Captain Marvel

I’m not what you think I am

Captain-MarvelIt’s hard to believe there’s anything new in the world when you sit through the trailers before a Marvel movie (“Hi kids! Do you like the thing you’re about to see that you’ve basically already seen? Then you’re bound to love these other not-yet-released things that you will have basically already seen once you see the thing you’re seeing!”). But absent of kicking all the formula brain-junk to the curb, Captain Marvel is something to check out for the inclusion, the not-taking-itself-too-seriously aspect that its contemporaries are missing, and the moment you realize that you’re seeing Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, and Jude Law in the same movie (and all sharing in the struggle to make really bad dialogue sound passable).

Aside from a nonchronological backstory about Vers’s (Larson) past as an Air Force pilot on Earth (after which she lost her memory and was absorbed into the Kree special ops following an encounter with the sneering Yon-Rogg, played by Law), the plot is essentially that of She-Ra: the heroine mindlessly fights for an organization that is all but named “The Bad Guys,” and after a meaningful encounter with the enemy (natives just trying to live their lives), realizes she’s on the wrong side, and gets her act together. This is what Star Trek Beyond should have been, but there, Starfleet were the colonizers pushing the frontier races to the edge of the map, and we were still supposed to see them as the heroes. Vers, real name Carol Danvers (which she learns after reuniting with the Earthlings once closest to her), gets with it fairly quickly in the scheme of things, and realizes that Yon-Rogg stole her entire past and essentially turned her into a brainwashed minion just so he wouldn’t have to admit to the Kree’s leader, the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening) that he fucked up a mission.

Captain Marvel has to rank up there will the better movies of its genre. Brie Larson is so seasoned and versatile at this point (see Short Term 12, Rampart, and yeah, Room) that she can play Carol as an otherworldly being with incredible powers while also making her relatable. Even when she’s raging through an alien aircraft and fighting for her life (barefoot, I might add) or being interrogated by cops on a foreign world, you still feel like you’re just kind of hanging out with her. The entire time Carol puts on the “Vers” persona, you see her emotions beneath it, looking for the cracks.

The supporting cast, including ace pilot Maria Rambeau (fully committed Lashana Lynch), Talos (appropriately hammy Ben Mendelsohn), and Nick Fury (a Benjamin-Buttoned Samuel L. Jackson in Fury’s most relevant appearance) complete the lineup of characters who all seem to have their own actual lives outside the plot, rather than just being a bunch of box-ticking dweebs waiting around to be encountered by the hero (can’t say the same for any of the other outer-space characters, though).

Law plays a different kind of Marvel villain: Yon-Rogg is a skilled fighter and a ruthless bastard, but doesn’t have any superpowers. His defining villainous characteristic is simply that he’s a douche with bad ideas, and decides in a vital moment that he would rather save face (no matter the cost) than admit to a mistake – or worse, that his way of doing things could use some work. The revelation of Yon-Rogg (and not Talos) as Carol’s real enemy shines a new light on the opening scene, in which a restless Carol wanders to his room in the middle of the night to spar (and which is shot in a way that indicates trust and intimacy more than “let’s fight because we’re warriors and I’m bored”). Yon-Rogg feels entitled to Carol’s respect even though she outsmarted him in a moment she doesn’t remember, and has convinced himself that she – the one who can shoot superpowered plasma from her fists – needs to prove her worth to him. It’s really gross, fetishy stuff that doesn’t receive full context until the end, and Law, even when playing a one-dimensional character without that much screen time, makes it feel like so much more is going on beneath the surface. Carol’s real triumph, alongside saving the world and at least two races from genocide, is the realization that she doesn’t have to prove anything to this goon.

It’s also (albeit implicitly) one of the more queer-friendly Marvel movies. (Seriously: I will believe that Carol and Maria were “best friends” the day I believe Sailors Uranus and Neptune were “cousins”).

Despite feeling leaner than some of its predecessors, Captain Marvel has a few shortcomings that stand out. Bening’s performance is phoned-in to the point of being hard to watch at times. The filmmakers are too confident about the CG, pulling ill-advised closeups of Carol’s face when she’s entirely made of hastily-rendered computer blob. It’s hard to buy into the universe as a whole, because context is kind of thrown out the window (for instance, why are the Kree, an “alien race,” basically just humans? Why are they led by an artificial intelligence? What exactly is a Flerken, and why does it look like a cat? I’m sure this stuff is covered in the comics, but if the films are their own thing, you have to actually finish them). The final act gets a little too Guardians of the Galaxy-like with humor that doesn’t land and swerves that take some of the air out of the story. The ’90s music is overtly placed and distracting.

Overall, the film adds stakes to Avengers: Endgame (probably not appropriately named, given how long this franchise is destined to last) and gives the series a lead worth investing in. Try getting a better deal from those other comic book movies.

captain_marvel_posterCaptain Marvel (2019); written and directed by Anna Boden; starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, and Lashana Lynch).

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy

You’re welcome

guardiansWomen were the original storytellers.  Those visual narratives smeared on the walls of ancient caves?  Created by women.  Women have also penned some of the greatest novels, short stories, and poems in our history, from Sappho to Flannery O’Connor to Grace Paley to Virginia Woolf, right down to Amy Hempel, Karen Russell, Jennifer Egan, Helen Oyeyemi, and Eowyn Ivey.  So as much of a landmark it is that a female screenwriter (Nicole Perlman) finally has her name attached to one of the Marvel Universe’s cornucopia of formula CG-action movies, it’s no revelation, and it’s infuriating to read headlines such as “Who Knew Women Could Write Superhero Movies?” We all did.  Women write much better stuff on a daily basis.  The real landmark here is that the Marvel people have finally allowed for this to happen, and the result is a superhero movie that is more sarcastic, self-possessed, and absorbing than anything of its type since the original Iron Man.

The story begins yet another “boy with a dead mother” narrative.  Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) fails to comfort his mother (Laura Haddock) as she dies of cancer.  Equipped with only a mixtape of her favorite ’70s songs (“Awesome Mix #1”) and her final unopened birthday present to him, he runs out into a field, where he is soon abducted by aliens.  A normal day at the hospital, really.  Twenty-something years later, in a utopian used-future, Quill is a bandit and has fashioned himself “Star-Lord.”  The whole thing has a real Outlaw Star vibe.  His frenemy/mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) becomes annoyed when Quill takes a valuable sphere for himself, as does a religious fanatic called Ronan (Lee Pace), whose henchman Korath (Djimon Hounsou) was sent to pick it up before having an unfortunate encounter with Quill.  In the absence of his mother, Quill has become a selfish, thieving womanizer, and now some serious galactic powers are after him.  Ronan, played by Lee Pace as a laconic, one-dimensional amalgam of Shredder and any Dragonball Z villain, sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve the stolen orb.  Through one thing and another, Gamora, a ruthless assassin whose sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) also works with Ronan, reveals that she was planning on betraying Ronan anyway, as the MacGuffin everyone is after contains an Infinity Stone, an object able to raze entire civilizations in seconds.  Guess what Ronan plans on doing with it?

Quill and Gamora, after meeting bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) – a science experiment gone wrong, who appears as a foul-mouthed raccoon, but has never heard of raccoons – and Groot (apparently Vin Diesel), a walking CG tree who only knows three words (“I am Groot”), end up in a classic scenario: imprisoned with a bunch of tough inmates who hate them, and in need of a friendly inmate to help them out.  This help comes in the form of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Ronan during one of the latter’s routine killing sprees.  Convenient motivation!  Once they escape, they discover that Ronan’s next target is the planet Xandar, a facsimile of Earth, and home to the Nova Corps (generic good-guy space-marines), plenty of unsuspecting folks with children, and a certain philanderer who looks an awful lot like Stan Lee.  Needless to say, this aggression will not stand, man.  Quill’s group formulates a plan to get rid of Ronan and keep the stone safe, and the whole thing goes pretty much how you’d expect.

Chris Pratt, known for playing the frumpy and loveable Andy Dwyer on Parks & Rec, does a lot of work with the character of Quill that an already-established film comedian – say, Ben Stiller – would not have had to do.  Perlman’s script is not afraid to make Quill initially unlikeable and selfish for the sake of being selfish, and even though we know he’s destined to become the film’s Boring Hero, he feels like an actual character by the time he gets to that point (or at least, as much of a character as one can be in a movie made up of nearly nonstop action).  Dave Bautista’s stilted acting suits the character of Drax perfectly: he’s a muscleheaded Spartan-style warrior who only speaks literally and doesn’t understand metaphors or sarcasm (“Nothing goes over my head!  My reflexes are much too fast.  I would just catch it.”).  Cooper’s voice is nearly unrecognizable as Rocket, who ends up as one of the most fully realized characters in the film, albeit with almost no real background revealed – I imagine this will be sequel fodder, along with the details of Quill’s parentage and the leftover villains.

Zoe Saldana plays Gamora with great confidence, and she is the film’s truest badass, but as the story begins to center more and more around Quill, the woman who overpowered every member of the cast at the beginning (including Drax, whom she could have killed back in prison) suddenly relies on the stubbly hero, is reluctantly attracted to his silly dancing, and agrees to follow his lead.  She’s not exactly downtrodden, but she’s always second fiddle, is needlessly called a “whore” at one point, and ultimately satisfies the male wish fulfillment that comes with having a protagonist like Quill, right down to occupying a void left by Quill’s mother at the beginning (as if taking Gamora’s hand during a vital time makes up for the fact that his mother died a lonely, agonizing death).  The group makes heavy use of the No Girls Allowed Clause, even allowing two Big Tough Guys, but only one woman.  The opposition does the same: Nebula is the most adept, hardy, and consistent of the villainous characters, while Korath grovels and gets his butt whupped, and Ronan alternatively broods and bickers with his partner, Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Nebula’s real conflict is with Gamora, her adoptive sister, and her escape enables future layers for her character, rather than just having her function as one of the big three bad guys, so that every member of the hero team has someone to fight at the end (although in terms of this movie itself, she satisfies that condition too).

Most of the characters’ behavior makes sense, and the adventure itself is something they’re simply dragged into, making them Marvel’s true “ragtag” group.  In fact, Ronan pejoratively labels them the “Guardians of the Galaxy” after what seems to be a crippling screw-up on their part.  Everyone has a background that could have conceivably brought them to where they are, although most of that background isn’t explored because so much time is devoted to chases and explosions, and because the structure of the film is that of a fast-paced and linear video game.  Even the histrionic theatrics of Ronan, which he goes through again and again instead of just killing the heroes, seems justified when you think of him as a fanatical alien whose sense of ceremony is just as important to him as what he actually accomplishes.

What sets Guardians apart from other superhero stock is its sarcasm and self-conscious quality.  Or at least, its attempt to be aware of what it is.  During an obligatory Hero Shot, Gamora yawns and Quill wipes his nose.  Quill constantly makes references to pre-’90s pop culture, including Ranger Rick, Alf, Alyssa Milano, and others that the film’s target demographic won’t get.  When Quill makes his plea for aid from the Nova Corps, who have vilified him for years, his big justification is that he’s “an a-hole, but not one-hundred-percent a dick.”  The funny parts are genuinely funny due to Pratt’s delivery.  But the issue is that the film still carries the structure of every other Marvel movie, in spite of how much they make make fun of it, so when the inevitable epiphanies happen and Quill decides to be a good guy, it’s a sham.  Even Quill can’t explain why he risks his life to save Gamora when she’s spaced by Nebula; he knows it would have made more sense to just save himself.  His big rallying speech to the Guardians argues that this is their chance to “give a shit,” and even after Rocket correctly lampshades the obligatory Heroes Standing Up One at a Time scene as “a bunch of jackasses standing in a circle,” that scene has still happened, and for the same reason it happens in every one of these movies: Freytag’s Superhero Pyramid.

The film comes very close to being Marvel’s redheaded stepchild, and is genuinely better than most Marvel movies despite being bogged down by conventions and still being too “safe” for fear of not making its money back.  But hey, we’re talking about a company that responds to accusations of gender discrimination by turning one of its already-famous male characters female instead of just creating a new female character.  What are you afraid of, Marvel?

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); written by Nicole Perlman; directed by James Gunn; starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, and Bradley Cooper. 

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