Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Strong female character


Individually powerful (and, I suppose, empowering) moments abound in Captain Marvel's matrix of not-quite-thereness, and the successes and failures alike will stick with you.

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Written by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Anna Boden, and Ryan Fleck

Spoiler alert: high

Captain Marvel is the least-polished Marvel film since I don't know when, maybe Iron Man a zillion years ago (or eleven—who's counting?), and maybe this is... good?  Maybe it's not.  It's still a decent time at the movies, somewhere comfortably in the middle tier, and the nice thing about the Marvel Method is that even the very bottom tier is still, at least, watchable crap.  And like I said, Captain Marvel is somewhere above that, if not the historic International Woman's Day event it wasn't likely to be anyway, the DCEU having beaten it to that particular punch two years ago with Wonder Woman, through the simple act of not waiting over a decade to premiere their first solo superheroine.  (How weird is it that Atomic Blonde can exist, but not Black Widow?)  Regardless: it's better, or I like it better, than Wonder Woman.  For whatever that's worth.

But being unpolished isn't necessarily a compliment, either, and it means that Captain Marvel fails a lot, never in fatal ways, but in ways that make you wonder if its five credited screenwriters were talking to each other, including the pair of writers, the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also directed it.  Being unpolished also doesn't mean Captain Marvel ever feels like a messy personal expression, either—not Boden and Fleck's, obviously not Marvel impresario Kevin Feige's, not even star Brie Larson's, despite some pretty obvious passion undergirding her participation in it.  Rather, it's more like a collection of studio notes ("if it's not clear to the stupidest person in the theater that Carol Danvers is a fierce heroine with her own sense of integrity, should a supporting character say something to this effect out loud?" and "do you remember the 90s? because our protagonist actually doesn't" and "more cat?" and "more cat?" and "more cat!"), all of them in various individual stages of execution, never gelling completely into a coherent whole, but never falling apart, either.  It's kind of par for the course with the mid-tier Marvel movies, frankly.  Even some of the great ones only succeed in spite of their cobbled, modular nature.  So I don't know whether to credit Boden and Fleck for getting as far as they did, or to be disappointed in them; if they floundered under Marvel's artless diktats, or if they had fun and did mostly what they wanted under its benign guidance; if story development just plum ran out of time, and they papered over the big remaining gaps with what they had on hand, namely leftover tricks from other Marvel movies along with some genuinely bad ideas of their own.  But I'm definitely disappointed in somebody, because it's really not very far from being top-tier, like, really great.  Only a finesse or five away.  And instead it's so consistently Goddamn careless.  Which I guess is the most authentically Gen X thing about it.

So Captain Marvel takes on the modern incarnation of the character, invented in the 1970s mostly just to keep the copyright to the name under control of the House of Ideas; of all the manifestations of Marvel Studio's mindless bias toward the newer side of Marvel Comics' decades-spanning IP collection, I'll cop, this is the one that makes the most sense, even if I'm still pretty firm in my determination that it's a pity, second only to the memory-holing of Adam Warlock, that we'll never see Captain Marvel slowly die of cancer in a $200 million motion picture (you want to talk revolutionary?), and of course there's a cruel side of me that would be positively fascinated with seeing the results of somebody attempting a faithful adaptation of the absurdities of the "real" Ms. Marvel backstory (if you want to talk misogyny).

Anyway, this incarnation—at least when we meet her—is Vers (pronounced "Veers," like in The Empire Strikes Back, played by Larson), an elite commando in service of the Kree Empire, under the command of the strict and condescending Yon-Garr (Jude Law), and gifted with photonic superpowers by the Kree's Supreme Intelligence (appearing to Vers in the curious form of Annette Benning), which Yon-Garr is adamant that she learns both to control and to be able to fight without.  With the Kree in the final phase of a totalizing war against the shapeshifting Skrulls—scattered, but still dangerous—Vers' unit is sent on a simple extraction assignment that goes badly awry, leading to her capture.  But in the midst of a Skrull mental probe for a set of coordinates the villains desperately want to find, Vers is confronted with a set of memories she didn't know she even had: that of a life as "Carol Danvers," a USAF pilot from the planet designated C-53, known better to its loser inhabitants as "Earth."  By the time she gets out of this jam with the help of her Kree-given powers, she's directly over that very world, falling out of the sky and right into 1995.  Still chasing the Skrulls along with her own fragmented recollections, she runs slam into a much younger, much more cosmically-naive Nick Fury (Sam Jackson, under some terrifically good de-aging algorithms), who has cause to doubt her story's veracity until his compatriots (like Clark Gregg, under significantly less robust de-aging algorithms) turn out to have been doubled by the Skrull infiltrators she's bound by oath to destroy.  Together, they track their traces, but what they find when they finally do catch up to the Skrulls and their leader, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn, usually under some pretty swell latex), will surprise them.

It is not at all capable of surprising you, but that's not, to my mind, a proper objection: after all, the absolute cinematic highlight of Captain Marvel is the way the Skrulls play Vers' brain back and forth like a cassette tape, with Larson giving Vers a growing awareness that her conscious mind is the tape deck; and even if it gives the whole game away and radically overdetermines everything that comes afterward (and everything afterward mostly does fall into the exact place you'd expect it to), it's still pretty fantastic in the moment.  Besides, a "radically overdetermined" superhero origin story isn't exactly a sin.  But I feel like I'm getting ahead of myself to talk about the good parts, because then that would only leave me with the bad.  And there's much bad to discuss, though it comes in two flavors, oftentimes in combination.  The first is just a front-to-back sloppiness, hard to distinguish from a lack of interest in anything except the film's gender-political and political-political metaphors.  The other is the kind of tedious triviality that sometimes (routinely) crops up in these movies because they are required to exist almost entirely inside the exceedingly narrow tonal spectrum which Marvel has decreed is synonymous with "fun," which—surprise—does not always set the stage well for the harder beats of a story about betrayal and brainwashing and women and war.

But it's mainly the sloppiness that abides, proving Captain Marvel to be a leaky container for its concepts.  It's a movie that establishes how Vers has been used, and Carol before her, without doing much to explain who Vers or Carol actually are.  We don't learn much about either one of her lives.  It works okay for Carol, because we all know what "human" is, and jagged impressionistic images of patriarchal oppression in the USAF and elsewhere—and her friendship with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria's kid Monica (Akira Akbar)—is, at the end of the day, sufficient.  It's troubled more by its refusal to clarify whether Vers even has a "life" as such on Hala at all (that's pronounced "Holla," which just makes me wonder what this movie has against vowels).  Does she have memories of being a baby Kree?  Not that anything Kree is useful to Captain Marvel on its own terms: the Kree are Bad Evil, and that's that, their civilization more-or-less reduced to a de rigeur sci-fi cityscape with only gestures toward the kind of tantalizing details that could have enlivened its stale presentation—notably a way of life that ends with them joining their computer-ruler-god, the immortal Supreme Intelligence, who claims legitimacy based on literally being the people it commands, but sure doesn't tend to be especially nice to any of its future constituents (something I know because I've read too many comic books, not because I watched this movie).  Yon-Garr is given a certain spark by dint of Law's participation—his final confrontation with Carol is just great screen acting in service to a particularly potent moment, all flop-sweat and desperation—but ultimately the dude is a straight line to a conclusion, uncomplicated and a little boring, in the same way that Carol, in her embrace of the great power that, of course, was always hers, can whoop like a psychopath while slaughtering all the Kree soldiers in her way without wondering if, but for the grace of Eon, they might have been her, because literally yesterday, they were her.

It's been remarked-upon and criticized that Captain Marvel has been used to sell women on the US Air Force, an institution that is not friendly to Captain Marvel's liberal politics or to women in general, and, in the time period depicted, had the kind of out-and-out Rape Culture you'd prefer to capitalize.  I mean, whatever, it's kind of stupid of the USAF: Captain Marvel is a deeply anti-militarist film.  It says so, pretty much out loud, evolving its Skrulls from the stark Communist and Islamist terror of their comic book forebears into the bedraggled, desperate refugees of this film, who barely pose a threat, and face extinction in the face of their dominant nemesis.  So that's why it's funny that none of the five credited writers involved ever noticed that the one line of continuity they established for Carol throughout her multiple lives was her desire to serve—I mean, in brasser terms, to be part of an institution dedicated to organized violence, and to be recognized for her skill at delivering violence—without ever really having her ask, "serve who?"

Obviously, militarism and cinema go together like chocolate and peanut butter: Top Gun rules, which Captain Marvel readily acknowledges, which is already kind of a problem, since it ought to be uneasy about it.  But that's the thing.  Top Gun knows what its politics are: killing commies is good, and self-discipline and self-control make one a better commie-killer.  It doesn't place a disconnect between being a patriotic killer and being a benevolent moral actor.  It doesn't make Maverick a secret commie all along, have him shrug and plant a Sidewinder up Iceman's butt.  It definitely doesn't ask Maverick what he would do if he decided the men giving him orders were so wrong he had to fight back.  Captain Marvel does, then ignores all the psychological consequences of that, dispensing of it with a questionable accidental metaphor about blood loyalty.  Once Carol points herself in the right direction?  That's all there is to it.  She's a bludgeony person, and honestly I may be underrating how consistent her character actually is: she proves her powers to Fury by blowing up a jukebox, sneaks around a SHIELD facility by blowing holes in walls, even though Fury has a key.  Her arc, as such, is rejecting Yon-Garr's own calls for self-discipline and self-control.  I get it, and it's at least interesting to find the oldest narrative arc in heroic fiction made strange in the context of women's oppression.  Wax on, wax off?  Fuck you.  Well, it's no problem that Iron Man didn't have first, but I think we're at least supposed to find Tony Stark a fraught figure.

Its interesting complexity, or lack thereof, is bound to be magnified when it is so "out loud" about everything it intends to do.  That's where the sloppiness starts to combine with the triviality in some pretty un-fun ways, like a black girl telling a Skrull child in a freighted conversation to never change his eyes.  Kid, change is in his nature; but Captain Marvel has no interest in treating its science fiction with respect, even when it would serve its themes, like how it adapts a race of sexually dimorphic shapeshifters straight out of the comics without ever once questioning if sexual dimorphism actually makes any sense.  (The Supreme Intelligence is a marvelous symbol of conformism, dogmatism, generational inertia, and the yearning to belong, which also doesn't get used.) But Fury gets the worst of it, in conjunction with the film's most incongruous element, a cat named "Goose," comic relief that I think also wants to be a double entendre, in the comics but plausibly inspired by the phrase "the pussy grabs back."  Hell, I might actually like Goose, then; it's better than the alternative, that Captain Marvel assumes you're really into cat videos, and also that you fondly recall Men In Black.  But I still don't like the way Fury confronts the fact of aliens with bemusement rather than the steely sort of religious, Lovecraftian terror that would've drawn a line between the kinder, gentler Fury here and the ruthless defender we meet later on.  We learn how he loses his eye, of course.  In this and in other things, Captain Marvel tears down his mystique in a way that some may find cute, perhaps subversive.  But what is a comic book character, if not their mystique?

So Captain Marvel's triviality has a life of its own, filling in voids where more compelling things could have gone.  That 90s soundtrack, for example, the one that should've been an 80s soundtrack if it wanted to be about a woman who left Earth in 1989, eventually winds up in a place of atonal, emotion-flattening obscenity: it wants to be Guardians of the Galaxy; it's arguably a step below Suicide Squad, since at least Suicide Squad had no resonance to ruin.  And the sloppiness still finds ways in: "Come As You Are" plays inside Carol's head in her showdown with the Intelligence.  The hivemind remarks that it likes the tune.  Nevermind came out in 1991, and I don't think it got distribution on Hala.  For a movie that is constantly reminding you that it's The 90s!, it doesn't seem to know anything about them, and the signposting is so meaningless you could even forget it's a period piece until the next recognition joke comes along.  Sure, Captain Marvel has a sense of humor, like every Marvel movie, but not always the best one.  The funniest thing in it is a silent and inept Skrull science officer, whose bug eyes and discomfited reaction shots are laugh-out-loud wonderful.  Then he gets a line, and it's kind of ruined, and I think the guy vanishes into thin air.  Meanwhile, I don't know why it feels like pandering to allude to Men In Black or, in another scene, True Lies, but a visual homage to Escape From the Planet of the Apes made me giggle with joy; is it just the petty feeling of knowing I was the only one there who got it?  Anyway, Larson is game, but her affectless style—which can be funny—is only funny here as long as she gets to be sarcastic.  Actiony quips don't suit her as well.  And if you thought there was something off with her chemistry with Jackson, I don't blame you, though I don't blame them; they're not written well, and it feels like they've been edited around in ways that aren't apt to amplify whatever rapport they had.

Honestly, Larson's better here playing a cold alien weapon than a feeling human, but I want to be clear: Captain Marvel has some great moments of human feelings.  Some are just crazy Silver Age conceits that kind of put a smile on my face.  Every beat of the plot in the finale is spot-on: "only human," "my name is Carol," "I don't need to prove anything to you," "the woman."  These are sterling Marvel moments.  Everything in between them may be Marvel as we've come to know it—spending more money and runtime than anyone should need to, just in case somebody didn't feel like enough glowy CGI had been shoved into their eyeholes—but it has the goods where it counts.  Gracious, it might be the most satisfying final act in a Marvel movie in any number of years.

It's not even all Captain Marvel has: it has a strong and dynamically-shot running battle on a train that comes when it's still using the Skrulls as an enjoyable suspense and comedy mechanic.  It has Annette Benning in two roles, actually, and I dug that.  It has better cinematography than most Marvel films, or at least different cinematography, thanks to Ben Davis: atmospheric and gloomy in the sci-fi scenes, lit with diffused neons and the like, alternating with exceptionally natural-looking Earth scenes that are still rather pretty to look at.  It has delightful costume design from Sanja Milkovic Hays, especially if by "costume design" you mean "color-changing Kree Starforce battlesuits with optional mohawks," and not "Nine Inch Nails T-shirts."  It has the greatest Stan Lee cameo possible.  It has the best score a Marvel movie has ever had, a hybrid deal that sounds like  Silvestri, Williams, Elfman, and Daft Punk mixed together, maintaining a strong and intensely likeable presence throughout (and even almost redeeming Silvestri's boring horniness).  In a movie about women triumphant, Pinar Toprak has bested every man to come before her.  So that's something.  Captain Marvel's good.  The elements are there.  It's enough.  And it could have been way more.

Score: 6/10

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