Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel is a loose-fitting movie (so was Guardians of the Galaxy). If you wore it to a 90s party, no one would think you missed the point. But even if you like it, defending it would be an indulgence. It lacks that exceptionality we can expect from a superhero film today, a style that promotes excitement, or a story that encourages an emotional investment. This is a wooden, barely passable action movie that becomes downright sad through the rhetoric we've burdened it with.

No, I’m not talking about Brie Larson’s preaching. This movie’s star has it in for this movie: through a few aggressive statements (or, perhaps, a few statements misconstrued as aggressive: take your pick), she and/or the response to her has made viewing Captain Marvel a potentially divisive experience, one where people expect you to be moved or keep moving. It makes the movie shoulder more than it can.

Here's where I stand. I’m not worried about picking a side in an argument where neither side is just hoping for a good movie. That's all I want. So when I talk about what's burdening the movie, from here on I'm not discussing what we in the blogosphere have assigned to it. I’m talking about the way the movie thinks of itself: Captain Marvel believes in its end product and its sequels more than in its main character and her emotions. This movie is a means to an end in Kevin Feige's production empire (he's been managing the tone of the MCU since the very beginning, the same way a boa constrictor manages its lunch), and that's never justified if the cost is a boring movie.

I wanted to get a taste for the movie’s aesthetic, but directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck forget to have one. The fight scenes jerk you around and don’t really have a tone, unless you can slide easily from dialogue about the genocide of a slave race to the hero smirking through a song called "Just a Girl" (and there were kids in the theater who could; a little girl was fond of saying “BUSTED!” any time a villain got what they deserved. She was cuter than the movie). Visually, it has a lot of business but no flare: it gets the job done, but acts like it was work. If Boden and Fleck are Indie filmmakers with a critical hit behind them (they made Half-Nelson), then why are they being pruned into amateur action directors? A scene in which Captain Marvel talks with the Skrull leader (Ben Mendelsohn) in an open field is downright beautiful: a handheld camera comes out, the film gets some adequate natural lighting, and the directors feel at home. But this is one scene, one scene in a homogenized tarmac of boring visuals that proves what this movie could have been if Feige would relax his grip a little and let directors give their movies a voice. Some of it is so muddled that I couldn't tell what was going on. That final fight is just a wash: I can't roll with the punches if I can't even keep track of who's throwing them.

I would also hope to get a taste for the movie’s character arc, how well it executes a change that resonates with me, and the implications that it has for that person's universe (and Captain Marvel's extends to twenty other movies). But Captain Marvel doesn’t have a character arc. This is its crippling problem: the hero isn’t affected by herself. She begins life as a cocksure Air Force pilot – the kind that other movies would teach humility to – and through the course of the film discovers her name before becoming a superhero with powers she already had. In a movie supposedly about discovering what she's made of, you leave thinking that the biggest test of strength was forcing her mouth to smile.

The concept of uncovering your past can be interesting but only if it clashes with the present in some way. We've seen it in movies before: Jason Bourne becomes a normal person when he loses his memory, forced to reconcile with the truth that he has a murderer inside of him; Robocop discovers that he has a human being still within him, which changes his perception of his directives. Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel’s discoveries are literal: finding out logistically who she used to be and how she ended up on a planet of intergalactic space police. We find it out through flashbacks and audio logs: they read the movie to us. None of Carol's actions in the present affect her identity; the fish out of water scenario stops at the literal. She's never challenged or made vulnerable by her past and cannot discover the very human quality of overcoming her limitations because she has none. This is what makes her such a slab.

Her story deals with her identity without dealing with her self, and as a result, she has nothing to overcome. The imagery of her getting back up after a struggle falls flat because the movie doesn’t challenge her: getting up after failing a test of strength is easy; getting up after your strength costs you something is what makes it hard. Captain Marvel is in an awkward position because so many Marvel characters have already earned their powers by overcoming a flaw in themselves. By comparison, this 21st film seems like a step back, like the kind of superhero movie that really would have been made in the 90s with no intended sequels, or in Marvel's first phase, back before they had a clear picture of the ultimate goal. She doesn’t learn to have humility, as so many Marvel heroes have: she learns that someone as great as she is has no use being humble. And this makes the movie different but crude. It tries to force its heart on you but it continues to be more unlikable the harder it tries.

This power to be perfect is so much more problematic than her physical abilities to shoot lasers, fly, and destroy anything with a touch. The power to contain no divisions that can’t be solved by reading your own character dossier, to experience no change, is the most powerful ability in the scriptwriting universe. It’s what allows this character to breeze through this movie. This will probably be the selling point for most people. But I can’t get worked up over someone whose actions have no personality behind them. “There’s nothing more dangerous to a warrior than emotion,” someone says, and you’d swear the directors thought it applied to movies as well.

The problem is that “emotion” in Captain Marvel is just a stand-in for “believe in yourself.” There’s nothing wrong with believing in yourself, or fighting with feelings (you may remember something similar in Wonder Woman), but when the bad guys can shapeshift and the hero is in a vulnerable place where she doesn’t know what’s real, you’d expect her intuition to come into play. You’d expect her personality to be her biggest asset. But the Kree space police aren’t really emotion-repressive (her squadmates are peppy techno-Vikings that recall the Thor movies briefly) and the solution doesn’t really come from emotion, which is a term in Captain Marvel that excludes any that might create change, such as anger or regret. Why this character fights for or against the Kree or the Skrull is guided by the plot, not by the character, and certainly not by what she's feeling. For all the times it's name-dropped, "emotion" is a dangling modifier in Captain Marvel. She has tons of belief, but there's never much to the "self."

That’s why Carol lets me down. She never realizes that being vulnerable can make us strong, not by overcoming vulnerability, but just by being vulnerable. That makes us relatable and human (notice that Tony Stark continues to fight and win but never stops being susceptible to his own shortcomings). Consider her fight with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) at the beginning of the film. He tells her that her emotions make her weak, and she responds by sassily blasting him with her lasers. When she does this again later in the film, it becomes clear that even if emotions are in play, emotional development is not a language spoken by the army of story and screenwriters (it includes Boden and Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Nicole Perlman, and Meg LeFauve). She is not changed towards her emotions by the end of this movie. She calls herself a "noble warrior hero" at the beginning, but it's when she's allied with the wrong team. When she changes sides, notice that she doesn't reassess her title, as though she learned something about what makes one noble or heroic. She still thinks it applies, but only to her. I'm not sure if anyone can be so noble, if they're the kind of person that says it unironically of themselves.

Captain Marvel has less agency in these discussions than she appears to have because she has nothing coming out of her for people to interact with – her emotions are the key to the film’s message, but they have no role in how the message is communicated. She believes in her self, but to the movie that's limited to a name and backstory and not to anything that makes her vulnerable or interesting, and so I can’t relate her actions to anything meaningful about her personality as I can about Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, or the Hulk. This is a hero who does what she’s told, even when she’s acting out; her only consolation is that she likes to remind everyone that she’s physically in charge whenever there’s a lull in the conversation. But she never steals a scene.

I’m sure many reviewers will say that she has great chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, but this isn’t entirely accurate: Jackson overworks so that his charisma comes out, bounces off of her, and comes back to him in time for a rebuttal. It’s lopsided chemistry when one of your characters can schmooze through any dialogue like you’re lucky he decided to sit with you on his lunch break, and the other has to say lines like “Everything I know is a lie!” with complete conviction. A lot of conversations in this movie, particularly with the Skrull leader (Mendelsohn is restrained and slithering in this movie: the best performance by far), aren’t just punched up by the script doctors, they feel like they are. Scenes accidentally undress themselves and you become aware of the filmmaking process beneath;  it feels like someone is trying to "punch up" the real world. One where the beautiful Skrull makeup wraps its sallow lips around the concept of getting a "foot shoved up its ass" is particularly groan-inducing.

No, Larson isn’t a charismatic Captain Marvel, even if we absolve her of the material she’s working with. She has a face like she’s constantly considering being sassy but doesn’t know where to work it in: she reads every single line like someone practicing their deadpan but not used to it. Her jokes never land because there's no humility in them, not even the kind that Tony Stark has when he uses that brusque confidence to hide his self-loathing. From the moment she arrives on earth and cuts into Fury with those half-closed eyes and snarky tilt ("Congratulations Agent Fury, you have finally asked a relevant question") she never stops being a brat. If this was the first film in the MCU, the other studios wouldn’t be aping its act. Based solely on motivation and charisma, Carol would be on the bottom of my list to lead us forward. She might pout this whole universe into oblivion.

I'd keep harping on the problem of Carol's charisma, but there’s only so much you can blame someone for not being Katee Sackhoff or Charlize Theron (real tough ladies with some real vulnerability that were born to play Carol Danvers). But there’s really no level on which this film soars. And I wanted it to, until I realized that it's willing to take its own work as good enough to count as soaring just as it is. The movie doesn’t dance with itself like James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but you get the feeling that it wants you to do the dancing for it. It wants you to be like its hero and accept its intentions as truths. If you were in a relationship with this movie, you’d say that you were pulling all the weight.

One example is Goose the Cat. You probably like Goose; so do I. But we were told to like him, by a movie that doesn't make him cute or interesting in his own right so much as drag Jackson into endorsing him for us over and over again (if Goose was a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, Fury would have complained of stomach upset, and taken a big swig after carefully turning the label towards the camera). Even the likable aspects of the movie feel ulterior and processed.

This very corporate concept of speaking products and relationships into existence when they become relevant to the marketing is worse when the relationship is the one that a character has with their own development, such as in Captain Marvel's identity revelation. After listening to a voice recording, this character changes her entire worldview in an instant: the scene is so breezy that I thought it was a trick by the villain (he even does the “We’re not so different, you and I” speech). My brain lagged on this scene for a while waiting for some kind of extra twist or revelation. But despite the monumental shift in the movie's information, to the movie this was just turning on its blinkers and taking a turn. Extra thinking isn't necessary: anything the movie says is true becomes its new truth. The reason is that this twist works in a bit of modern politics, so they felt they had to put it in there, no matter what it feels like. This is where I'm supposed to say: "Captain Marvel doesn't quite stick the landing, but it has great potential. I'm really excited to see where Carol Danvers goes next in the MCU." Do you see how we're in trouble, once we start giving movies credit for sequels that don’t exist yet? It would be like accepting the word "emotion" as good enough to be emotion, even when there's none to speak of.

The most beautiful comic book panels are full of details, not just in the way characters move but in what they’re feeling about the movement. When he punches someone, Captain America is dutiful; Hulk is full of conflict; Iron Man is self-indulging; Thor is working out. Captain Marvel is full of movement with no details behind it: the movie goes places without getting anywhere. We literally travel inside her head, and I still couldn’t begin to tell you what’s going through Captain Marvel's mind when she punches someone, other than that they deserved it for not being her. A movie can be perfectly watchable without being relatable, but it can’t immerse you until its world has a style of its own, until we know what that war is about or what motivates its people. Five story and screenwriters put their heads together and came up with a scene where a character literally tells us what's going on despite the fact that the people on-screen already know it all, but that's it. They don't even try to work up our feelings; they just assume the marketing took care of that.

Consider this: have you ever seen a superhero fly for the first time with less emotional buildup than this? Remember the serene confidence of the first flight in Man of Steel, the arrogant workout of Iron Man, the daring adventure of The Rocketeer? Carol Danvers finds out she can fly in this movie and she just does it. It's effortless and meaningless.

Carol is good with Maria (Lashana Lynch) but their interaction has no pull. And that goes back to Larson and what was written for her. She's not "out of water" enough for it to be awkward or funny, or to give Maria a situation where she might reconnect Carol with her old self (I'm imagining them playing skee-ball, or trying to get Carol to laugh, or rediscovering old conventions like hotdog vendors and subwoofers and Guitar Hero. Anything earthy). Maria just gets reacquainted with this person, who's even more perfect now, and it's less like the relationship between two lost friends in a drama than between a plug and its outlet. It works and it's necessary, but don't expect me to tear up about it.

But then again, I’m living under the assumption that immersion or human relatability was the point of all this. At one point, Captain Marvel passes the recently-deceased Stan Lee on a train so she can smile at him over his newspaper and I had a thought. A cameo by itself isn’t so bad if it doesn’t linger, but that smile is of a movie self-appraising. That’s a character named for a brand, acknowledging the brand. It knows it's official merchandise; it worked up the rhetoric beforehand to make sure you'd know that you can now expect political bulletins in your cereal too and not just Robert Downey Jr.-shaped marshmallows. Sure, the MCU has been planned from the beginning, but this is the first time I really felt the calculation. I realized that if I was asked to figure out the director of Captain Marvel without knowing, I'd look at the bland visuals, unsatisfying performances, and dead-end emotions and come to one conclusion. I would have guessed that Feige directed it himself. It's made with an attention to detail but of a groundskeeper rather than an artist. It has the energy he usually reserves for signing the checks.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Anna Boden

Ryan Fleck

Anna Boden (screenplay and story)

Ryan Fleck (screenplay and story)

Geneva Robertson-Dworet (screenplay and story)

Nicole Perlman (story)

Meg LeFauve (story)

Stan Lee, Gene Colan, and Roy Thomas (characters)

Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel Brie Larson
Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson
Talos/Keller Ben Mendelsohn
Mar-Vell/Dr. Wendy Lawson Annette Bening
Yon-Rogg Jude Law
Valkyrie Tessa Thompson
Maria Rambeau Lashana Lynch

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