Movie Review: Captain Marvel
By Ben Gruchow
March 22, 2019
At long last. It’s been eleven years and twenty films, but we finally have our answer as to how Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury acquired his eye patch. The causative event and follow-up explanation are two of the more amusing moments in Captain Marvel, which arrives with an unenviable set of tasks to accomplish: function well enough as yet another modern origin story in the Marvel mold, while also giving due weight to that story’s introduction of the first female lead protagonist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while also maintaining narrative continuity in the growing shadow of April’s big Avengers showdown, while also furthering narrative anticipation for that film (without being such an event in and of itself that it acts as an inadvertent upstage).
That’s a lot of spinning plates for any movie to deal with: luckily, producer Kevin Feige has brought an efficient and consistent sensibility to these outings for the last decade, and he’s by now mastered the art of folding an increasingly convoluted narrative into sanded-down, blandly enjoyable entertainment. Plate-spinning is mostly what the movie has to offer: even more so than the obligations above would suggest, Captain Marvel’s nature as a transitional chapter in a larger story (or story-within-a-story) is never less than apparent. It spins them pretty functionally, all told—at the expense of generating momentum or sense of place on its own terms, and despite the fragmented gasps of a screenplay that understands incident but not rhythm or build.
Captain Marvel is the alias of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson); we were made aware of her existence at the tail end of last summer’s Avengers: Infinity War, but we meet her properly for the first time here. The movie begins in medias res, with Danvers an aspiring soldier for the Kree (an alien race of humanoids at war with the shape-shifting Krulls). We learn that she is actually an Air Force pilot recovering from an unspecified traumatic incident years prior, one that cost her most of her memory; she was given a rebirth of sorts as a Kree warrior. The opening passages have her tasked with a mission to prove her skills and loyalty; when that mission goes awry, she ends up landing on Earth amidst an escalating Kree-Skrull conflict.
Specifically, she lands in the middle of a Blockbuster Video; as the trailers and soundtrack all but scream at us, Captain Marvel takes place in the year 1995. As such, a good majority of the running time is positively dripping with references, allusions, in-jokes, out-jokes, irony, ironic jokes, flannel, and quick snippets of early-decade grunge rock whenever we need a scene change. Being set in 1995 also allows the movie to give us younger versions of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Coulson (Clark Gregg) as they encounter this strange woman who crash-landed on Earth, “dressed for laser tag” (the Nineties!), and learn that we are not alone in the universe.
Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck go further, though: the movie feels structured and even sometimes designed like tentpoles from that decade—everything from the overlit photography, to the swaths of solid color making up Danvers’ uniform, to the conspicuous presence of cutaways during fistfights, to the conspicuous absence of shaky-cam or virtual cinematography; the CGI is superior to something from 1995, but not by much. This technique is exhibited frequently enough to create the occasional fleeting impression of temporal dislocation. Not so much “I am watching something made in 1995”, but more “In 1995, I am watching a movie from twenty-odd years in the future that is pretending to be from the current present”. These moments may be the result of intentional technique, or they may be pure accident, but they’re weird as hell either way—and in the process unexpected and kind of fun to think about. Similarly: is the movie’s soundtrack listing a sly wink at the arbitrary and lazy nature of most 90’s-movie soundtracks, or actually arbitrary and lazy in its own right and just pandering to nostalgia? I am unable to come up with a certain answer.
That aside, Captain Marvel settles quickly into a recognizable Marvel groove: there is frothy dialogue between the principals (Carol and Fury here), discovery and unpacking of motivation, and scenes of self-doubt and self-realization. Then everything concludes with a twenty-minute aerial battle between CGI elements. All of this is pitched mostly at the level of young-adult melodrama, strapped down tightly to a fixed tonal wavelength that rarely varies. There are exceptions. Two mid-film scenes involving Carol’s fellow pilot (seeing and talking with her best friend for the first time in years) give us the movie’s first real sense of character perspective; these passages, infused with potent emotion by Lashana Lynch, point toward a more personal and cathartic version of this story. On the other end of the spectrum is Goose the cat (played by four actual felines and a reasonably well-done digital recreation); he ends up being one of the plot’s more significant characters, in ways that are admittedly adorable while stopping just shy of the line between comedy and horror.
A bolder, sharper movie exists within these moments; they are robbed of much weight outside of the minutes in which they occur, due to the movie’s metronomic pace through plotty details. The details are what lose me. The overall arc of the Marvel storyline constitutes a dizzying exercise in narrative project management, proceeding as it has through this many films with this sprawling cast of characters and this degree of clockwork plot minutae regarding stones and gloves and wars and dimensions. It has long surpassed the point where any of it really matters cinematically, to numbing effect; there are only so many times the fate of the entire universe can be at stake (with the fate of the universe being super-duper at stake one more bit at a time with each movie), and the screenplay for Captain Marvel muddies the specific threat’s motivation to the point of incomprehensibility. Not for nothing is that second Lynch scene also utilized for a page’s worth of graceless exposition that finally gives the movie’s antagonist some context; it’s a jarring insert, but not as badly as it would have been anywhere else.
There’s enough going on here at the level of weightless storytelling beats and airless action sequences for Captain Marvel to start breaking through the conundrum facing this entire Marvel production since, I dunno, The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Let’s consider each entry in the MCU starting as a nominally unique connect-the-dots drawing, with Feige drawing the same types of lines the same way for the same distances, only varying in the connection. Then a battery of different filmmaking sensibilities (Whedon, Gunn, Waititi, Coogler) is allowed to color their own way, as long as they stay within the lines. The end result is that not even the dullest of these things can really be categorized as bad in any definable sense; the overwhelming emotion after we leave the theater amounts to intrigue, if we’re invested in the endless threads of mythology being spun out (I’m not), and apathy regarding the characters, dialogue, visuals, sound design—the things that, I believe, we go to the movies for. That has rarely been as pronounced as it is here (let’s debate: how does Carol Danvers feel about Captain Marvel? What was the movie’s most evocative visual? When did sound start traveling in space again?).
It’s funny, in a way: if you take Robert Downey Jr.’s irreverent spin on Tony Stark out of the equation, Captain Marvel is about as successful at setting up its superhero as was the first Iron Man, with a similar amount of storytelling dimension explored. Larson is a good actress, and does what she can with the character’s arrhythmic journey of self-discovery, but you can’t invent considerations that aren’t even sketched out. I thought Iron Man was one of the best of its genre. This film should prove beyond any doubt what happens when we receive too much of a good thing—when that thing is content to hit the same beats, for the same length of time, for the same reasons. Is it fun? Sure, I guess. I admire the on-screen talent involved. Garbage is one of my favorite bands, and I love hearing their music in any film. The movie didn’t offend me. It’s also terminally boring, if the phrase “Infinity Stone” means as little to you as it does to me.