Friday, March 8, 2019

Movie Review: Captain Marvel

The movie's story structure is inverted, so let's go ahead and open with this: in summary, Captain Marvel is a solid installment in the MCU. It's not the best or most memorable film in the mega-franchise, but if you're a fan, there's more than enough to justify buying a ticket.

Okay. Easy part's out of the way. Now let's try and actually talk about a film that... God, I don't know where to begin.

There's a lot going on with this movie, though it's all woven together skillfully enough to work. Narratively, it's successful, which is no small feat given it's a throw-back 90's nostalgia prequel built around a character suffering from amnesia trying to recover memories from the 70's and 80's while hanging out with a digitally de-aged 70-year-old actor reprising the role he's been playing for more than a decade while also sort-of channeling an unrelated character he played in a 90's action movie who partnered with an unrelated amnesiac super-spy trying to reconcile her past with who she's become...

...And you'll note I didn't even mention the galactic space empire warring against the shape-shifting alien infiltrators.

But like I said, the narrative somehow works overall. The disparate pieces, on the other hand...

Well, most of those still work well enough, but you can feel the movie starting to strain. The script doesn't quite pass the "show, don't tell" rule, which is mainly a problem concerning Carol's personality. We're informed about her attitude, humor, and drive more often than we see them, which I found disappointing. That said, the supporting characters are good enough to make up for this oversight.

I'd also have liked a little more from the movie's tone. Some of the best sequences are built around surreal visions as Carol experiences faded memories. I loved these moments, but they felt a bit muted. I'd rather the movie had embraced its weirdness a little more than it did. That's not to say it wasn't weird - there are some great surprises from the comics, as well as some good jokes - but it still left me a bit unsatisfied. I don't need every one of these movies to be Guardians, but I do think this could have used a little more of those movies' willingness to embrace absurdity.

The movie's largest tonal imbalance (for me at least) stems from an overuse of drama and a focus on theme. Make no mistake, there's still a lot of comedy and action in this, but the core of the film is a rather weighty exploration of who Carol Danvers is and - more importantly - what she represents. This is about her power and her choice when and how to use it. And those are extremely powerful themes. It's just...


Yes, I know this isn't fair, but here's the thing: When you build a movie with these themes and play them up this intensely, it really feels less like you're making a movie about a woman who's a superhero and more like you're making a template for all future movies about women who are superheroes. And Captain Marvel kind of has that vibe, like it's conscious it's an event. And to its credit, I think it's good enough that it could have been that movie, the movie that defines what the iconography of a female superhero means to the world.

It could have been that if an even better movie with the same aspirations hadn't been made a few years earlier.

This doesn't mean there isn't room for both, nor does it mean that Captain Marvel doesn't still work as a movie. But I do think a lot of the weight they were going for lands with a little less force because we've been taken on this philosophical journey before. This movie really feels like it should be the first modern movie of its kind, and the reality is it's not. That doesn't undercut the theme, but it does undercut its impact.

In a "post-Wonder Woman" world, it might have been better to make a movie about a female superhero, rather than a movie that's about the significance of a movie about a female superhero, if that makes sense.

That being said, the theme certainly isn't a total loss. Since I'm criticizing the film for contextual reasons, it's only fair to mention context also enhances some of those same thematic elements. In an extremely ironic twist, real-world misogynistic protests of the movie play into the core story to a degree that's almost shocking to behold. I don't think the filmmakers intended to predict the precise language and form of these attacks, but the movie functions perfectly as a response.

But enough contextualizing. This is a really good superhero origin story and a really good movie, all around. It's well acted, well directed, and the effects work allowing Samuel L. Jackson to turn back time even more than usual is virtually seamless. And we haven't even touched on the brilliance behind Annette Bening's casting. On top of all that, this movie also manages to deliver what might be my favorite "prequel-explanation" I've ever seen. I know it's become a little cliche to cross every 'i' in these movies, but I really appreciated this one.

Still, in a world where multiple Marvel movies won Academy Awards last year, it's worth managing expectations. This is a solid entry in what's frankly the most impressive genre film franchise ever constructed. But I don't think it's one of the best.