Another entertaining ‘feminist’ superhero film misses the mark
Let me start by noting that I am not a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and consider only three of its twenty previous films worth watching (Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther), though I admit that I have only watched about half of the MCU films. Most MCU films I have seen had far too much mindless and pointless violent action and I am a little surprised filmgoers haven’t gotten bored. Based on the box office figures for Captain Marvel this past weekend, not only have filmgoers not gotten bored they continue to run to the cinema the instant a new MCU film is released. I would not normally be inclined to add to MCU’s box office figures, since they represent a greedy Hollywood machine that has determined that the continuing MCU story (which I don’t consider worth telling) can be milked endlessly for billions of dollars. But Captain Marvel is MCU’s Wonder Woman, the first time a woman has a lead role in the MCU, and she is played by Brie Larson, who has consistently impressed me. So I took a chance, though my expectations were low (always wise).
Captain Marvel begins on the planet Hala, capital of the Kree empire, where Vers (Larson) is a member of an elite fighting force. Her trainer, mentor and commander is Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is trying to teach Vers to control both her emotions and the use of her special powers (a laser she shoots out of her fists). Vers, meanwhile, is haunted by nightmares and the fact that she has no memory of what happened to her before she was found by Yon-Rogg six years before.
The Kree (who look like humans) are at war with the shape-shifting Scrull (who look like humanoid lizards). On a mission to rescue an undercover Kree operative from the Scrulls, Vers is kidnapped by the Scrull leader, Talos (Ben Mendelssohn), who forces her to reveal memories she doesn’t know she has. Her attempt to escape lands her in the city of Los Angeles on planet C-53, where we discover that the film is set in 1995 (before the other MCU films). The unusual arrival of Vers (crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster store) attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), who will join Vers on a wild ride, full of twists and turns, as they seek to uncover what the Scrull are hunting for (and find it themselves). Along the way, Vers discovers clues to her missing memories, leading her to a retired air force pilot named Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).
To avoid spoilers, I will reveal no more of the satisfyingly-complex plot, except to note that a cat by the name of Goose has a major role in the film.
I confess I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Captain Marvel. Except for a few overdone action sequences, the film doesn’t feel much like typical MCU films. It feels softer, friendlier, more old-fashioned, more innocent and more like DC than Marvel. The trio of Vers, Fury and Goose are particularly sympathetic and fun to watch (there is considerable humour in the film). I also appreciated the the 90’s period feel (with appropriate music); and the Scrull were a highlight. The acting of everyone mentioned above is excellent. Larson is a perfect choice to play Vers, whose character is fresh and intriguing even if it isn’t developed enough and even though she shows surprisingly little emotion for a woman struggling to control her emotions.
I confess I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Captain Marvel. Except for a few overdone action sequences, the film doesn’t feel much like typical MCU films.
I have no doubt that much of what I liked about Captain Marvel can be credited to the women behind the camera. The film was written by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Geneva Robertson-Dworet and the couple who directed the film: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who’ve made some excellent indie films). There is a clear attempt to make Captain Marvel an empowering feminist film, exemplified particularly in the way Vers refuses to be beaten no matter how often she is knocked down and in her relationship with Rambeau. The film shows that women are not only more compassionate than men, but can also be more intelligent and stronger.
Unfortunately, the attempts to make Captain Marvel a film that will empower girls and young women are severely undermined by the fact that Vers is part of the military machine from beginning to end. Indeed, it’s possible to see this film as a recruiting tool for the US Air Force, as the logo appears time and again (including on a young girl’s t-shirt) and Vers intentionally takes on the colours of the US Air Force. At least Wonder Woman was, in principle (if not in practice), opposed to the military machine. Vers gives no second thought to using violence whenever it seems necessary (which is often), a consistent theme in the MCU and one which makes it easy to see why the US defense establishment has supported the making of MCU films in various ways (never a good sign). There are hints of an anti-imperialist theme in Captain Marvel (as there are in a few other MCU films) but they are too weak and inconsistent.
Other flaws in Captain Marvel include the dull washed-out cinematography (the result, yet again, of being made for 3D) and a story that needs to be fleshed out in various ways (Yon-Rogg and Vers, at the least, require much more character development, and we learn very little about the Kree).
Captain Marvel is an entertaining film with a gentle heart and some attempts at social commentary that feel compromised by the presence of the US military, by the low value placed on enemy life and by the need to be part of the MCU moneymaking machine. It’s not as good as Wonder Woman but has much in common with it. Unfortunately, that includes the idea that it’s possible to use violence to end all wars.
Captain Marvel is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language.