Captain Marvel (2019)

Interestingly, the politics of “Captain Marvel” itself revolve less around the general girl power themes the marketing suggested (trailers featuring intertitles fading from “her” into “a hero”, the pitch and positioning of the film’s cultural power, lead actor Brie Larson selling it as “a big feminist movie”, etc.). Instead, they tend toward a broader rejection of hegemonic ideologies, a general questioning of the principles one’s peers and society take as axiomatically valued, and a validation of embracing the qualities such ideologies condemn.

[spoilers]

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Carol Danvers is told by a man, a complete stranger, to smile, in an expression of patriarchal entitlement and call for women to act in the way deemed appropriate in Earth society. The Skrulls are denounced as untrustworthy fiends because of their physiological ability to shapeshift. Carol Danvers is reprimanded by her father, peers, superior officers, men in general, for pursuing activities deemed as masculine. The Skrulls are brutalised for attempting scattered resistance against Kree rule. Both Carol Danvers and the Skrulls only succeed in self-actualisation (which of course narratively leads to success in general) when they shake off the ideology they’re immersed in, and channel their abilities and unique identities without compunction.

Carol’s rage and spite empower her to both dismiss the terms her mentor-turned-enemy attempts to engage her on (both in ignoring his call for a physical fight, and subverting his implicit desire for a conflict that would result in death or domination besides) and succeed in seeing her will carried out in its stead. The Skrulls both refusing to meet the Kree in war (a war the Kree don’t even exactly want so much as believe is apparent by conflict arising when they pursue them) and on their cultural terms (honour, combat, everything Yon-Rogg and the Supreme Intelligence instill as important to Carol) leads to them embracing incomprehensible tactics, like their absurd patience and byzantine layers of disguise-fuelled espionage. De-aged deuteragonist Nick Fury and his to-be protege Phil Coulson also exhibit this sort of ideological skepticism, Coulson in his resistance to follow orders, Fury in his intuitive adaption to the sort of narrative the film places him in, and the way that narrative motivates him to turn his parent organisation to amass superheroes rather than its saner aims of the time. His mantra of anticipating threats before they happen, a running concept throughout other Marvel movies as well, is predicated on being able to see outside the dominant ideology of a time and situation.

So, there is a thematic cohesion throughout the script, if not in the marketing, what with its cloying endorsement of the military industrial complex, its sly positioning before the de functo “finale” to the film series seeing it function as some kind of unmissable feature-length trailer, its cheap co-opting of feminism and identity politics to endear some kind of cultural investment in the film. It’s not for nothing that the film inspired a cottage industry of YouTubers and online bloggers and the like droning on about how the film is either some abominable threat to the apparent sanctity of white manhood – there legitimately exists outrage over the fact Nick Fury washes dishes in a scene, for its apparent derision of masculinity – or that the twenty-first film in this multi-billion-dollar franchise being the *first* to feature a woman lead is somehow worth applauding. But, marketing aside, taking the film entirely on its own terms, the script has themes worked logically into it, and even manages to avoid the typical superhero origin story, by way of her starting the film fully superpowered, never fighting an enemy with some sort of dark mirror of her powers, etc. That subversion also sees key narrative times for characterisation relegated to honest-to-god snippets.

Using montages (that often don’t even amount to ten seconds) of Carol being reprimanded by men, or picking herself up after being knocked down, could work as a kind of thematic shorthand if the film was pitched more mythically and symbolically, but its rapidfire action comedy tone makes it feel cheap instead. Brie Larson has acted excellently in other films, and when she’s given a fleck of characterisation here she rises to it. She gets maybe a tenth as much snark to play as Robert Downey Junior/Benedict Cumberbatch/Paul Rudd/Mark Ruffalo/Chris Pratt/Tom Holland get in their films – read into that what you will – but plays it as keenly and endearing as any of them when she’s given chance to. For god’s sake, the film actually completely squanders the fish-out-of-water dynamic the premise *begs* for, by having Danvers react flatly to basically everything about 1990s Earth. Why does she, and her human-coloured teammates in Jude Law and Djimon Hounsou, act exactly like ordinary modern human beings, when they’re from an advanced AI-governed space civilisation from galaxies away? It’s like the film actively tries to be as unimaginative as possible.

If only the film spared, well, not just “more time” but in fact *any* time at all to characterise its titular hero, then maybe the film’s surprisingly solid plot and themes would have went somewhere. But the lifeless direction and insistence on gimmicks like intense de-aging of actors, incoherent recreations of a 1990s setting (little of what’s done with the setting makes any sense), and masturbatory contrivances of prequel lore to films that absolutely did not need it (who was asking for elaboration on the political setting of “Guardians of the Galaxy”, or the literal *paperwork* that set up “The Avengers”?) lead to a confused, often-dull film that seems to lack any idea of what it wants to do or how it wants to do it. The film’s succeeding wildly. Perhaps more consistent vision went into into the marketing rather than the filmmaking. It’s a shame there was actually the skeleton of something strong here. Two and a half photon blasts and a mother-flerken reference.

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