Marvel Meets #metoo

I recently checked out the latest entry in the Marvel universe series of films, Captain Marvel, an ironic and iconic title for a character that promises much, but delivers little, either in substance, or originality as these things go. Being a lifelong comic geek, I am probably just as swept up in the comics to big budget film mythology as much as any other fan of the art form. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t get into it as much as I thought I would be. Lets review the fundamentals:

  • “Classic” superhero from the Marvel universe? Check.
  • Big, bodacious sets, lots of well designed costumes? Check.
  • Pretty, attractive, female lead character, loaded with superpowers? Check.
  • Solid cgi with a nifty, nostalgic musical soundtrack guaranteed that we don’t miss a beat of the action? Check.

So why wasn’t I enthralled? Well, it certainly wasn’t the directors or those responsible for creating the film. They did their job, rounding the bases towards an action and adventure laden two hours of entertainment, with lots of feel good moments interspaced with battle scenes of galactic importance. But somehow, it just didn’t resonate here.

Captain Marvel (the current version), created in the seventies as a way for Marvel (the comic company), to protect their male copyrighted characters and prevent anyone from developing female counterpart versions, and perhaps to make an attempt to lure in female readers, was really never much beyond a cipher. I haven’t read any of the current stories, but the first twenty years worth certainly didn’t produce any memorable, groundbreaking, or even interesting series of comics. In fact, there are no great, classic comic book stories of her, and she never developed into much more than a prototypical, sexually clad female version of dozens of other, better written and drawn versions of the male studs that were already in the Marvel universe.

So in the first twenty(?) or so films of the Marvel film franchise, there seems to be little but lip service given to women heroes, other than to support their male counterparts. However, in this recent era of female empowerment, Disney seems to think its about time now to place a female as the lead, subtlety first suggested in the Ant-Man and Wasp movie, where the female co star seems to be a bit ahead of her male partner, both in abilities and brain savvy. Not that we aren’t WAY past this point already, but now the calculations of the Marvel machine seem to think that the #metoo movement may just run to the box office and financially support such an idea. Captain Marvel is the fruit of their labors, providing both a pretty face and cosmic powers than can easily demonstrate a ladies ability to whup ass with the big boys.

While this is a venture that’s time is certainly overdue, Captain Marvel comes across as an all too vanilla beat the drum and hit the notes version of stuff that’s already well known and not particularly interesting. Carol Danvers is the archetypal brat girl, her history a collection of failed attempts to compete with the guys (and generally failing), but it misses an attempt to create a character that could of been new, different, textured, and ultimately something that could of led towards bigger things.

Not that I deny her place among the mightiest of Marvel gods parapet, certainly women deserve to be there, but this effort is squandered on a pretty dull story with a calculated set of hit points, and the finale pushing her towards god like status seems too quick and dishonest for a heroine than really didn’t seem to endure much sacrifice in the first place. Her trials and tribulations seem trivial and calculated, its payoff the stock answer to a question that remains, is she a captivating enough story that deserves better, at least as far as the weight of this woman empowerment epic stuff goes.

Perhaps I’m being too picky. Unlike the more weighty art forms of prose, music, and films, comic books were never concerned for social issues that much except to inject a modern sensibility into the story to capitulate a interest and sell comic books. Perhaps Captain Marvel, with her humble origins and dreadfully pedestrian history has too much of a burden to fully succeed in this goal. But she is the one Marvel Studios (and Disney) chase to emphasize in this “sudden” interest in women empowerment

Perhaps its the laissez-faire attitude they have towards the histories of comic book characters, using the framework of the character as a springboard to fine tune into the goal they want a film to carry. While Captain Marvel utilizes pieces of comic history to cinematically tell her story, they are woven into a new tapestry for the needs of the filmmaker.

Rough childhood in trying to compete with the boys and their toys? The betrayal of her creators merely using her as a device to achieve their own ends? Her ascendance to god like status? Don’t remember any of that in the comic books. The Skrulls being a persecuted race of peaceful beings only trying to survive? Well, that’s in contrast to the fifty odd years they’ve been portrayed as merciless killers in Marvel comics. Ronan the Accuser running from a traitorous perceived inferior? And don’t get me started on how goofy Nick Fury comes off despite his disciplined persona in all the other Marvel films. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Perhaps the only thing that matters here is the establishment of a powerful female being in the hierarchy of the Marvel universe that can be exploited as an equal to get women and girls into a movie theater to watch Marvel stuff.

The sad part of this is, the movie is filled with plot devices that have already been done many times before, and better. Marvel’s male counterparts have stories and origins much more interesting than Carol’s, and sadly the movie doesn’t try to be their equal. Or better. Everything’s easy peasy, follow the numbers formula with lots of wink wink easter eggs that addicts of the other films can decipher on their way through them.

There are many other better examples of female empowerment in cinema that didn’t need a hot looking lead, loads of expensive cgi created special effects, and hit songs in the soundtrack to get the point across. These all come across as crutches aiding the final product.

While I certainly don’t expect a Marvel movie to be an experience in grand movie making, at the least we could of gotten a great roller coaster ride with all the money and effort that went into producing this. That it was a ride in a kiddie park level carnival that we’ve seen and experienced before in simpler times only leads to its disappointment, and a missed opportunity to create something truly different and lasting is just tough and sad. I don’t dislike Carol Danvers that much, I just don’t care about her all that much, either.

And that’s a darn shame, because I really wanted to.

Ruining movies: In which I make a link share all about me

Funny story (I mean, relatively). As a big fan of the film The Year of the Comet, I got the Twilight Time Blu-ray (which I still haven’t watched). On opening the box, I read the back of the Blu-ray, curious about the critics’ quotes for such an undeservedly ignored light, competent comedy. There was one quote about Tim Daly, which I appreciated and agreed with, then realized it was from my post on Stop Button.

Glad I agreed with myself.

But when I saw Lara Witt had written about Captain Marvel, I was a little torn about reading the post. I love Witt’s work, but… I really liked Captain Marvel, was her post going to make me think differently about the film. Especially since I’ve had friends say hearing/reading me talk about movies ruins the movie for them.

Which I always take to mean I’m right.

But what was Witt going to say about Captain Marvel, especially since I’m a forty year-old cishet white male and she’s… not.

So… basically we have the same take. Stuff I didn’t talk about in my post at length because I wouldn’t do it justice. Witt does it justice.

Captain Marvel serves as reminder that emotional, compassionate, angry, resilient, brave, loud girls and women are dangerous to oppressive structures.


Goose attack

Captain Marvel; Marvel Studios (Walt Disney Pictures); 2019; 124m; in theaters.

Poster illustration by Matt Ferguson

Captain Marvel is difficult to incapsulate. Its successes are many, some of its achievements truly singular (the CG-de-aging of Sam Jackson, combined with Jackson’s “youthful” performance, is spectacular), and there’s always something else. Even when you get past all the major things—first female Marvel superhero movie, franchise prequel, “period piece,” inverted character arcs, big plot twists—there’s something else you can find in the plotting or how directors Boden and Fleck stick with a joke. If they make a joke work, they don’t let up on it. Ever. They turn it into character development. Even when it ought to be absurd, they make it work.

But most of all there’s lead Brie Larson, who gets some big moments in the film—sometimes through the grandiose handling, direction-wise, but also sometimes in her performance. Marvel is a fast movie—once Larson crash-lands on Earth, the present action is around a day. And Larson’s got a lot to do in those twenty-four hours. The film doesn’t start on Earth, it starts off on a highly advanced alien planet, where Larson is living and working for Jude Law in a kind of space special forces unit. Larson’s from somewhere else (Earth) but doesn’t remember it (Earth). Larson’s aliens are warring with a different species of alien; this other alien species can shape-shift, which is a problem because they invade planets and take them over and they’ve just followed Larson to Earth.

Poster design by Art Machine

Where she fairly quickly realizes she’s from Earth, sending on her a quest to find herself, with sidekick Jackson in tow. Jackson’s simultaneously the comic relief and the audience’s view into the action, but only for tying in the latter (sorry, earlier) Marvel movies. Who knows what he actually looked like when acting the scenes, but Jackson’s performance is awesome. He does great with the “aliens are real” thing, he does great as the sidekick. He and Larson are wonderful together, even though it’s mostly just for the smiles and laughs. Boden and Fleck take all the smiles they can get. Not every laugh, but definitely all the smiles. Captain Marvel, even with its harshness, is fun.

Often that fun comes from Larson’s wiseass lead, who might not remember anything about her life on Earth but still remembers how to be a good Earth movie wiseass. The wiseass stuff is never to deflect from the emotion either. It informs the character and performance; there’s no avoidance, not even when the film could get away with it thanks to the amnesia angle. Marvel takes the right parts of itself seriously.

Poster design by Art Machine

Like the friendship between Larson and Lashana Lynch. There’s a lot left unsaid in the film, which is fine as it’s an action-packed superhero movie with warring aliens and not a character drama, but Larson and Lynch quickly work up a great onscreen rapport. It’s not as fun as Larson’s interactions with Jackson, but it’s part of where the film finds its emotional sincerity. Captain Marvel never leverages the emotional sincerity; for example, when there’s danger, Boden and Fleck will defuse it (quickly) with a laugh instead. The defusing doesn’t get rid of the emotional sincerity either, though some of that emotional sincerity is the only way the filmmakers can get away with the plot twists. It helps Larson is, you know, a seemingly indestructible superhero.

Lynch has a daughter, Akira Akbar, who used to know Larson too. Lynch and Akbar come into the film in the middle, so it’s a surprise how much influence Akbar’s going to have on Larson’s character arc (and performance). Because until the big interstellar finale, there’s a lot of focus on Larson’s reaction to recent events. Often for laughs, sometimes for narrative, but her character is fairly static. Sure, she’s on a quest for information but she’s got no idea the relevance of that information. Just it has something to do with Annette Bening.

Bening is—for the most part—just the personification of this alien A.I. god when it communicates with Larson. Everyone sees something different when synced with the A.I. god. Larson sees a Bening avatar and eventually tracks down the real Bening. Bening is both clue and solution to Larson’s puzzle. Larson doesn’t have all the pieces or the box to guide her putting them together—and the puzzle’s fairly simple (again, it’s an action-packed superhero movie with space aliens) but Larson brings more than enough in the performance department. Pretty much everyone brings the necessary gravitas then takes it up a notch.

Poster design by Art Machine

Marvel is always an effective film, in no small part thanks to its cast and the direction of that cast. Bening and Law are quite good (though Bening’s far better with even less “character” than Law), Lynch and Akbar are good, Ben Mendelsohn is awesome as the leader of the bad aliens (the shape-shifters). His performance—despite constant special effects and makeup—is understated, reserved. Even with the constant element of surprise—he’s a shape-shifter, after all—Mendelsohn’s performance is tight. Plus he gets some laughs, usually at Jackson’s expense.

Larson’s really good. Plot-wise, nothing Marvel throws at her slows her down. Larson’s able to find the sincerity in the broad dramatic strokes. Like the books, sincere performances… they do a lot. Larson’s particularly great with both Lynch and Akbar, implying a forgotten familiarity counter to her overt behaviors in a moment.

And the supporting cast of ragtag aliens and Men in Black (including a de-aged Clark Gregg in a fine shoe-in) is all effective. They don’t need to do much. Larson, Jackson, Mendelsohn, Lynch… they’ve got it covered.

Poster design by LA

Technically, the film’s just as strong. The CG is all excellent, the photography (from Ben Davis) is good, ditto Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham’s editing. Andy Nicholson’s production design—of nineties Earth in particular—is good. Basically everything except Pinar Toprak’s score, which often feels too small for such a big film. It’s not bad music, sometimes it’s really effective, but it’s also yet another indistinct Marvel superhero movie score. It’s all about accompanying the action, not guiding it, which is a whole other discussion. Occasionally it’s really spot on, but mostly it’s just there.

Kind of like the nineties pop music. It sort of works—having grunge-y songs for the 1994-set act—but it seems like a big miss Boden and Fleck never explore, you know, what kind of music Larson would’ve liked when she was on Earth and not just whatever is time-period appropriate.

Doesn’t Marvel czar and Marvel producer Kevin Feige like music?


Captain Marvel. It sets out to do a lot of things and succeeds in all of them. The film puts the galaxy on Larson’s shoulders; she deadlifts with it. Boden and Fleck have a wonderful way of making it fun for the audience when they take a moment to check a requisite plot point box. They—Larson, Boden, and Fleck–and the hundred animators who made Samuel L. Jackson, well, Sam Jackson again—do something special with Captain Marvel.

Poster design by LA

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