bombarded with purposefully chosen, period-based iconography. Dreary cars; clunky pagers; corded phones; boxy and slow computers; grunge clothing; nondescript haircuts: all present and correct. Than there’s the music, with the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, Garbage and Nirvana all finding themselves name-checked within an appropriately enjoyable soundtrack.
If the initial stages of Vers’ journey were indistinct, the desired vividness is soon acquired once we reach Earth. Captain Marvel relies heavily on the MCU’s tried and trusted bevy of absurdities and plot contrivances, with one such scenario resulting in Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury - filtered through the prism of Jules from Pulp Fiction (1994) - joining Vers on a mostly entertaining road odyssey, that is the meat in the Captain Marvel-shaped sandwich. Jackson - flawlessly de-aged by the wonders of digital technology - is permitted to dispense with Fury’s established glowering and dramatic entrances, and delivers a performance that is effective in its humour and curiosity. He also stands as a winning foil for the ultra-serious Vers, who slowly begins to thaw the closer we get to unravelling the mystery of Carol Danvers.
It soon becomes clear that there is, in the words of Transformers fans everywhere, more than meets the eye to Vers and her previously discussed powers. Ultimately arriving in Louisiana, we are introduced to retired fighter pilot Maria Rambeau (an affecting Lashana Lynch) and her tenacious daughter Monica, both of whom claim a strong, lasting bond of friendship with the person they knew as Carol Danvers. They claim Carol was herself a celebrated fighter ace, presumed lost in a crash six years previously, that also claimed the life of the sponsor of their classified program, Dr. Wendy Lawson. Dr. Lawson - the lady who has been haunting Danvers’ dreams - is played in all her various guises by an immaculate Annette Bening. A star of Bening’s calibre isn’t tested by what is a small (if consequential) role, but her presence lends heft to the presentation of the story. The overall plot is an intermittently effective exercise in misdirection. The revelation of Vers’ true existence is capably achieved and emotionally rewarding, but her inevitable attainment of the mantle of ‘Captain Marvel’ feels underwhelming.
Brie Larson is presented with the admittedly complex task of beginning the story as one character and transitioning, step-by-step, into a cosmic superheroine. She is granted clear narrative hurdles to overcome, in the form of her amnesia, shifting allegiances and the artificial limits of her power, but such fundamental intent is weakened both by the the ultimate predictability of the character, and Larson’s own shortcomings. I mentioned previously that her characterisation was somewhat ‘cold’. That is an understatement: she has all the warmth of a blizzard. Larson seems wilfully incapable of emoting, lacks charisma and only smiles when under extreme duress. The Nick Fury character is reduced to unbecoming buffoonery, in order to offset Larson’s total inability to disengage her ‘I’m a badass, hear me roar’ demeanour. Some might argue that she is adhering to the principles of her initial visage, in trying to remain controlled and detached. If that’s true, why is the man playing the character who dispensed that advice - Jude Law - still able to project charm, wit and humanity from within his own humourless persona?
As the ‘true’ Captain Marvel was born before my eyes (having been previously ‘exploded’ into existence) I felt very little satisfaction. The journey has its moments, but they are frustratingly few in number. Though the scope of her gifts is extraordinary, the longed-for orgasmic outpouring of power is, when it finally comes, something of an anticlimax, and no amount of cute Guardians of the Galaxy references - in the form of Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser and Djimon Hounsou’s Korath; both of whom are criminally underused - can paper over this chasmic crack. Carol Danvers is allegedly replacing Tony Stark as the figurehead of the MCU, post Avengers: Endgame (2019). On the evidence of Brie Larson’s first crack of the MCU whip, this is a mildly disturbing notion. Setting such fears aside for a moment though, I wish to acknowledge an entirely positive truth. Ben Mendelsohn - by now typecast as a machiavellian villain and bastard par excellence - is beyond beautiful in the role of Talos. Sequestered under layers of prosthetics for ninety-five percent of the film, he delivers a performance of such abundant warmth and elegance that Brie Larson ought to be left gazing in sheer wonderment.
Captain Marvel shoots for the stars, but only finds some semblance of worth when it feels solid ground beneath its feet. It is a testament to the quality of the Marvel machine, that a film as inconsistent as this remains eminently watchable and is, at times, genuinely sharp and entertaining. Its use of the 90s setting is adroitly measured, and the usual array of starry faces and interconnected storytelling makes for a typically pleasing MCU experience. Alas, a muddled plot and wholly aneamic central performance undermines proceedings, and it is necessary to demand much more, before Carol Danvers can be trusted to forge a path towards the post-Endgame future. So, and to definitively answer my own question, Captain Marvel is good, but definitely not marvellous. And before you ask, I haven’t forgotten about the cat. He’s both sweet and funny (until the gag starts to wear thin). However, he’s also more memorable and likeable than the star of the show, and that’s not funny. On the contrary: it’s a problem.