CAPTAIN MARVEL Never Quite Takes Off

At some point in Captain Marvel it dawned on me: this movie is set in the 90s. Maybe it was when Carol Danvers stood in front of a wall plastered with posters for Smashing Pumpkins, Bush and PJ Harvey. Maybe it was when she wore a Nine Inch Nails shirt and Nick Fury told her the grunge look was good on her. Maybe it was when every song that played in the movie was a well-worn 90s track. Maybe it was when everybody sat around comically waiting for a CD-ROM to load. Maybe it was when Carol looked up info on Alta Vista. Maybe it was when the movie had a close-up of a record player playing Nevermind.

The movie’s brutal reliance on 90s references could be just an irritating tic, but I think it actually gets at the fundamental problem that lies under the surface of Captain Marvel – this is a movie more constructed than crafted, and those needle drops feel like part of the construction, a knowing attempt to get in on the ‘90s kid’ generation and their desire to have their own childhood chewed up and spit back into their faces. Big parts of this movie feel inorganic and airdropped in, and those big parts are especially frustrating because Captain Marvel is peppered with small moments of absolutely organic beauty and charm.

Those organic moments feel like they come directly as a result of the influence of the film’s directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who have an indie film background. There are a couple of scenes in Captain Marvel – quiet scenes, talking scenes, human scenes – that are among the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. Carol Danvers and Nick Fury doing the dishes while Fury sings the Marvelettes is a moment of sublime love and connection. Carol sitting down with her best friend, Maria Rambeau, and revealing to her the secret of her missing six years, is a sequence with real emotional resonance. Hell, even the shifty, shape-shifting Skrull get sequences of emotional weight that work, largely thanks to the work of Ben Mendelsohn.

Maybe the greatest moment in Captain Marvel is also a moment that absolutely illustrates what doesn’t work about the movie. The minorest of spoilers here: late in the film, as she seems to be on the verge of defeat, Carol gets back on her feet to continue fighting. This moment is punctuated with a series of flashbacks to Carol’s whole life, from early childhood to her days as an Air Force cadet, where she has fallen. We’ve seen these moments peppered throughout the film, but here they run as a montage, with Carol again and again stumbling, often while being told that she can’t do the thing she’s trying to attempt. Throughout the film we’ve seen Carol fall, but here in this montage we see her get back up, again and again. If my counting is correct, it’s a literal representation of the Zen proverb “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” And each of these Carols from the past gets up and dusts herself off, looking right into the camera, looking right at the Carol of the present but also at us, in the audience.

It’s a powerful moment, and it represents a thematic heart that is both current and incredibly inspiring. It’s shot beautifully, even if sort of looks like a Super Bowl commercial (the line between great individual sequences in movies and advertising is blurred beyond recognition in the 21st century). It’s a hero moment on par with Steve Rogers throwing himself on the grenade in Captain America: The First Avenger – this is a moment that tells us Carol Danvers is a true hero, through and through, long before she got any special powers.

And yet it feels like an anomaly in the larger film, and I think it lands because of the filmmaking, not because of the emotional build-up of the film. It’s part of the movie that feels constructed, if only because it’s part of a decision to tell large parts of Carol’s history in flashback and exposition, a decision that absolutely and totally undercuts the arc of the character.

This is a real bummer, because I suspect there’s a script with a very good version of Carol’s arc. But the movie as it exists doesn’t have much more than exposition about her arc. Because we never know pre-Kree Carol in any meaningful way – the flashbacks themselves are often really flashes – we don’t get a chance to feel her journey. We don’t feel the journey of Vers – Carol’s Kree name – either, because when we are introduced to her she’s already full of doubts about who she is; we never get to see her at her confident best. So what happens is that we meet this character at a midway turning point and the script doesn’t do a strong enough job of establishing who she was before the opening, in either life.

The double bummer is that Carol’s thematic arc – allowing herself to express emotions – is also shorted by the script. It’s certainly discussed, sometimes at length, but it doesn’t really play out in action. Everybody discusses the idea (which the film rejects) that Carol needs to control her emotions, but we never see how this really plays out. There are no consequences or upsides to her control or lack thereof, and even at the end of the movie, when she is able to access the full range of her powers, it isn’t really from letting her emotions flow, but rather from pulling off the nicotine patch on her neck that damped her powers down.

There’s enough discussion of her arc in the movie that I think it will land for some, if not many people, but I wanted something more organic and more in line with the great small scenes that pepper the film. Examining that X factor that makes a great test pilot – that gut instinct, that willingness to trust how you FEEL over what the dials on the cockpit dash are telling you – is fascinating, and exactly what The Right Stuff, which this movie references a few times, is examining. But because we don’t get Carol as a pilot, and because Vers is just a generic warrior, there’s no space in the film to go there, except in exposition.

That all of this stuff is almost there, hidden under what seems like reshoots and scene reshuffles, only makes Captain Marvel all the more frustrating. It feels as if they never quite cracked the story on this one; rather they got the character arc they wanted to follow and then tried to reverse engineer something to fit that, and then once the story they came up with didn’t work they chipped away at the stuff that explicated the arc until we ended up with this flatness. We have a hamstrung arc and a story that’s slack because it’s chasing a mystery to which we already know the answers. It’s all further hampered by the fact that Carol Danvers doesn’t really have many iconic storylines, so the screenplay has less existing material on which to lean.

About that: we’re going to get into spoilers here. Beware!

The movie does go some really interesting places at the end, especially in regards to the Skrull, who get more depth and nuance here than they may have gotten in 50 years of Marvel Comics. But we have to slog through a whole second act to get to that, and I’m not sure the payoffs are worth it. Or rather, I’m not sure the payoffs are given the space they need. Jude Law’s heel turn carries no weight because he just isn’t enough of a presence in the movie, and when Carol is fighting against Star Force who even cares – none of these characters are defined in any way, and she has no relationship with any of them. As for the Skrulls – I love the twist that all they want is to get away from Kree persecution, but at the same time everybody jumps to believing them very quickly. There’s interesting tension to be mined from Carol switching sides – trusting her gut to do so, in fact – but it doesn’t get played out as drama in the film.

Also not getting played out properly: the reveal that Annette Benning is Mar-Vell; the structure of the movie relegates Benning to almost no screen time, and most of the screen time she does have is spent as the Kree Supreme Intelligence, assuming the form of Mar-Vell to talk to Carol (BTW, I have to say that having the Kree Supreme Intelligence in a movie is a dream I never imagined coming true. We live in an age of nerd miracles). I think the movie didn’t want to step on Carol’s empowerment by giving Mar-Vell too much to do, but I think the idea of a legacy hero is one of the great ideas in comic books, and having Carol grapple with living up to the legacy of Mar-Vell would have made a nice throughline in this film – to have dueling mentors, Yon-Rogg and Mar-Vell, could have added depth.

There’s no point in wishing Captain Marvel were a different movie, or had a better script, but it’s frustrating to experience so many lovely moments interspersed with so many more moments of drudgery. The movie’s not bad, it’s just kind of flat, and often felt cobbled together (the big fight scene set to Just A Girl is only for the audience, since none of the characters she’s fighting have ever doubted her due to her gender. This is an example of how the movie feels constructed inorganically). The MCU film this most resembles, to me, is The Incredible Hulk – a movie that’s fine, that has some really great moments and performances, and a movie whose ambition you can see but which it never achieves.

None of this is to discount the intense reaction people are having to the movie, which makes me very happy. I’m glad there’s a film like this speaking to people, and I look forward to more of them. I definitely look forward to more Captain Marvel in the MCU, especially if Brie Larson – who is a blockbuster movie star for sure – gets scripts that do her justice. I know there’s a great Captain Marvel movie waiting to be made.