The Middling Captain Marvel is Best as a Period Piece and Prequel

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Spoiler below

It’s no coincidence that Captain Marvel was released on Woman’s Day, adhering to the same deliberate timeliness as Black Panther dropping in Black History Month and Batman v Superman coming out on Easter weekend. But whereas Black Panther deftly explored racial issues from a variety of perspectives and Dawn of Justice recapitulated the Passion play to offer a substantive theodicy, Captain Marvel fails to smartly engage with women’s issues at the same level. This in itself is not a defect, per se. Other super-heroine films have come and gone without focusing the film’s attention around the protagonist belonging to the fairer sex. Wonder Woman was wonderfully misanthropic in its messaging, deftly dodging the current climate of controversies regarding sex and gender by critiquing harshly humanity in general, vilifying men and women without distinction. And in a simpler, bygone era, before the Balkanization of American culture into ever more divided demographics, little fanfare surrounded the fact that Supergirl, Electra, or Catwoman were women serving as the eponymous heroines; those films were allowed to be awful all on their own without any added baggage.

Contra Captain Marvel, which Disney and Marvel marketed as an important milestone for female representation in cinema. And perhaps the the box office returns will indeed validate the marketability of more female leads going forward. But the text of the film itself is no feminist triumph. Rather, it’s half-hearted in its exploration of a heroine qua heroine, in a way worse than if it’d ignored the matter altogether.

Most innocuously, Captain Marvel as a period piece dispassionately displays the historically accurate ways in which women were differentiated from their male counterparts in the late ‘80s, such as their exclusion from combat. Still fairly inoffensive is its trite moments of girl power, as when the precocious future Photon chastised her mother for failing to be a sufficiently bellicose and bad-ass role-model to little girls like herself.

However, utterly unnecessary was the gender-swap of the original Captain Mar-Vell, indubitably to establish a positive relationship between Carol and a female superior to contrast with the antagonistic relationship which develops between her and Yon-Rogg. The implied gender dynamics underlying their relationship is the closest the film comes to making a coherent comment on women’s role in society. This is particularly obvious in the coldly rational Yon-Rogg chastising Vers as overly emotional, and in her proclamation after their anticlimactic duel that she doesn’t have to prove herself to him.

Most unwarranted and unproductive, however, are several snide asides at the expense of male characters and the notion of traditional masculinity. One motorcyclist who tells Carol to smile comes across as a committee-created cliché composed of every stereotype for so-called “toxic masculinity.” Worse is the way that soldier, super-spy, and all-around man’s man Nicholas Fury is emasculated by the script, losing focus in the midst of a covert mission to dote upon what he thinks is a cat, and every moment after in which he shares screentime with the faux feline further erodes the the audience’s perspective of the traditionally masculine character. If Captain Marvel mostly succeeds at avoiding the bathos which permeated Marvel movies for far too long, it only does so through character humor at the expense of the characters.

But none of this adds up to anything approaching a thesis. Captain Marvels sexual politics prove surprisingly shallow. Where is does develop a political message is in its recasting as the Skrulls as refugees seeking safety from the Kree’s colonial expansion. Most currently relevant are the obvious inspirations for this depiction in the refugee crisis in Europe sparked by the Syrian Civil War and the flood of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle into America emboldened by the (recently reversed) Matter of A-R-C-G-.

Like their comic book antecedents, the warrior heroes of the Kree take their inspiration from the Roman Legions, though in the film this takes on a secondary subtext in which the serve to stand-in for Western imperialism in general. The result is a very different dynamic than in the comics. Whereas the source material shows both races as mutual aggressors in the conflict, the film lays the blame solely upon the Kree. The message which emerges from these intertwining allusions is a clear condemnation of colonialism and Western civilization for having perpetrated such in the past. Given the common cause of Carol Danvers and the Skrulls by the climax, while Captain Marvel is not a particularly feminist film, where it does pull most from the movement is the intersectionality emblematic of the Third Wave.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the film structurally is that is does not sufficiently villainize the villains. The Kree Starforce is effortlessly cool, even after their revealed heel turn. As a result, their militarism is more endearing to the audience than the Skrulls’ pacifism, inadvertently countering the film’s actual argument in much the same way as Starship Troopers accidentally makes fascism seem sexy while attempting to satirize such. The problem is that Jude Law and Gemma Chan are simply too likable, much like Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards before them. And while the film at least succeeds in getting the audience to cheer for Carol in her climactic confrontation with her former colleagues, it paradoxically fails in making said filmgoers root against Starforce in the same scenes.

Aside from personalities and presence, perhaps the most salient reason to side with the Kree over Carol and the Skrull is that they find themselves on the right side of the most overused and tired trope in science fiction. While not quite as stoic as Vulcans, the Kree have control over their emotions that the film for some reason implies to be a defect. This is contrasted with the hot-headed and (relative to Kree standards) emotional Vers. The film lionized emotionality as the essence of what it means to be human, and in turn celebrates earthlings for their lack of logic and rationality. It’s overly saccharine. Worse, it’s wrongheaded. Yon-Rogg’s acute observation of this fact lends credence to the interpretation that he not only believed his own words, but was actually right in telling Vers that he really is responsible for making her the best version of herself. Of course, this is clearly contrary to what the film is trying to convey, and the tension between its poor attempts at a thesis and what the audience actually walks away with is clearly a flaw in the film.

But for as often as it fails to deliver any argument of philosophical or political weight, Captain Marvel excels as both a period piece and a prequel. With respect to the former, it might in fact be the first major motion picture to depict a period for which Millennial audiences will have actual recollections. The film milks it 1995 setting for all it’s worth, depicting a variety of relics specific to the era – everything from Alta Vista to VHS rentals at Blockbuster Video.

While all Marvel movies are interconnected, Captain Marvel does double duty as a surprise prequel to the first Avengers film and Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 1, in much the same way as Captain America: Civil War was a pseudo-sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron. While the Guardians connection is slightly tenuous, simply setting up Ronan the Accuser and his lackey Korath for their future as renegades, the Avengers connections are abundant. Stealing the show as ever is Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, seen here as a rookie partner to Samuel L. Jackson’s thick-haired and binocular-visioned Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. A prototype Quinjet makes its maiden voyage to low earth orbit. The chain of custody for the Tesseract becomes slightly clearer, and while we don’t know how Mar-Vell came across the Space Stone, at least it’s made known how S.H.I.E.L.D. acquired it and why they waited until Thor’s bout with the Destroyer to finally weaponize its energy. Of course, the most meaningful connection come in the film’s final moments, as Fury’s newfound perspective following his encounter with Carol Danvers inspires him to propose the Avengers Initiative, at which point we’re treated to Silvestri’s signature musical cue.

As to the rest of Captain Marvel’s scoring, it’s an interesting admixture of diegetic and incidental music, and what the audience initially mistakes for the latter is sometimes revealed as the former, such as when Carol busts the jukebox and “Only Happy When It Rains” suddenly stops, or when the Kree’s Supreme Intelligence begins dancing to “Come as You Are.” When No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” begins blasting and Carol suddenly sports a wide grin, one initially wonders whether she and the Starforce are hearing tunes pumping through the intercoms of Mar-Vell’s laboratory before realizing it’s only meant to convey the levity and lightheartedness conferred by Danver’s finally realizing her full potential. Overall, it’s a fitting selection that further reinforces the sense of period and the nostalgia for those who lived through it.

Less fitting is Brie Larson’s casting as Carol Danvers. While her performance would be perfectly serviceable for an original character, she fails as a translation of the comic book character whom she is supposed to be embodying. While Larson is absolutely lovely by objective standards of physical beauty, the comics’ Carol fits into the blonde bombshell archetype.  Larson’s last comic book movie roll as Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World comes closer to such than the grunge-sporting waif or girl next door she portrays at various points in this movie, but even that was a far cry from her four-color antecedent, making her an unobvious choice for the role, with Larson never quite delivering a performance which wins over audiences.

Nor do her sartorial stylings help here either. Carol Danvers had one of the most iconic outfits in comics with the red sash and yellow lightning bolt streaking across a black leotard, evocative (but not derivative) of Fawcett Comic’s original Captain Marvel’s costume (from whom Carol ultimately derives her code name). The switch to the primary-colored burka worn by the current comics character and her cinematic counterpart is a tragic fashion faux pas on par with Superman losing his red trunks.

Overall, Captain Marvel is one of the most middling Marvel movies. The implicit hope had by Disney that this would be to female filmgoers what Black Panther was to African American audiences isn’t like to prove the case. Whereas Killmonger created a dialectic with T’Challa that forced the Wakandan king to incorporate some of the usurper’s ideology into his own because of the salient points about race he raised, Yon-Rogg is given no equivalent dynamic with which to grow Carol as a character. Just the opposite, in fact, as she summarily rejects everything he tried to teach her. But it is well worth watching as a prequel to the original Avengers film and as the first period piece for what promises to be a rich era to explore in future cinematic efforts.

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