Do you think Disney has been digitally de-aging celebrities with increasing regularity over the years in anticipation of this, a film where one of the top-billed stars needs to look like he did in 1995 for the entire duration? This is one of the more pressing questions I had coming out of the latest MCU outing. And it’s not because CAPTAIN MARVEL isn’t yet another solid way to spend a couple hours, but because it deliberately answers no questions in the greater scheme. This is how we judge movies now, folks: by how much each individual piece sheds light on the whole puzzle, and we’re right in the middle of two closely-tied AVENGERS flicks, so CAPTAIN MARVEL has little interest in divulging many secrets.
I don’t want to sound like another jaded jerk who’s had enough of Marvel, or worse: one of those weirdos who thought this film would be Marvel’s undoing because Brie Larson dared to have an opinion. So, let me get quick to the point that might matter most to you: I recommend CAPTAIN MARVEL. How can you not recommend an MCU film? They’ve perfected a formula that nearly guarantees a good time, and to their credit, that’s still an admirable feat—especially when you consider what DC has been scattershotting against the wall in the vain hopes that most of its undercooked spaghetti will stick. This metaphor is getting away from me. Where was I? Right. CAPTAIN MARVEL is fun. Marvel continues to understand how to hit story beats. Their humour team is crackin’. They’re masterful at cultivating on-screen chemistry between their stars. One day, there will be university classes taught on how Marvel managed to condense populist storytelling into a tight math equation.
CAPTAIN MARVEL is directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (editor’s note: they directed one of my favourite movies of the 00’s, HALF NELSON). But really, what percentage of the film they directed is up to debate. These films are under the strict guidance of Kevin Feige and company; they need to meet certain criteria so they can keep feeding into one another. Plus, these films are becoming more and more effects heavy, to the point where prolonged sequences are almost entirely artificial. Maybe Brie Larson was filmed for reference, but otherwise it’s all under the artistry of many, many, many special effects folks. And I have to wonder how much Boden and Fleck directed this stuff or if it more often fell to visual effects supervisors.
This is another thought that keeps popping up for me where the MCU is concerned. I gave INFINITY WAR top marks because, while it was impossible to understand without eighteen films already under your belt, it felt very well controlled by the Russo brothers. And this is no shock; their MCU debut WINTER SOLDIER could have doubled as a mid-nineties Schwarzenegger action flick. It’s tautly edited, loaded with stunt work, and doesn’t trod alien territory. They’re economical storytellers and excellent action directors. But CAPTAIN MARVEL feels like standard Marvel. You know, the ones that don’t quite stand out. THOR DARK WORLD or DOCTOR STRANGE or ANT-MAN. It suffers from dropping us in a jumbled pre-existing world told through information dumps, doesn’t try to reach for much characterization, and follows predictable patterns. The MCU films that stand out for you are the ones that are given more latitude to tell their stories. The first two AVENGERS films are snappy because Joss Whedon was allowed to make them snappy. The GUARDIANS films are odes to classic rock because of James Gunn. IRON MAN 3 and THOR RAGNAROK stand out because of their writer/directors—Shane Black and Taika Waititi respectively. While CAPTAIN MARVEL is a good time, it’s not a great time.
That said, I want to say that as the first female-led superhero film in the anthology, it’s nice to see this fact handled with deft writing. Larson is never sexualized. Instead, she’s often funny. She’s a formidable force and you feel it. And there are a few subtle lines, lines that may not be so subtle to women in the audience, that remind us of her power as both a woman and a human. It’s no BLACK PANTHER in the sense that it’s both a celebration and a social commentary, but it’s still not dumb enough to squander its moment.
Maybe I’m just waiting for the MCU to collapse on itself like a dying star. I know how jaded-jerk that sounds, but when I can see the formula like code overlaid on the picture, it’s time to quit the engines. INFINITY WAR was fun because it was unprecedented. But how much farther can we go? We’ve been asking the question for a while now but, really, after eleven years, we know this will fizzle like comic books did. My prediction? It’ll start around the release of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3, but that’s just because they fired James Gunn and I’m still bitter about it.
Addendum: Disney decided to wait until the day after I wrote this review to rehire James Gunn because they knew I wrote this and they have spies everywhere. So, sure, maybe the MCU will never fade into the ether. Maybe it’ll last forever, and in eight years Chris Evans will have a cameo and everyone will cheer, and it will never end. What good news.