Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Witney Seibold Reviews 'Captain Marvel'

Vers (Brie Larson), the title character in Anna Boden's and Ryan Fleck's “Captain Marvel,” superficially possess many traits common to her male counterparts throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe (now 21 films deep); that is, she is flip, mildly mouthy, capable in a pinch, occasionally sarcastic, and possessed of a blandly non-specific type of steely determination that has long been the default characteristic of action movie protagonists. Vers is set ever so slightly apart from impish class clowns like Iron Man (and Ant-Man, and Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange and any number of ultra-quippy Marvel protagonists) by her natural, affable, conversational humanity.

When on screen with her partner in adventure, one Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged to fit the film's 1995 timeframe), the light banter between the two is warm and playful; their chemistry is great, and one longs for a film where the two simply have an introductory meal for two hours. Vers is not as quirky as, say, Star-Lord, but Larson brings more to the character than the film asks of her.

And the film, disappointingly, seems to ask for far too little, as the rest of “Captain Marvel” is so very, aggressively generic. “Captain Marvel” is as frustratingly safe as “Black Panther” was forthrightly daring. Just when it seemed like this series was going to start exploring some actually revolutionary ideas, “Captain Marvel” feels like a backslide into rote, familiar origin story plot points and dully-realized action sequences that would have been more at home in the early days of the MCU (when Iron Man took the world by surprise, and people somehow became interested in a character like Thor). 

As the 21st film in this series – coming a decade after it began in earnest – “Captain Marvel” feels aggravatingly slight and unexpectedly bland. The MCU, often criticized for chapters with over-arching tonal sameness, goes all the way into repetitive territory with “Captain Marvel,” producing what may be the series' first proper off-the-shelf chapter. The oft-repeated beats of a superhero movie haven't been laid quite this bare for a long while.


The feminist symbolism of “Captain Marvel” is welcome, of course, but the long-awaited debut of a female-led MCU film – and I think we can agree it was far too long in the coming – provides us with on-the-nose allegory that feels weirdly tacked-on. In “Captain Marvel's” early scenes, Vers, an alien military commando, is sparring with her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) on their home planet of Hala, home of the aggressive Kree Empire. Yon-Rogg informs Vers that she cannot be a worthy fighter until she puts her emotions aside, and fight without getting angry. Vers is granted superpowers by a widget implanted in her neck, and she can't access her powers if she gets too riled up. In this scenario, Vers is a stand-in for every woman who's been told she's too emotional for a “man's job,” and the neck widget is a symbol for a woman's power kept in check by the patriarchy.


By the end of “Captain Marvel,” Vers will, of course, learn her true nature and potential, and her triumphant full emergence as a proper superhero will be granted to an audience eager to celebrate. But what should feel like a grand culmination of Vers' efforts to overcome adversity are instead perfunctory; there is a fatalistic note to her journey rather than an exhilarating one. The deadliest trap of making any superhero movie is that the all-too-familiar emotional beats run the risk of feeling automated and foregone and “Captain Marvel” falls into those traps hard. 

And, sadly, no, the 1990s setting does not add texture or flavor. Like the worst of Adam Sandler's oeuvre, the genre-specific references are meant to evoke base laughs of nostalgic recognition (remember Blockbuster Video? Do you like “Whatta Man?”) rather than anything thematic or tonally intriguing.

The film's emotional core actually comes from Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, the beleaguered general of a shape-shifting species called Skrulls. Talos has the funniest lines, the best throwaway gags, and the most dramatic turnaround of any of the film's characters. He nearly steals the movie.


That's not to say that “Captain Marvel” doesn't provide what many fans of this series might seek. The production values are still first-rate, the action is presented efficiently (if sometimes randomly) and some of the film's light talk is legitimately enjoyable. Larson is certainly capable in a high-profile action role, providing wholesome heroism that carries with it a distant, oh-so-distant echo of Christopher Reeve's Superman. There are numerous references to previous films in the series, but“Captain Marvel” can be safely consumed with or without knowledge of the previous 20 films.

But mere efficiency shouldn't be the highest standard of this series by now. “Captain Marvel” is bright and entertaining on a basic level. But it's also something we may not have seen before: An MCU film that's kind of forgettable.  

Top Image: Disney


  1. "In this scenario, Vers is a stand-in for every woman who's been told she's too emotional for a “man's job,” and the neck widget is a symbol for a woman's power kept in check by the patriarchy."

    When you symbolically link things together, it's usually to something real. Not something made up like the patriarchy.

  2. I liked her character, but the story and action were super forgettable.

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