Heroism Reduced to Firepower in Marvel's 'Captain Marvel,' a Movie That is Fine


  • Chuck Zlotnick, ©Marvel Studios 2019
I, too, love Ben Mendelsohn. The Aussie actor, lately a drawling bad guy in Rogue One, Ready Player One and Robin Hood is, in Captain Marvel — in theaters everywhere Thursday night — a drawling bad guy as well. He plays the shape-shifting alien Talos, who appears as a green humanoid lizard with the same scrotal chin as Thanos; and, when he takes human form, as Ben Mendelsohn.

The star of Netflix's Bloodline worked alongside directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck in the 2015 gambling-bender flick Mississippi Grind and is serviceable here, despite the garish makeup. (Ready Player One was the film in which he was clearly miscast, IMHO.) There are so many unique working character actors, though, that it's odd to see Mendelsohn cornering the market. It's kind of like watching Josh Brolin playing both Thanos in Infinity War and the villain in Deadpool 2 last year.  Spice it up, casting directors! The world is wide! 

Captain Marvel, for the record, is fine.

There is nothing surprising or particularly special about it, in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it's fine. There's some amusing banter. 

As the MCU theoretically winds down, the introduction of yet another central character seems over the top — a meaningless phrase, when talking about today's superhero movies — but it's good PR to ensure that the planet's avenging heroes more closely represent the demographics of the planet they're supposed to be avenging. Captain Marvel was a man in the comics. She's Brie Larson in the film.

And that's terrific. But the film's not particularly feminist, beyond the warm depiction of a female friendship, (between Captain Marvel and her earthen Air Force buddy Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch)), an interracial military coupling not unlike Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson: You know, the white, all-powerful military superstar and the black, straight-talking sidekick. 

But a lot of the slo-mo shots of Larson, in flight gear or alien warrior suit, standing up slowly after getting knocked down, to me were indistinguishable from the military propaganda of NFL halftime shows, or the Army recruiting commercials themselves. This film is absurdly pro-military, despite an (accidental?) undercurrent of anti-imperialism. 

Larson plays an alien named "Vers" who, after a botched rescue mission with her commander (Jude Law) and team of alien warrior spies (incl. Djimon Hansou, Gemma Chan) escapes to earth and must track down a rogue scientist (Annette Benning), to retrieve some sort of energy source before Talos and the shape-shifting Skrulls get it. Meanwhile, she's keen to recover some lost memories, and senses that there's more to her backstory than the AI Supreme Intelligence on her home planet has let on.

It's Los Angeles of the mid-90s, and Vers' copilot on this mission is none other than Nicholas J. Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who's ostensibly investigating her as he tags along. These are pre-Avengers days, and despite his oil black hair, Jackson reveals himself to be an actor in his 70s when he attempts to jog.
Like Joss Whedon's Avengers, this script is packed to the gills with witticisms and jokey dialogue. It's nonstop. The scenes move from one-liners to heartfelt monologues — you are the bravest and most powerful woman I know, etc. — with very little in between. It feels more like the interactions in the panels of a comic book than natural human conversation, but again, [shrug emoji]. Larson appears to working against that impression, playing up Vers' sarcasm and general Americanness. She is the photo negative of Gal Gadot's steely Wonder Woman. She's a lovable presence — Brie! So sweet! — but her instant comfort and playfulness with complete strangers sometimes doesn't quite land.

It is undoubtedly a step forward, though, that Larson and the female characters are rarely, if ever, overtly sexualized. There are no lingering shots of her backside as she struts in too-tight leather, for example. 

Otherwise, there's about 400 homages to the recently deceased Stan Lee, including the opening Marvel studio graphic and a moment, on a train, when Brie Larson nods and smiles at a CGI Stan, who's reading a "Mallrats" script. A little much, for my money.

The action is by and large undistinguished. And while the production designers had fun recreating Los Angeles of the 90s — Vers plummets to earth and lands in a Blockbuster store — the marquee sequences take place in outer space, the MCU having moved definitively into hard sci-fi territory. My personal opinion is that the more grounded adventures in Captain America: Winter Soldier and Iron Man, for example, were much more enjoyable and visually interesting. 

The real dissatisfying narrative element, though, is the way that superior firepower connotes superior heroism in the film. The only way to topple the bad guys is by blowing them to smithereens. Even if the weapon is a woman — when fully engaged, Captain Marvel is as fearsome and godlike an atomic fireball as Doctor Manhattan — she is nevertheless a weapon. And despite Stan Lee's oft-cited quote that a real superhero is one who helps others because it's "the right thing to do," in Captain Marvel, the real superhero is the one with the most powerful guns.  

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