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. You can slip it on when you don’t care what you watch. But to defend that movie – to go to the party and preach the significance of your hemming, the high-mindedness of your accessories – would be an indulgence. Those who see your point would be the kind of people who just take your word for it. Everyone else would see someone trying too hard to be accepted, without putting in the effort to be exceptional to begin 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 misappropriated 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. But I’m not worried about picking a side in something that has no sides. 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 doesn’t mean that liking it is wrong, just that liking it isn’t a matter of taste.
For instance, you could have a taste for a 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). Visually it has a lot of business but no flare: it gets the job done, and acts like it was a job. If Boden and Fleck are Indie filmmakers with a critical hit behind them, 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 the producers would relax their grip a little and let directors give their movies a voice. Some of it is so muddled in the film's first half that I couldn't tell what was going on.
You might also have a taste for a movie’s character arc, how well it executes a change that resonates with you, and the implications that it has for the universe which, in this case, 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. Her story deals with her identity without dealing with her self, and as a result she has nothing to overcome. 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 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. 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, something you can be in the mood for but shouldn’t brag about as a matter of taste.
This power 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 (and not just because some of the people are programs now: Samuel Jackson and Clark Gregg are cartoons in this film, which makes your skin crawl almost all the time, particularly with Gregg; you get used to the feeling).
The problem is that “emotion” in Captain Marvel is just a stand-in for “believe in yourself.” It’s a keyword the script sprinkles in ever so often to make sure you’re still getting it. 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 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; the world isn’t built around the keyword. 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 before I realized we weren’t going back to it: anything the movie says becomes its new truth.
"Emotion" in Captain Marvel doesn't include those 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. That’s why she 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 vulnerable). Only being strong makes her strong. She calls herself a "noble warrior hero," but when she's allied with the wrong team. You have to wonder if she still thinks it applies, but only to her. I'm not sure if anyone can be that, if they're the kind of person to say it 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. I couldn’t write a profile of this character more than a sentence long, and so I can’t relate her actions to anything meaningful about her personality, as I could 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 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 screenplay beneath. 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. The word “bad” isn’t going to pass my lips, but if this was the first film in the MCU, the other studios wouldn’t be aping its act. And now that she’s supposed to be the fulcrum for Avengers: Endgame, she may be bathos on a twenty-movie scale. Based solely on motivation and charisma, she’d be near the bottom of my list to lead us forward. She might pout this whole universe into oblivion.
I’m not going to give Larson a harder time than that; there’s only so much you can blame someone for not being Katee Sackhoff (she was born to play Carol Danvers). But there’s no level on which this film soars, and I wanted it to. 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. If you were in a relationship with this movie, you’d say that you were pulling all the weight.
Consider just one example in the cat called Goose, who’s quickly becoming a fan favorite. The movie really wants Goose to be a “thing” and Jackson endorses it to make it so. But the cat isn’t overly funny or cute and it becomes so important to the plot that we might as well just keep going towards the tone of Men in Black, if that’s the goal (if we did, we might learn something about how to time those terrible humor plug-ins that keep invading this movie). Goose is something we're expected to go all-in about just because we're told to (the popcorn vacuums in my aisle seemed willing enough), just like we’re meant to accept the built-in excuse that this movie is a “launching pad” or “stepping stone” for other movies without being terribly exciting in its own right. We’re in trouble once we start giving movies credit for sequels that don’t exist yet.
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. 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. 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. The closest we get is a scene of flat exposition followed by the terribly lazy cover-up, “But you know this already.” Then why tell her? He’s telling us.
But then again, I’m living in another age, where immersion might still be the goal of a movie like this. At one point, Captain Marvel passes the recently-deceased Stan Lee on a train during an intense chase, giving her bountifully imaginative creator one last chance to ruin the tension of a scene before sending him off with one of her half-smiles. A cameo by itself isn’t so bad if it doesn’t linger, but that smile is of a movie not even trying to be immersive. That’s a character named for a brand, acknowledging the brand. And if you think that this is the last time we’ll see the man, remember that they can make cartoon people now. You’d think they would stop tweeting from his account too, but there’s no accounting for taste. I need that little girl now to say, “BUSTED!” Coming from me, I’m sure half of Twitter would just say I missed the point.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
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|
|Mar-Vell/Dr. Wendy Lawson||Annette Bening|
|Maria Rambeau||Lashana Lynch|