Captain Marvel: I’m All I Wanna Be, by David Bax
During the first act of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, when the movie is concerned solely with the actions of a platoon of alien space marines, I started to get my hopes up, imagining that the cheap-looking sets and costumes and the hokey dialogue were an homage to syndicated genre TV shows of the 1990s, the decade in which the movie is set. The labored exposition—we learn that no one knows what the group’s commander, the Supreme Intelligence, looks like when a character who should already know the answer asks, “Has anyone ever seen what the Supreme Intelligence really looks like?”—would have been right at home on an episode of, say, Stargate SG-1. I laughed out loud, thinking I was in on the joke, when, after the question is answered, the character who asked it is admonished, “You already know that.” But it quickly becomes clear that the movie is not engaged in some winking mode of formalist humor. Its hokeyness is just a symptom of the malady of low ambition to which it falls victim. In a direct insult to the values of its comic book protagonist, Captain Marvel is content to be merely adequate.
Brie Larson stars as a warrior of the Kree race known only as Vers. Along with her superior officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and their team, including Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan), they help defend the Kree empire from the Skrulls, an invading race of shape-shifters. When a Skrull ambush leaves Vers stranded in a more primitive land (1995 Los Angeles), she teams up with secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to keep Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) from invading Earth and to help her reunite with her people. Until, that is, new clues about her mysterious past arise.
Captain Marvel’s 1995 setting has a practical purpose, tying the character into the ongoing timeline of the Marvel cinematic universe without disrupting the current cliffhanger between Avengers movies. And it’s an excuse to really indulge in that de-aging thing Marvel loves to do. Here, Jackson and the lamented but returning Clark Gregg get to spend a whole movie looking a quarter century younger. Other than that, Boden and Fleck seem uninspired by the period. The soundtrack is full of obvious song choices (No Doubt, Nirvana), though some of them are undeniably great (Elastica’s “Connection,” Hole’s “Celebrity Skin”). And the movie never goes too long without trying to milk laughs of recognition from the audience (“Remember Blockbuster?! What about AltaVista?!”). One wonders how RadioShack, a company that still exists, feels about being an inspiration for mocking nostalgia.
There are attempts, early on, to play off of great Los Angeles-based action movies of the era. An action scene inside a Metro car recalls the climax of Speed while a foot chase is a possible reference to Point Break, especially in terms of playing fast and loose with the city’s actual geography, leaping from a North Hollywood parking lot to an elevated light rail station in El Segundo in a literal single bound. But then that sequence quickly, bafflingly becomes a French Connection retread, with Fury following the train at top speed in his car.
After those half-hearted brushes with inspiration, the action sequences go back to being sluggish and muddled. Every punch thrown feels about as ham-fisted as the movie’s allegory about political refugees being treated as terrorists. Not that it isn’t an interesting and important subject to ponder but it’s an odd swing for Boden and Fleck to take when they can’t even achieve the most basic goal of creating an interesting protagonist.
When we think of the unifying style and mood of the Marvel films, we often think about the chuckles they inspire, especially in comparison to the more dour tone Zack Snyder originally set for the competing DC universe. Captain Marvel has a handful of good jokes; Minn-Erva calling Earth “a real shithole” is both funny and more pointedly political than the broader, blunter metaphors at play. But most of them are lame and, in too many cases–like invoking Fury’s yet to be acquired, signature eyepatch–are self-referential, perhaps a sign that Marvel Studios’ hubris is leading it up its own ass. But the thing that actually sets apart the best of the MCU films—not to mention the source of some of their best jokes—is the leads with human flaws, from the arrogance of Tony Stark and Dr. Strange to the impulsiveness of Peter Quill to the hesitation and self-doubt of Bruce Banner. We may learn Vers’ true name and how she came to be a Kree warrior but we never learn enough about who she is, flaws and all, to make her anything more than another interchangeable hero in a shiny suit.