Sunday, March 10, 2019

MARVEL-OUS: Despite The Controversy, "Captain Marvel" Is A Solid, Engaging Film.

'"Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake 
I shake it off, I shake it off." 

- Taylor Swift; "Shake It Off" (2014) 


Such a lovely, yet weighty word...a "twenty-dollar", haughty, and perhaps pretentious word; however, it's one that completely captures the essence of "DAFUQ[?]". 

What I mean by "DAFUQ" is the sheer level of controversy over a super-hero film about a character few outside of fandom even heard of (well, at least this version of the character with a famous and controversial name, but I digress). That's what I find incomprehensible. Don't get me wrong. I've heard all about Brie Larson's misconstrued comments, Samuel L. Jackson's comebacks to the "haters", fan blasts that the real "Captain Marvel" belongs to the distinguished competition, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige's attempt to push the character as the greatest thing since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster put pen to paper, Rotten Tomatoes review hacking, etc.... 

And this was all BEFORE the movie was released to the general public.


"Incomprehensible" because the film itself is quite good, even if it arguably exists solely to keep the title character from becoming a deux ex machina in the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame.

Captain Marvel follows the journey of an amnesiac named "Vers" (Brie Larson) an intergalactic police person/warrior for an alien race known as the Kree who are attempting to eradicate their sworn enemy, a shape-shifting race known as the Skrulls. Sent on a mission to extract one of her own, the endeavor goes south and she ends up on Earth circa 1995, where she meets up with Agent Nicholas J. Fury (Jules, Samuel L. Jackson) and his newly minted-partner Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Pursued by Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), Vers goes on the run not only to find a human named Lawson (Annette Benning) who holds the key to the race war, but to find out the truth about herself and the power she wields.

Pretty straight forward, yes? Well, not quite. The movie almost follows Marvel Studios' by-the-numbers playbook, but it does manage to turn some aspects on their head, even if they telegraph the results before their revealed. Directorial duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck do a good job of keeping their screenplay (with assist by Geneva Robertson-Dworet) relatively brisk and engaging, even if the beginning plods with obligatory exposition. However, one of the strengths of the script is the willingness to subvert expectation. Some of those attempts work, some not quite as well. But on the whole it makes for a stronger film. Though it is blatant in its attempt to subliminally convince the viewer that Captain Marvel has always been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kudos go to the director/screenwriting team to pepper the film with pieces of the decade-plus history; pigeon-holding this film in that pantheon without contradicting or retconning what came before, even as it sets up the pieces and elements for the aforementioned Endgame. If you're a follower of these films, some questions will be answered, some will be raised, but none will be so jarring as to take you out of the narrative.

A word to comic purists, be warned...this film, more than any other Marvel film to date, throws out any and all comic canon regarding ANY of these characters, so expectations should be checked at the door.

Speaking of the is a condition of storytelling that narratives reflect the times they are created, whether in agreement or in opposition. And it's this reflection of the cultural zeitgeist that is at the heart of the controversy (so perhaps it's not so incomprehensible in that perspective). Is there a feminist agenda? After all, there are women's issues referenced in the film that resonate even tody, but I would also state that there are strong human (and inhuman) characters in this film who happen to be of different genders and races so, if that's one's basis for the "feminist" critique, then yes it is, but it's nowhere near as heavy-handed as, say, the CW's Supergirl series. On the contrary, it's organic to the proceedings; undertoned but not existing for its own sake. But that argument is so pervasive in the discourse regarding this film, the meta-commentary regarding cultural assimilation and terrorism is practically swept under the proverbial rug. It makes for a subtle yet powerful commentary regarding patriotism and humanity, one that doesn't provide any easy answers, but makes for consideration if one knows where to look for it.

One of the few drawbacks to the film is that the script on its own is a perfunctory affair, where the characters go from point "A" to "B" without much effort. It's economic storytelling; omitting details that some might find necessary or useful. There may be some head scratching here or there, but given the ultimate purpose of this film, it's understandable why the producers chose to go that route. Another uneven element here is the film's special effects. In some aspects, they're above par but lacking in certain others. Luckily, the weaknesses are not so overt as to become distracting. Perhaps the focus was on the film's climax, which was as rousing a visual spectacle as Marvel Studios' has ever presented. Known primarily for his work on Sy-Fy's series Krypton, composer Pinar Toprak does provide a rousing, if generic, score that bolsters the proceedings.

The performances are top notch, with Brie Larson leading the way. Her character is competent, tough, capable, yet surprisingly vulnerable. Her cool demeanor is a result of the character's journey and not the merits of Larson's acting. The fact that she can make such an initially distant character sympathetic with such ease belies that critique. Frankly, it's refreshing to see a superhero enjoy their powers on screen for a change (which, among another scene or two is, to this reviewer, reminiscent of another film circa 1978). Samuel Jackson presents a nascent Nick Fury, one who's not quite the hardened, world-weary spy we first see in Iron Man (2008) (speaking of which, kudos go to the SFX team for their work on both Jackson and Clark Gregg...cinematic de-aging has come a long way since Tron: Legacy (2010)), who enjoys a great chemistry with his co-star as well as allowing himself to show his "softer" side. Speaking of Gregg, while he doesn't have much to do in the film, it serves as a nice compare-and-contrast between his character here and how he's presented in ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. As far as the aliens, the casting of Mendelsohn as Talos was an inspired choice, both in terms of his surprisingly down-to-Earth (excuse the pun) performance but also the subliminal expectation his casting entails.As Kree warrior Yon-Rogg, Jude Law is as reliable as he always is, even if the material doesn't give him that much to work with. However, the MVP in this film supporting wise is Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, whose friendship with Vers provides the emotional heart of the film, humanizing the main character even further. Also, keep a close eye on the character of Monica Rambeau (played by Azari Akbar and Akira Akbar, respectively), not only is the character precociously engaging, but will probably feature in the films to come. Special kudos go to Annette Benning as multiple characters, seemingly having a ball with her performance.

Captain Marvel is a solid, collaborative superhero film that works even as it tries to be fresh. While not among the best of Marvel Studios' output, it's a good film with strong characters running a spectrum of gender and race without calling undue attention to it. It also features not one, but two tributes to the recently-departed architect of the Marvel Universe, so be sure to bring a tissue or two (and minor spoiler...this is arguably the first cameo as the man himself and not some stock character. See the scene and you'll know what I mean). Whatever your prejudices or (mis)conceptions, Captain Marvel is enjoyable and fun. So ignore the haters, shake off the vitriol, watch this film and judge for yourself. To consider otherwise is...incomprehensible.

...or would you prefer, inconceivable?