Sunday 17 March 2019

REVIEW: Captain Marvel (2019)

After ten years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe should be showing signs of slowing down. We'd expect a few clunkers to have cropped up by now. Yet even the weakest films are enjoyable adventures, and the best are among the best action-adventure films of the modern age. Still, it's a black mark against Marvel that it's taken this long to produce a movie that features a woman as its lead hero. It's not as though there haven't been plenty of potential characters in Marvel's vast library who could have headlined a film (indeed, there's been a Black Widow script sitting on the Marvel movie desk for years). Nonetheless, now that it's finally happened, it seems right that it's Captain Marvel – the Carol Danvers version – who finally gets that honour.

Danvers is actually the sixth character to hold the title of Captain Marvel in the canon (not including various other Captains Marvel from other publishers – I wrote a whole piece on this some time ago, and the original Captain Marvel is getting his own big budget picture next month). Having first appeared in the sixties, when Danvers first got her powers she took on the name Ms. Marvel, and went by various other names until she took on the mantle of Captain in 2012. Yet the success of her run of comics has made her the best known and most celebrated version of the character, and entirely deserving of a tentpole film. Danvers is one of the most powerful heroes in Marvel comics, and easily the most powerful in the MCU at present (although Scarlet Witch has the potential to become almost godlike if/when she returns).

Invariably, the fact that there's a woman headlining a movie twenty-one films into the franchise has set internet dickheads into apoplexy. Even the less vehemently misogynistic ones have been creepy as hell. Early publicity for the film was overtaken by star Brie Larson's response to some idiot's proclamation that he had “fixed” a promotional image by photoshopping a smile onto her face, which Larson responded to by shonkily photoshopping smiles onto every male hero's face on a range of Marvel posters. It was masterfully done, and given that some dudebro character in the film has a go at Danvers for not smiling, it's the sort of attitude that's been in the firing line since the film's beginnings.

After three paragraphs just scratching the surface of the politics of film's genesis, it's clear that the need for a film like this and the ludicrous controversy around it threatens to overshadow the film itself. Which is a tragedy, since Captain Marvel is an absolute belter of a superhero movie. Marvel have made an intriguing decision to set this in the past – 1995, to be precise – to work as not only a way to introduce Danvers into the MCU but also act as an origin story for Nick Fury (and in a much smaller way, Clark Gregg's popular Agent Coulson). Now that I'm old enough to see retro productions from eras I remember from the first time round, seeing a 90s-set movie is a joy. There's no end of 60s, 70s and 80s-set films, but it's rare the 90s get the same treatment. From Danvers crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster store, to the inspired choices of 90s hits on the soundtrack, this is a nostalgia-fest for those of us in our thirties.

There was a lot of speculation about the film from the moment it was announced, not least around who was to play the starring role. Brie Larson is absolutely perfect in the part, nailing the toughness and the humour that Danvers has always displayed. She has a powerful screen presence, which, along with some canny direction, makes her the centre of attention even when she's part of an large ensemble of characters at various points in the film. Danvers's origin story has been tweaked with considerably in the comics lately, and the film presents a backstory that combines published elements and new ideas to make for an intriguing background. By presenting this as a mystery, not only to the audience but to Danvers herself, the film is elevated above a standard origin story to become a discussion on identity and the importance our pasts play in defining who we are. I'm glad I managed to avoid the majority of spoilers for this film – but note, that there will be spoilers after the page break.


Much of the fan speculation focused on who Jude Law and Annette Bening were going to play. Early on, the smart money was on Law playing Mar-Vell, the first Captain Marvel and the one who inadvertently gave Danvers her powers. Mar-Vell of the Kree took on the Earthly persona of Dr. Walter Lawson in the comics, a disguise for his activities on Earth. Later reports suggested Bening would be playing the Supreme Intelligence, the Kree's overseeing power, and while this is true, it's only a tiny fraction of her role. Instead, she's revealed to be Dr. Wendy Lawson, Danvers's mentor. Gender-swapping Mar-Vell is a brilliant move, completely altering the dynamic of the two characters into something more constructive than the romantic overtones of the original. Law, meanwhile, portrays the villainous Yon-Rogg, interpreted here as an overbearing commander who claims to be training Danvers to be “the best version of herself,” but all the while does his best to crush her spirit and keep her beneath him. He consistently refuses to allow her to fully use her powers, insisting that it only means something if she can beat him without them – because the only way he can maintain his superiority is by denying her her full potential.

There's a pretty clear undertone to all this, one that no doubt flew over the head of the film's masculinist naysayers. Danvers talks about fighting with her hand tied behind her back, a common metaphor for how women have to function in the workplace particularly, and in life in general, either because there is so much put in their way to prevent them from reaching their potential, or because they are expected to hold back in a world that revolves around men. It's no accident that the most important relationships for Danvers in the film are with women (with the notable exception of Fury) and that it's these relationships that lead her to reaching her potential.

Throughout the film, Danvers is treated by Yon-Rogg and the Kree as one of their own, named Vers and essentially brainwashed into serving them. Her regaining of her identity coincides with her changing sides (notably Yon-Rogg continues to call her Vers even when she insists it's not her name). Her reconnection with her past hinges on her finding her best friend from her life on Earth, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), while her changing sides requires another prompt. Throughout the MCU, the alien Kree, in both their blue and white-skinned variants, have been predominantly portrayed as villains (in Guardians of the Galaxy and the TV series Agents of SHIELD). Captain Marvel makes it clear that the situation is more complicated than that, but while it at first makes it appear that the Kree are fighting a just war, it soons becomes clear that they are the aggressors. What's more surprising is that their traditional enemies, the green-skinned shapeshifters the Skrulls, undergo the opposite shift.

In the comics, the Skrulls, aside from the occasional rebellious outlier, have been out-and-out villains, using their shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate other worlds. This is how they are portrayed to begin with in Captain Marvel, before, when Danvers finally has the opportunity to talk to their leader Talos, it becomes clear that they are refugees. This is a massively important and timely inclusion in the film, in a time when refugees and immigrants are continually demonised by the media. What's most interesting is that Talos never denies that they are at war with the Kree or that he has engaged in terrorist activities. Instead, he accepts what he has done was terrible but explains his battle to find his people a home comes at a cost. This is an astonishingly nuanced look at a situation for a comicbook movie to take.

It helps,as well, that Ben Mendelsohn's performance as Talos is so charismatic and sympathetic. He sort-of plays two roles here – Talos and Talos-pretending-to-be-Fury's-boss – using his natural Australian accent in the former and his more often-heard American voice for the latter. Having this green-skinned alien speaking like an Aussie somehow makes him seem the most down-to-earth character of them all. (It also makes his scenes feel like FarScape, while the rest of the film, with its shapeshifters, tentacled monsters and 90s setting feels quite a bit like Men in Black.)

Samuel L. Jackson is just perfect as a younger, less cynical but less open-minded Nick Fury. Still sporting two working eyes and a full head of hair, Jackson was de-aged in post-production, the first time this has been done for a whole film but perhaps not necessary since, haircuts aside, he's always looked pretty much the same. Watching Fury go from a fairly ordinary but impressive agent to the man who will form and lead the Avengers in defence of the Earth is a significant contribution to the MCU's backstory. Fury and Danvers is an unexpected team-up but it works, thanks to some truly excellent chemistry between Jackson and Larson. This is basically a buddy-cop movie, crossed with Top Gun and MiB.

That said, Fury's best moments are with Goose the cat. Sorry, Goose the Flerken. Taking a ridiculous one-off joke from Danvers's guest appearance in the Guardians of the Galaxy comic and turning it into a high point of the movie means that Goose (and the four cats who play him) are as much the stars as Larson and Jackson. However, Larson leads a brilliant cast here, all of whom she displays great chemistry with, and they completely sell why these characters would fall in with each other. The only one of the main cast who doesn't really impress is Law, but Yon-Rogg is a shallow character and perhaps demands a shallow performance.

Ending with a decisive victory for Danvers and the Skrulls, Captain Marvel manages to convincingly incorporate her character into the MCU while explaining why she's never been called upon to save the Earth before. That it not only works as a fan-pleasing missing chapter in the Marvel universe, but also as an allegory for sexism, racism and the refugee crisis is remarkable. This is exactly what science fiction is for.

Stray thoughts:

  • Maria's daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) is destined to become a major part of the MCU. While she has a completely different background in the comics, Monica Rambeau was the second Captain Marvel, a character almost as powerful as Danvers. Given that the film is set twenty-four years ago, I will eat my hat if an adult Monica doesn't appear in a future film. Incidentally, Maria's Air Force call sign is “Photon,” one of the names that Monica uses in her superhero persona.
  • In the comics, Goose is Carol's cat and called Chewie. While I get the Top Gun reference, it's not like the Star Wars name would have caused problems now that Disney owns both franchises.
  • One little thing I dislike is the reluctance of superhero films to use superhero names in dialogue. Both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel have the same problem: neither character is ever called by their superhero name outside of the film's title.
  • While I enjoyed the story of how Fury lost his eye, it would have been funnier to have him repeatedly almost lose his eye throughout the film, and to never find out how he really lost it.
  • In Agents of SHIELD, the existence and appearance of the Kree seems to come as news to Coulson. Was he never briefed on this mission?
  • While they're a sympathetic people here, the introduction of the Skrulls, in the past, must surely lead to the Secret Invasion storyline in future MCU films.
  • While the “give us a smile” dudebros are idiots in the extreme, Brie Larson really does have an incredible smile.
  • The Kree designation for the Earth is planet C-53.

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