Friday, April 12, 2019

Captain Marvel: Review

Sparring with her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Kree soldier Vers (Brie Larson) is told, “Humour is a distraction." The MCU tone is by now well-enough established that this can be read as an in-joke. Marvel has perfected the art of the passing – and passable – wisecrack, and Captain Marvel keeps them coming, mostly from Larson or Samuel L Jackson (as a pre-Avengers Nick Fury) but also from Ben Mendelsohn buried under green prosthetics. Of all the genres that go into making a typical Marvel film – action, family drama, war film – comedy probably earns them the most mileage, and is a key differentiator from stiff DC.

But can Marvel films be differentiated from each other? Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel was supposed to pave the way for a fresh cycle of MCU movies. Yet, it feels like much of what has come before. It centers on a soldier with a hazy past – just like that other Captain. Some of the people we meet are old friends (Fury, Phil Coulson) and enemies (Ronan the Accuser). The family scenes on Earth are somewhat like the ones involving Hawkeye. There’s even a moment that replicates the comic shock of Hulk thumping Loki about in the first Avengers film. It’s shot crisply, cleanly and without personality, in the Marvel house style that only Thor: Ragnarok has been able to decisively break from.

There is one innovation, though I’m not sure it does the film any dramatic favours. Unlike nearly every superhero film apart from the Superman ones, Vers – part of a military team on Kree headed by Yon-Rogg – has her powers from the start: hands that turn into turbocharged weapons. Her superiors can switch off these powers, ostensibly because she doesn’t know how to control them, but she seems to use them just fine when she gets the chance. The slow gaining of superpowers is a basic but enjoyable genre trope, but this is ditched in favour of a protracted origin story, with Vers learning of her life as a fighter pilot on Earth in parceled-out flashbacks, and a stream of 90s jokes (the smartest of which is Vers picking up a VHS of The Right Stuff, about the US-Soviet space race). She’s also being hunted by the Skrull, green shape-shifting aliens and mortal enemies of the Kree.

The film’s political stance is somewhat confounding. On one hand, this is an ostensibly pacifist film, in which characters talk about ending all wars, and its most emotional subplot features a refugee race. But it’s also the most militaristic of the Marvel films till date, with US Air Force symbols on constant display (the military has been doing joint promotions with the film). Everyone’s searching for an all-powerful energy source, which will be used to return a group of people without a home to safety, or destroy them forever. Vague parallels with Israel aside, a military-sponsored film which insists that the Americans will use an all-powerful energy source for peace is dryly ironic.

As the first MCU film to feature a female superhero, this has been a long time coming. It’s a professional effort, with the affable Larson in almost every scene, carrying the film as casually as Robert Downey Jr did in Iron Man. As a younger, more expressive Fury, Jackson is a great comic foil, but the real surprise is how droll Mendelsohn manages to be in greenface. There’s none of the raw excitement that Wonder Woman – the first female-led DCEU movie – provided. But you don’t need to be spectacular to be deemed a success in mainstream Hollywood today; you just need to avoid being an evident failure.

There’s also a cat. You’re going to hear a lot about that cat.

This review appeared in Mint.

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