REVIEW: Captain Marvel (Spoiler Free)

A long time ago (the 1990s) in a galaxy far far away (probably just around the corner)…

On a routine operation with her intergalactic war squadron – Starforce – the Kree warrior, Vers, finds herself catapulted towards planet Earth which appears to not only maintain the source of her mission but also withhold answers to her mysterious past.

The 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (better stop pissin’ around James Bond – the MCU is catching up), Captain Marvel dissects a whole new area of the vast superhero universe we have come to know and love. Not only exploring nuance and different alien races and worlds but also making a stamp on 1990s culture, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s newest addition to the MCU may not be an outlier in genius and spectacle but neither does it reside in the camp of being a “poorer” entry into Marvel’s cannon. Captain Marvel was a serviceable adventure flick that managed to explore as much 90s tropes as possible whilst simultaneously trying to tell a reconfigured origin story that did not always necessarily work but did at least offer something substantial.

Now, with the promise that this review will contain no political stances on the personality of one Brie Larson or modern day feminism, for that matter, I want to really dive into Captain Marvel as a film and how it works in the MCU, rather than write it off immediately because of the offscreen political affairs of its lead actress (I mean, come on guys, seriously? If Larson and general feminism was your main concern with Captain Marvel, just remember that this is a Marvel movie – don’t get so uptight, you get what you pay for). For what it was, I honestly found myself highly entertained by what Boden and Fleck delivered through this corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Captain Marvel packed some exciting twists and turns that truthfully fit a bit too perfectly with the cookie cutter mould of most Marvel flicks, but, at the very least, sported all its flaws with some great style.

A standout element of Captain Marvel was how well the film managed to nail the 90s aesthetic in a period of cinema obsessed with the 80s. For several years now, we have been living in an era of cinematic retro nostalgia with media such as Stranger Things, IT, The Guest and even Marvel’s very own Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok embracing the feel of the 1980s, with music, clothing and elements of past culture brimming back into style. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, has appeared to shift the trajectory of onscreen pop culture one decade forward, allowing the 90s to finally reclaim audience attention.

And some of the elements I loved most about Captain Marvel‘s setting was the smaller details for which Marvel have gradually become known to nail best in their films – though instead of comic book Easter eggs, the film included blatant riffs on 90s culture. Bits and pieces like the inclusion of Blockbuster Video, the casual mentioning of “grunge”, the advertisements for The Smashing Pumpkin’s 1995 album, ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’, a True Lies Arnold Schwarzenegger standee, a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt and, of course, the acknowledgement of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air all really led to a flood of nostalgia which honestly felt fresh and much needed after years of cinema callbacks to MTV and John Carpenter/ Kurt Russell blockbuster joints. And don’t get me wrong, I will miss the cinema era just passed of 1980s callbacks, but… the 1990s is where its at!

The soundtrack to Captain Marvel was a bit dicey though and not as well thought out as most of the music choices in say Guardians of the Galaxy. Although TLC, Nirvana and R.E.M. were nice to hear play every now and then (‘Man on the Moon’ is R.E.M.’s best song by the way – fight me), it was only really a sequence including No Doubt’s ‘Just A Girl’ that stood out as an important and awesome addition to the fluent action and thematic beats of the film. Yet, what Captain Marvel excelled in best when it came to its reflections of 1990s culture was its visual callbacks and influenced moments from 90s cinema. There were moments in Captain Marvel where I felt a 90s action hero like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Keanu Reeves or Will Smith would suddenly appear to fight side by side with the titular Carol Danvers and, although it never happened, I reckon the film got ridiculously close to recreating sequences from classic action flicks.

Captain Marvel almost entirely honoured 90s action by combining visuals and elements from blockbusters before and after 1995. An extended epic train chase sequence embraced the essence of a Terminator 2: Judgement Day mixed with a Speed whilst the early companionship of Nick Fury and Phil Coulson felt heavily inspired by that of a Men In Black or even, to an extent, Pulp Fiction. And granted, Captain Marvel was not close to being as great as the films I just listed, but Marvel’s mere acknowledgement of those cinema classics helped Captain Marvel entertain a refreshing glimpse into a side of action flicks we have seemingly surpassed in this current filmmaking age. Not to forget the more sci-fi arena of Captain Marvel, but the film’s contrast between desert sequences through dogfights to glimpses into space really had me recall Independence Day on quite a few levels with the secret government facilities, inclusion of the air-force and threats of alien invasion really seeping through to make the visual connections click.

Speaking on visuals, the gallery of visual effects on display in Captain Marvel proved to be quite the hit or miss with two elements of the CGI standing out greatly. The first would have to have been the remarkable de-ageing effects given to Samuel L. Jackson’s Fury, who appeared damn well amazing from a visual standpoint, looking even younger in Captain Marvel than he did in the actual 90s – which is outstanding. Clark Gregg’s look as Coulson was also genius, but his briefer appearances throughout the film made for his character looking less impeccable as Fury. Obvious attention was directed towards Fury over Coulson, which was understandable since Fury’s role in the film was bigger than Coulson’s, but it would have been better if some of Coulson’s visual creases where ironed out a little more before the final product. On the other half of the CGI spectrum though would have to have been the work done to Captain Marvel in the final battle sequence, including her real wonky, computer rendered appearance. Resembling Neo from The Matrix sequels in some stages of the climax, Captain Marvel sadly looked terribly rubbery and unrealistic when in flight mode which almost put a damper on the whole large-scaled final battle sequence moment. Too strongly a callback to the poorer visual appeal of Black Panther‘s finale, the CGI towards the end of Captain Marvel felt no where near up to par with the rest of the film, effectively unsettling an action sequence.

Yet, in terms of action sequences in total, there were not many that truly stood out in Captain Marvel – good CGI or bad CGI, regardless. Like Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel never truly included a moment of action that really stood out as memorable or nuance. There were sequence which proved to be fun and entertaining at times, but never did Captain Marvel really go out of its way to wow the audience… which, I guess, brings me onto my biggest problem with the movie and that is: Captain Marvel wasn’t that particularly memorable.

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(Marvel Studios/ Disney, 2019)

The best thing about Marvel movies are how they play like episodes in the what feels like the biggest television show ever created. And with any T.V. serial people have their own favourite episodes, whether ‘The Fly’ in Breaking Bad or ‘Hard Luck Woman’ in Cowboy Bebop. And what makes those episodes standout are the writer’s obsessive and intelligent character work through unforgettable, “memorable” moments. In the past few years, Marvel have shown themselves capable of achieving the exact same method of defining character through genius moments over and over again. Although, the problem with Captain Marvel was that there was never really a definitive “moment” and hence never the underlying sense of a great and memorable character.

Take Captain America: The First Avenger for instance where Steve Rogers jumped on a fake grenade to save his squadron – a great and memorable moment that defined character. What about when Thor, in Thor, reached his hammer in a heavily guarded shield base but was still unable to lift it because of his ego – a great and memorable moment that defined character. Or lastly, in Spider-Man: Homecoming, when Peter Parker lifted the rubble of a building off his shoulders because he finally realised what being Spider-Man truly meant – a great and memorable moment that defined character. Marvel Studios are beloved for what they do because the time and care placed into their characters are evident, but with Captain Marvel there was something in the movie that felt unanimously off about Carol Danvers.

Captain Marvel was, in some sense, an origin story but told in a more non-linear style. Overall, I enjoyed the new approach that Marvel brought to the unoriginal origin story formula, but, in total, the fragmented tale just felt like a poorly done rendition of the Bourne trilogy. Carol Danvers’ inability to remember her past did indeed offer some mystery, but the film eventually forgot how to effectively ‘hint’ and instead just resorted to ‘telling’. There was quite a lot of exposition involved in the narrative and the movie’s revelations ultimately felt a little too predictable at stages to really make an impact. And somewhere in there – in the mess that was the unjointed origin story – I felt the character of Carol Danvers slightly suffered. The titular Captain Marvel ended the movie just as much a mystery in personality as she did when the film started. Sure, the audience learnt of her past throughout the picture, but there was never a moment that truly defined Carol Danvers as a well-rounded, well-nourished and loveable Marvel hero. The movie wanted you to like Carol Danvers, but never made too strong of a case for you to do so.

At points, the only person who felt like they were trying to make Carol a strong and inviting superhero was simply Brie Larson. The Oscar winning actress really fit the role of Danvers, inducing some seriousness and hilariousness to the role. Although the writing never gave Captain Marvel a chance to pop as a larger-than-life superhero, Larson, at the very least, injected some charisma and energy to the character that thankfully gave Carol some strong potential for future development in a later sequel or other Marvel project.

Larson’s exceptional work as the titular superhero extended to her evident chemistry with the rest of the cast, all of which equally worked at a stronger and faster pace in developing their characters than the script work ever did. The back and forth between Larson’s Danvers and Jackson’s Fury offered some of the film’s best material as Jackson also stood out when paired with the pesky feline, Goose the “cat”. Also, although their characters appeared rather thin in retrospect, Jude Law and Annette Bening kept to two engaging and enthralling performances that helped propel Captain Marvel through its plot and minor “development”. Yet, it was Lashana Lynch’s Maria Rambeau who truly offered the deeper and more unique emotional punches that were needed to somewhat leave a dent on Captain Marvel as a true human character – there’s also the fact that Lynch, in general, was rather great in this film. The movie also featured very little of Gregg’s Coulson and also Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan (portrayed by Lee Pace) and Korath (portrayed by Djimon Hounsou) which did well to service the fans whilst also not too heavily impacting the narrative. Though the real MVP of the entire film was Ben Mendelsohn as Talos – the shapeshifting alien Skrull with an Australian accent. Mendelsohn’s Talos was not what I was expecting but happened to be both comically genius and emotionally powerful.

Speaking on the power Captain Marvel had as a film (although, as I said, the writing was a bit shaky) the script still managed to showcase some reasonable themes that did not entirely generalise on female empowerment. Having the film set between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame really helped Captain Marvel explore some ideas on war; on conversations of renegade soldiers and warring factions, Captain Marvel explored the very idea on the concept of two sides of the same coin. Picturing two warring races, both neither good nor bad, seeking their own victories as a cost of misunderstanding or a misplaced sense of national pride. Captain Marvel may have not made that superb a case for why Carol Danvers was the hero who needed to intervene, but at the very least made a case for why heroes must exist in a world of differing and confused ideologies… and why not have that person be female? Whether or not the character was as well-explored as she possibly could have been, Captain Marvel still positioned itself as an important milestone alongside Wonder Woman for young girls to find inspiration. As I said, Captain Marvel definitely explored themes outside the realms of female empowerment, but the film still completely understood its position as an iconic moment for a marginalised audience. Nevertheless, what made Captain Marvel that one bit more special was how inclusive it equally felt – like everyone could walk out of the cinema with that little bit more hope shining within oneself.

The film’s very mantra, and specifically Carol’s catchphrase, “higher, further, faster” soon became universal in its depth of meaning over the course of the film. The sense of empowerment, a challenge for humans to grow as individuals and find themselves, really sold the greatest underlying strength of Captain Marvel being identity.

Although the character of Carol never grew out of her truly muddled identity, Captain Marvel still embodied a sense of meta growth for Marvel’s identity as a studio. Featuring their name in the title even, Marvel have seemingly utilised Captain Marvel to reaffirm their more equality based plans for future installments in their universe. Like Carol piecing together her past, Marvel too have seemingly taken this time to look back at their own past efforts to reconfigure and adjust the way they make films; whether through the casting of more diverse talent or the restructuring of origin story formula, if Captain Marvel signifies anything, its a healthy change in the MCU’s trajectory. And yes, Marvel still have their obvious problems like colour grading, but even with Captain Marvel the more intimate, indie camerawork shines through Boden’s and Fleck’s directorial work – in particular, moments set at a farm. So even with directors and their style of filmmaking, Marvel are evolving and growing independent – absorbing the very spirit of this pinnacle feature. Captain Marvel has wasted no time in officially assisting the MCU in going higher, further and faster.

So all in all, could I recommend Captain Marvel? Yes certainly. This may not be the MCU’s best of the best but its still an important watch, narratively and somewhat culturally. If you’ve been with Marvel for this long, you’ll notice that Captain Marvel still entertains some familiar and loveable tropes of the MCU, despite having a weaker protagonist than usual. With no completely memorable material, the film still manages to entertain with its cosmic adventure edge as Larson shines alongside the rest of her cast mates. Captain Marvel has the Marvel Cinematic Universe simultaneously move their final piece towards endgame whilst doing away with the chess board all together to make room for a world beyond constraints, purely built to marvel.

Captain Marvel is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

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