Tuesday, March 19, 2019

BLAST FROM THE PAST: a review of "Captain Marvel"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee & Gene Colan and Roy Thomas & Gene Colan
Story by Nicole Perlman & Meg LeFauve & Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Screenplay Written by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
*** (three stars)

With only a tad more steps forwards before we arrive at Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame," we have to take several steps backwards.

While that statement was not necessarily designed to speak to the overall quality of Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel," the latest addition to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would also not be mistaken to attribute a critique to that statement either. With "Captain Marvel," what we have here is a film that takes bold steps while also functioning as yet another placeholder before the real main event. Its slightly akin to doing some more homework before being allowed to go to the party.

That said, what Boden and Fleck have achieved, and quite deftly, is a more unique and subtly feminist take upon the well worn origin story and classic Marvel styled existential crisis, making for  a most formidable hero, and for quite a lengthy stretch of "Captain Marvel," I felt that the film would be equal to her. But, even the most powerful superhero in the universe is not impervious to the cliches and trappings of the comic book film genre.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel" reaches backwards in time nearly 25 years to 1995 during which Earth finds itself caught in the middle of an intergalactic war between two extraterrestrial species, the militaristic race known as the Kree and their arch-adversaries, the shape-shifters known as the Skrulls.

Kree soldier Vers (Brie Larson), who serves under the command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her mentor and trainer, suffers from nightmares and fractured memories of Earthling Air Force pilot Carol Danvers--a person whose life she is unable to recognize. During a skirmish with the Skrulls, Vers is subjected to a mental probe thus triggering more submerged yet fragmented memories. Vers soon escapes and in her battle with the Skrulls, she crash lands in a Los Angeles Blockbuster Video Store.

Investigating the disturbance at the video store is low level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and recent recruit Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) who immediately become embroiled in the Skrulls' relentless pursuit of Vers, thus forcing a team-up between Vers and Fury.

Utilizing her extracted memories, and through a series of crucial reunions, devastating betrayals and indispensable new alliances, the existential mysteries of Vers' true identity and history will all formulate into the realization of her fullest potential and capabilities as Captain Marvel, a hero poised to end all wars for the good of the universe.

Now 21 films strong, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is firmly established as the top tier with regards to our comic book movie genre as they are consistently handsome productions that are exceedingly well cast and more often than not, superbly plotted and executed with skill, imagination and with Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" (2017) and Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War" (2017), a deeply surprising and enormously welcome amount of personal vision and storytelling risk taking.

Where Marvel has its considerable faults lies in the fact that there is a certain sameness to the films regarding character arcs, plotting, visual aesthetics and the fact that at times, that aforementioned feeling of doing homework creeps in, especially, when all you may be wishing for is that forward momentum instead of having to learn more rules, powers, weaknesses and dynamics to fully understand not only the film you are watching but also to see how it will lock into the expanding building block nature of the series as a whole.

At its very best, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel" is both refreshingly ambitious as well as sharing a certain tedium, which honestly never settles in until the obligatory extended climax. As with all of the past Marvel features, Boden and Fleck have helmed a glistening production, augmented by strong performances (the chemistry between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson is warmly engaging), seamless special effects (the de-aging process for Jackson and Clark Gregg is especially stellar), and armed with a quiet confidence that felt to be breezy in its sly, matter-of-fact style, which did add a welcome droll sense of humor to the proceedings overall.

With its placement within this Marvel film series, Boden and Fleck have delivered an installment that essentially serves as a sequel and a prequel as "Captain Marvel" simultaneously sets up the stage for the events to come in "Avengers: Endgame" by crafting a dual origin story of both our titular heroine and Nick Fury, who in this film is 25 years younger and has the usage of both of his eyes (although we do learn how he does come to wear his ever present eye-patch).

I definitely appreciated how Boden and Fleck did not utilize a heavy hand with any sense of '90's nostalgia as "Captain Marvel" is indeed a (gulp!) period piece. All of the details (especially the music selections) felt to be true without turning the film into a funhouse parody of 1995, a very wise decision so as to not become a distraction while also providing some clever pop cultural touchstone humor (I chuckled at the slowness of floppy discs loading information into computers compared to the instantaneous speed of 2019--ahhh memories!).

At its very best and most ambitious, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel" is indeed a dazzling statement that should really put the horribly misguided misconception that films about female superheroes as the leading characters are creative and box office poison to rest once and for all. In fact, and in comparison to Patty Jenkins' outstanding "Wonder Woman" (2017), I feel that Boden and Fleck have created an even more subversively feminist cinematic experience than Jenkins (although I do feel that Jenkins made an exceedingly better film).

Essentially, with "Wonder Woman," any sense of a feminist statement was wrapped up entirely within the film's title as well as the character's name. For "Captain Marvel," we have a comic book film starring a superhero who just happens to be a woman. At no point within the film do any characters comment and reflect upon Vers' womanhood--and for that matter, any of the film's female characters from Kree to Skrulls to Earthlings, most notably Vers/Carol Danvers' best friend and Air Force pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) and definitely, the wonderful Annette Bening who appears in an extremely pivotal role regarding Vers' existential journey. No woman is objectified or sexualized and are all presented as steadfast individuals all fighting for their respective causes--just as if all of these characters had been portrayed by men.

But all of that being said, all of these characters are women and that in and of itself is a powerful form of representation that is not typically witnessed within mainstream motion pictures and definitely not within big budgeted franchise productions. And just as with "Wonder Woman," I can only imagine what seeing this film feels to young girls to witness and unquestionably adult women who have seen more than their fair share of blockbuster movies without any significant women represented whatsoever. Taking that in mind, Boden and Fleck's approach is indeed more subtle in its vision but no less powerful than what Patty Jenkins accomplished with "Wonder Woman."

The existential journey of Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, like all of our Marvel heroes, is a voyage of self-discovery and the realization of one fullest potential. Yet to see this journey represented by a woman was palpable, certainly as much as what we all experienced with "Black Panther" and its representation of African culture, history, political structure and technology  juxtaposed against the lives of African-Americans cut off from our own culture and history through enslavement. In short, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's"Captain Marvel" is the rare Marvel film that is actually about something other than heroes and villains.

With many terrific sequences that are as primal as they are psychedelic and presented courtesy of beautifully edited suites by Editors Elliot Graham and Debbie Berman, we are given the full odyssey of Vers at key moments in her life that reverberate, repeat, play off of each other and build like repetitive movements within a jazz or orchestral composition. In some ways, "Captain Marvel" served the same purpose as a film like Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day" (1993) as we are given key moments that continuously repeat themselves through Vers' life until she is at last able to piece the fragments of her memories together, merge them with her life in the present to fully determine who she will become in the future.

Who am I now? Who was I? Who am I destined to be? Again, the signature existential journey/crisis of all Marvel heroes (as well as for all of us in the audience) but again, to see it in full representation by a woman felt refreshing to say the least.

And even within the story itself, there are these crucial, and again, subtle touches that I thought were speaking to the female experience in a male dominated society. What I am referring to is how the Kree, through their training of Vers, continuously instruct her to keep her emotions buried in order to exert the fullest amount of control as a soldier. During the course of the film, we discover the complete intent of those instructions from the Kree but what emerges when Vers finally taps firmly and unapologetically into her emotions and combines them with her already formidable abilities, is a woman at her most invincible.

Brie Larson, with her wry charm and adorned for much of the film in a baseball cap, leather jacket and Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, perfectly embodied this character who demonstrates that Captain Marvel is at her most indestructible when her emotions join her ingenuity, strength, fearlessness, boldness, relentlessness, agility, integrity and empathy--a discovery she arrives at through a powerful love for herself, her friends and compatriots and the universe itself. And when her hands and eyes begin to glow like the brightest light of the sun and she soars through the galaxy as the unstoppable force of nature she is, that is when "Captain Marvel" begins to soar...sort of.

As previously stated, one of Marvel's weakest points with their films has been their climax sequences, which more often than not exist as sound and light shows and do not provide the sense of awe and exhilaration necessary to send you out of the theater high above the clouds. Now, this aspect is not exclusive to Marvel as it is indeed more of a symptom of 21st century movies as these bombastic conclusions are just the norm and often, to a numbing degree.

For Marvel, it is the ending of CGI overdrive that we have seen literally 20 times over and in doing so, this did rob "Captain Marvel" of some of its power and its tremendous sense of good will it had so richly earned over 75% of the film, and most of the film's action felt akin to a now classic chase thriller like Andrew Davis' "The Fugitive" (1993). I guess what I am saying is that I needed the film to continue to ascend as Vers continued to become her greatest self and what was received felt to be more of a leveling off and the stagnated move ending cataclysm that has become the standard, for better or for worse.

And so, with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Captain Marvel," here we are at the precipice of "Avengers: Endgame" with the entrance of the hero who was sent a distress call at the conclusion of "Avengers: Infinity War." While her debut solo entry was not as grand of an entrance as it could've been, it was strong enough to warrant the following...

...Thanos had seriously better watch his back!