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Back in my day, Captain Marvel was just a big red cheese, and I don’t remember no one complainin’!

by Thom Yee

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Captain Marvel images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It might not seem like it from the outside, but Captain Marvel is just about the weirdest damn superhero to talk about.  At least for me she is.  See, I’m a lifelong comicbook nerd, even to this day, but I’m also a ‘90s kid, and if you were a ‘90s comicbook nerd kid like I was, then Captain Marvel, at least the Marvel Comics version, is basically a character who didn’t exist.  See, in the ‘90s, Captain Marvel was one of only two things:  1) The DC Comics teen superhero who yelled SHAZAM! and got powers just like Superman’s; or 2) The Marvel Comics superhero with cosmic powers who had been dead for a long, long, long time.  Like early ‘80s long ago.  And in either case, neither was a very big deal.  And in both cases they were men.

Fast forward to today (and specifically this last week) and not only has Captain Marvel very suddenly become known as a strong, vibrant, very much alive and in-your-face superhero, she’s a superheroine, one seemingly caught at the weird, unsavoury centre of some of the dumbest anti-feminist controversies of our time, and though I don’t want to go very far into how she became such a controversial figure, how the actor who plays her made some unexpectedly inelegant comments ostensibly about representation at a public event only weeks before Captain Marvel’s release, how the pre-release backlash against the character’s first movie led to significant changes in the review processes of Rotten Tomatoes, or how the whole “controversy” has polarized people on both sides of the feminist ideology even more than the all-female Ghostbusters movie of three years ago, it is probably important that I at least acknowledge those things here, if only for the sake of posterity.  And remind you that, like Ghostbusters before it, while it remains as important as ever to consider and respect the rights and roles of women (and minorities), a mainstream comedy/action franchise movie like Captain Marvel is not the best canvas on which to discuss those issues.

captain-marvel-uncanny-x-men-269Instead, let’s go back to that first point I made, about how weird it is to talk about Captain Marvel as a ‘90s comicbook nerd kid, and that’s because if we’re going to talk about the Carol Danvers version of Captain Marvel that most of you met this past weekend, then we’re talking about a character who really didn’t have much going on in the ‘90s.  Unlike the other big heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, or the Hulk, Carol Danvers didn’t have a self-titled comicbook being published every month.  And unlike the lesser MCU heroes like Ant-Man or Hawkeye or the Falcon, she wasn’t featured on a major team book like the Avengers and wasn’t even a sidekick, background character, or occasional guest star to a bigger or more important hero either.  No, if you grew up reading comicbooks in the ‘90s like I did, probably the only thing you knew Carol Danvers as was as the character who got her powers stolen by Rogue (of the X-Men).  And she preferred to go by Ms. back then.

What’s it about?

It’s 1995.  Vers (Brie Larson) is a member in good standing of Starforce, the protectors of the intergalactic Kree empire, but when a mission gone awry against the Kree’s hated enemy, the shape-shifting Skrulls, leaves her on the backwater planet of Earth, she finds herself experiencing memories from a life she should never have had.  Teaming up with local lawman Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Vers continues her pursuit of the Skrulls even as she endeavours to put the pieces of her mysterious past on Earth in order.

If you’re one of those people who thinks that superhero fatigue is going to take a bite out of the box office any time soon, then Captain Marvel is very much not the movie you’ll be looking for to try and make your point.  In its first weekend, Captain Marvel opened to just over $153 million domestically and just over $456 million worldwide, giving it the 6th biggest worldwide opening weekend of all time, and making it easily the biggest movie of the year 2019 so far, likely only to be beaten by Avengers:  Endgame, which opens next month.  In fact, the next Avengers and its within-two-months release window may be the only thing that keeps Captain Marvel from reaching a billion, that there isn’t enough time in between then and now, but if a movie like Aquaman can do it, I’m sure Captain Marvel can go at least higher, further, faster than a movie about a guy who talks to fish (that wasn’t very good).  I mean, it’s right in the marketing.

captain-marvel-ms-marvel-01As a character, Carol Danvers actually made her first appearance in the ‘60s as a United States Air Force officer who gets caught up in an intergalactic conflict involving the alien Captain Mar-Vell and the Kree Empire, but it wasn’t until the late ‘70s and the release of Ms. Marvel #1 that she debuted as a full-on superhero in her own right when she recovered from a blast of energy that combined her DNA with Mar-Vell’s, making her a human-Kree hybrid with superhuman strength, flight, and the inexplicable ability to instantly change into her superhero costume at will.  The Ms. Marvel comic was very explicitly aimed at the feminist movements of the time, but what, to me, defined the character as a comicbook kid growing up in the ‘90s is that she got her powers and memories permanently stolen by Rogue, who was a supervillain when first introduced, and it’s that theft that’s actually the reason why people know Rogue as a character who’s usually portrayed with superstrength and flight in addition to her mutant power to absorb powers and memories through touch.  Rogue would go on to be one of the more popular and enduring female superheroes of the ‘90s after reforming with the X-Men throughout most of the ‘80s, but ol’ Carol meanwhile toiled in obscurity, stripped of her power until the character was brought back towards the end of the ‘90s by then-Avengers creators Kurt Busiek and George Perez as a new superhero named Warbird.

captain-marvel-01It’s exactly that sort of murky and convoluted background (and believe me, I left out the worst and weirdest parts) that makes Carol Danvers such a weird character for me to talk about, because what defined her, for me, was being a true victim who lost everything in a really traumatic circumstance that was easier not to think about because Rogue became a pretty likable superhero in her own right despite doing something very villainous early in her history.  In sharp contrast, the movie portrayal of Carol Danvers that most of you are going to be familiar with is everything that the character who I grew up with wasn’t, a portrayal based only on the last few years of the character, graduating from ‘Ms.’ to full-on ‘Captain’ in the 2012 relaunch/rebranding of the character in a brand new monthly comic by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (who makes a brief, brief, brief appearance in the movie).  It’s from the 2012 Captain Marvel book that the modern, powerful, mohawk-sporting, Carol Corps version of the character comes from, and as much as it’s a great point to start from for newcomers, it’s her earlier history that makes her a weird character for me to talk about.

Is it any Good?

Y’know, I’m not sure if the way I constructed those last two sections was the best way for me to express myself.  I kind of jumped all over the place, going back and forth on things like Captain Marvel as a comicbook character, as a feminist icon, and then back to the character’s history in a way that may not have been as coherent as I thought it would have been as I wrote it.  I thought about going back and editing things down a bit, maybe rearranging things so that they formed a more complete picture, but I ultimately chose not to.  And actually, if I’m being completely honest with you, the way I wrote those last two sections is precisely the way I intended to, because seeing those things all out of order, seeing the links between different things that I deliberately separated, flashing back and forth between thoughts that may have been easier to understand if they were put together chronologically?  That’s a lot of what’s wrong with Captain Marvel.captain-marvel-poster.jpg

It feels like I’m saying this sort of thing early in a lot of my reviews lately, but the first thing I want to mention about Captain Marvel is that I think it is a good movie.  It’s at least a movie that meets the qualifications of good enough to see and not bad enough to avoid.  If that’s all you want to know, then rest assured, Captain Marvel is fine.  It could have been a lot better though.

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In bringing a character like Captain Marvel to the big screen, I suspect the creators of the movie deliberately chose to make at least a small concession to the character’s messed up backstory and the time that she lost her powers and memories in the comics by making her a character who doesn’t fully remember who she is as the movie begins.  We begin Captain Marvel on the Kree home planet of Hala as Carol, called “Vers” by her fellow Starforce members, continues to struggle controlling her powers, and at this point it’s not totally clear to her or us who she is, why she’s here, or even why she has powers at all.  Sharp(ish)-minded viewers might remember that the Kree have appeared in the MCU before, most notably in the form of Ronan the Accuser, the main big bad in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and one of the neatest things I think they do in Captain Marvel is revisit some previously established characters like Ronan and Korath (who also appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy in the movie’s opening scene) earlier in their careers.  I’ve often opined at the beginning of the Ant-Man movies that I would rather have spent time in those earlier periods that depicted a young Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) in the pre-superhero period than what we actually got in those movies, and having Captain Marvel set in 1995 gives us exactly that opportunity (though now that I think about it, 1995 is only four years earlier than the opening of Iron Man 3, which didn’t seem like such a long time ago back in that movie’s release in 2013 even though 1995 feels like a lifetime ago from the perspective of 2019 now).

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 9.57.56 PMSetting the movie in 1995 also gives us the opportunity to see a young Nick Fury and a young Agent Coulson.  Seeing young Nick, his strong relationship with Coulson even at this early stage, and his reactions to a truly unprecedented and alien situation like this, and getting all these bits of historical connection is what makes the whole MCU endeavour such a rich experience for all of us who are paying attention, and it’s the type of stuff that makes the Captain Marvel movie a crucial piece of how we understand this universe.  That’s all good stuff, and the interactions between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury work very well in the movie, but, to be honest, I don’t know if they serve this movie as a Captain Marvel movie as well as they would an Untold Tales of the Marvel Universe sort of thing.

There’s an overt pro-feminist angle to Captain Marvel, just like there was one with Wonder Woman two years, one that’s not in any way exclusionary but definitely carries through the movie’s story and, and while I’m certainly not going to label that feminist side with a term like “agenda” for how fraught those two words are together, it’s a cause that feels a little undone by how much this movie is caught in the Marvel machine.  For a movie that’s supposed to carry a lot of meaning to all of those who have felt marginalized, man, woman, or otherwise, I just find it strange that Captain Marvel feels like such a lead in to other, bigger things (specifically Avengers:  Endgame).  It’s not something I mind personally, nor is that leading into other things something I’ve ever really had a problem with no matter how transparent those lead-ins have been in previous MCU movies, I just think it robs this particular MCU movie, one that means just a little bit more than most of the others, of a bit of its potential.  Last year’s Black Panther stood in a very similar position last year, just two months ahead of Avengers:  Infinity War and also representing a minority viewpoint, but it ultimately stands much more on its own than Captain Marvel does.  It’s something I can easily live with and something that’s actually very exciting for all of us frothing at the mouth (and possibly other parts) for the less-than-two-months-away Avengers:  Endgame, but I think it serves to underserve this particular movie, character, and cause just a little bit.Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 10.01.39 PM.png

That’s looking at Captain Marvel at its metanarrative level though, and it’s far from the biggest detriment to the movie.  That particular dishonor unfortunately goes to Captain Marvel herself.  Like I’ve already mentioned, the approach to the character is one of a mysterious backstory known not even to herself, and that results in a movie narrative that never truly solidifies the character.  We begin the movie seeing pieces of her past out of order, and while it’s far from confusing (because this movie is very predictable and probably, but for a few details, exactly what you’d expect), the pieces we see are so small that they don’t give us the strongest sense of who Captain Marvel was, who she might hope to be, or why she has any problems that would allow the character to grow.  There’s certainly thematic reasoning presented in the movie for why this story might mean something, but it’s rarely if ever driven home to the point that I was able to invest all that much in the character herself.

Going off just how Captain Marvel acts in the movie is also a bit puzzling, not because she’s not likable but because I’m not sure she ever truly grows.  She may not know who she is, but it’s not something I ever feel has a serious effect on who she is.  Finding missing pieces of her backstory is something she clearly finds disconcerting but I don’t feel like she was ever all that concerned.  In fact, she’s weirdly content in and of herself, almost Zen-like if not for how snarky she usually is, and the main thing I find Captain Marvel in the movie is likable.  That shouldn’t be a bad thing, but for a character who calls for a certain don’t-f*ck-with-me attitude, I find she comes across more like your favourite aunt, the one who’s way younger than your parents and closer to your age, or your older sibling’s’ best friend who you wish was actually your sister.  I just can’t imagine not liking her, I just think Brie Larson has too carries too much of the vibe of someone who most people naturally like (even despite that speech I mentioned earlier), and while I don’t want say that young Ms. Larson was miscast in the role, I do think they should’ve have at least found a harder edge for the character to ride on.Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 10.01.07 PM.png

I also found myself a bit bored for much of the first half of the movie, as soon as we hit Earth, and I think most of that is down to how relatively mundane the suburban ‘90s setting was, especially to someone like me who lived there in my most formative years.  I didn’t mind the shout outs to things like Blockbuster or Radio Shack, but I don’t miss those things either, and I found the ‘90s music more grating than anything, mostly because I thought they overplayed it rather than holding it in for its maximum effect.  They don’t necessarily hit you over the head with the TLC or Garbage or Nine Inch Nails of it all, but I was much more a fan of something like Star Trek Beyond’s use of Beastie Boys music, which was handled so well and so cannily that it actually became a key plot point.

I guess that’s a lot of complaining about Captain Marvel I’ve just written, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re all points that you might disagree with, but what I will say works heavily in the movie’s favour and why I ultimately like the movie is something that happens later on with the Skrulls.  Without giving away too many details for fear of spoilers, I really liked Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos, the leader of the Skrulls, as he’s surprisingly compelling in each of his scenes and, I think, gets away with the movie’s funniest and most endearing moments, and once we find out just a little bit more about the Skrulls in Captain Marvel, I felt a palpable sense of relief, almost that I was right to like him so much.  The story told with the Skrulls is one of far more emotional depth than I was expecting, and it’s their story I found that gave Captain Marvel almost all of its heart.captain-marvel-talos.jpg

So should I see it?

I think that if you were putting together a point-by-point breakdown or a Strengths/Weaknesses analysis of Captain Marvel that most people would come out quite easily on the side of seeing the movie.  It’s got all the pieces it needs to entertain, it’s got enough action and humour to delight, and it’s wrapped up in enough of its own cultural velocity that it would almost be more weird not to see it.  But I’m not going to give it a strong recommendation.  I think it’s too much a piece of a bigger whole for it to resonate on its own merits.  That’s okay for most Marvel movies, but it’s curious given how much this movie is also supposed to be about a lot of other real-world social issues as well, and if you want it to be more about those things, if you want it to say something strong or profound, if you want it to present you with a bold new hero, and especially if you want to see something new at all, it doesn’t deliver as well as I was expecting.

Thom’s Captain Marvel final score

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On the Edge

  • Pay attention to the Stan Lee cameo, because there’s something else going on there besides just the man showing up in yet another Marvel movie. It’s one of those Easter eggs that really pays off if you were a ’90s kid watching R-rated movies.
    • It’s also one of those Easter Eggs that really messes with your brain and verges on breaking the very nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole if you take it too seriously.
  • Could’ve used just a bit more Coulson.
  • It was driving me crazy that her name was “Maria Rambeau”, but hearing that her daughter’s name is Monica really lines everything up if you want to consider timelines.

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