Monday, March 18, 2019

Review: Captain Marvel (2019)

Captain Marvel (2019)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language

Score: 4 out of 5

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing about Captain Marvel, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is just how revolutionary it doesn't feel. It's a well-made, straightforward, mid-tier Marvel movie that just so happens to star a woman, proving once more just how robust and malleable the Marvel movie formula actually is and how tight a ship Kevin Feige is running. Its best qualities are those that people have come to expect from Marvel movies by this point, as are the elements that hold it back from greatness. The only real awkwardness on display here comes mainly from the fact that, for the first time, Marvel isn't the trendsetter -- when it comes to having a female superhero headline a film, Warner Bros. and DC beat them to the punch with Wonder Woman two years ago, and so this film isn't quite as groundbreaking as, say, Black Panther, at least not in the way that the advertising has been suggesting. What it is, however, is pure, distilled Marvel: an entertaining thrill ride that doesn't rise above "very good", but still delivers on what it sets out to do.

Our protagonist is Vers, a human woman with no memory of her past before six years ago, when she was recovered by an alien race called the Kree. Gifted with strange energy-manipulation abilities that make her extraordinarily powerful, the Kree recruited her into Starforce, their space police, where she has learned to control her powers and become a badass space cop. One day, however, a routine operation against a group of shapeshifting alien invaders called the Skrulls goes horribly wrong and gets her captured by them, who probe her hazy memories of her past life for information on a "lightspeed engine" that they could use to turn the tide of the war against the Kree. They follow the clues in Vers' memories to her homeworld, a galactic backwater called Earth circa 1995 CE on its inhabitants' calendar, whereupon Vers breaks free of her captors and crash-lands in the middle of Los Angeles. There, together with the human government agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, she seeks to beat the Skrulls to whatever it is they're looking for and get back in contact with the rest of Starforce, all while discovering more about who she was before she became Vers, a tomboyish fighter pilot named Carol Danvers, upon rediscovering a long-lost friend named Maria Rambeau.

Let's get the bad out of the way first: this film suffers from problems that, by now, are familiar even to the most diehard fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The villains are pretty flat, and while there is a major twist to who the villains actually are that does a fair bit of good for the plot as a whole, it doesn't do much for the characters themselves. As in many Marvel movies save for a few, the villains exist for the sake of the heroes' character development and to get the plot from point A to point B, functioning less like characters and more like a force of nature in a '90s disaster movie. The film doesn't really do much with the shapeshifting Skrulls outside of some fun gags during the fight scenes (including the one on the train from the trailer), and while it ultimately makes sense as to why, I still think the filmmakers passed up a good opportunity to mine the idea for paranoia -- and then used the big twist on their real agenda to comment on fear of the unknown. (Without spoiling anything, let's just say that, if the film had gone that route, I could easily see it having been set in 2004 instead of 1995, with the Dixie Chicks and Green Day on the soundtrack instead of No Doubt and Nirvana. Then again, given the already underlying implications of the twist, juxtaposing it with the War on Terror might've been a bit too on-the-nose -- to say nothing of how such a political statement would've likely caused heads to explode among those who were already preemptively criticizing this movie long before it even came out.) The action scenes, meanwhile, are decent, especially the two that take place during the climax, but more often than not, it's the special effects that prop them up rather than the work of directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. I've always felt that plucking filmmakers straight out of the indie sphere to work on big-budget blockbusters doesn't really lend itself well to visual flair, and it's clear that the action here was largely handled by Marvel's in-house crew more than anything.

That said, Boden and Fleck's indie drama background lent itself far better to the character work here. Brie Larson continues Marvel's streak of finding good actors to get into their costumes, and while a lot of the hype has focused on the physical training that she underwent to play a superhero, nobody seems to have mentioned the fact that her preparation for the role must've included binge-watching all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on top of it. Watching her here, I could easily picture Larson as Buffy Summers, seemingly channeling the iconic heroine throughout her performance, especially in the scene where she's breaking out of Skrull captivity early on and trying to find a way to remove the gauntlets on her hands that are holding her back from unleashing her full power. She's at her best when paired up with Samuel L. Jackson as a younger Nick Fury, who is not only de-aged with impeccable CGI but also back in his full '90s BAMF mode, the film frequently drawing on that decade's buddy-cop comedies for inspiration in their interactions. It was that feel that helped all the seemingly hokey '90s nostalgia land and stick, even when the action returned to outer space in the third act. The film's secret weapon, however, was Lashana Lynch as Maria, Carol's longtime friend who can't believe that she's come back. Lynch injects the film with a ton of life once she shows up, at first shocked and then overjoyed to see Carol again after thinking her dead while Carol has to grapple with the life she lived on Earth that was taken from her by her amnesia. In a cast that included both the Oscar winner Larson and the veteran Jackson, Lynch brought the human perspective on the fantastical action. And last but not least, Goose, the alien who resembles a cat. I will say nothing more, except that Goose completely steals the show here.

The film also did a great job of expertly mining '90s nostalgia for its world, and not just in the on-the-nose song choices and gags about period technology. As noted before, the scenes set on Earth at times felt like a film from that era in the best possible way, most notably with how it used the interactions between Carol, Nick Fury, and a similarly de-aged Phil Coulson. At times, I thought I was watching a lost Lethal Weapon sequel in which Murtaugh and Riggs battled alien invaders, especially given how it filmed the '90s Los Angeles setting of the first act. While this feeling went away once the action moved to outer space and got more esoteric in the third act, the film still flowed remarkably well, about as well as you can expect a Marvel movie to on their twenty-first installment. It's been said for years that, with a scarce few exceptions, Marvel is not a place to find auteur filmmaking. Even creative voices as distinctive as Joss Whedon and James Gunn largely follow the playbook, and Whedon, despite playing a major role in writing that playbook, eventually quit after Age of Ultron because he was getting disgruntled with studio meddling. (Edgar Wright wound up quitting his dream project, Ant-Man, over it.) That said, while Marvel is a factory, it is a well-oiled factory like Ford's Kentucky Truck Plant, such that even the safest, most studio-driven flick out there is still gonna be really good if everybody shows up to work and brings their A-game. And that is what happened here. Captain Marvel may be the safest version of itself that could possibly exist, likely because Marvel figured that they couldn't screw this one up without eating hay on Twitter for months, but while it may lack the spark that Patty Jenkins brought to Wonder Woman, it also isn't the mess of bad decisions that was Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It's Marvel's dedication to quality and craftsmanship on full display.

The Bottom Line

It may not try to go harder, better, faster, and stronger than the films that came before it, but a good Marvel movie is still a good Marvel movie. It succeeds in exactly the same ways that its peers do, and while it also has some of the same problems, those problems didn't hold back the Marvel machine in the past. Either way, it's a hell of a ride.

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