Captain Marvel (2019)

In 2017 The Last Jedi ignited a culture war between lovers of Star Wars on the one side and…well, lovers of Star Wars on the other side. This war was ostensibly borne of debate over the film, praise versus criticism, and there certainly is a battlefront of this war that does engage in genuine discourse over Jedi. There’s another front, of course, comprised mostly of warriors fighting with a willing blindness to the merits or pitfalls of the film as a film; some people just despise Jedi for puerile personal reasons, some just defend it simply because it’s Star Wars. This is the Ultimate First World Problem, such hatred and ire thrown about over the seventh sequel to a space fantasy from 1977. But intentionally or not, a particular faction of “critics” revealed themselves during this war. We’ll call them the Shitboys, because they’re mostly boys and they mostly shit on everything.

The Shitboys are that splinter cell of Jedi-haters that conspired to sink the Rotten Tomatoes score of the film by flooding the internet with bad reviews. They sent death threats to director Rian Johnson from the safety of their mother’s basements. They made cute little petitions that proposed Disney literally remake the movie they just released. Eventually, they shit the same shit over Black Panther, actually claiming that white males were becoming a marginalized group in Hollywood. Once the rest of us stopped laughing/crying and once Panther walked home with billions of dollars and a few Oscars, the Shitboys regrouped and set to work on Captain Marvel:

The film, Marvel’s 21st installment of its Cinematic Universe, holds the distinction of being the first female-led MCU flick. It’s also a prequel of sorts, set in 1995, so very much a film of firsts for the franchise. As such, there’s a strong temptation to compare Captain Marvel to the likes of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and even Avengers, the original sigils of House Marvel.

The reason I hesitate to use this barometer — though we’ve done so in the past, with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers: Infinity War, among others — is that it narrows the perspective on film criticism to an extreme degree. It forgets the same thing the Shitboys forget, the film as a film part, as if the only bars to clear were those set forth by the original Marvel movies. Vilification of The Last Jedi was couched almost exclusively in the context of other Star Wars films, asking whether it honored that specific tradition instead of asking whether the picture was actually well-crafted.

Then again, Marvel’s formula is such that each new MCU movie basically begs for comparison to other Marvel movies at every turn. I wish that mattered more for this film of firsts, but the fact is that Captain Marvel is a mess of a movie by almost any standard. Superhero-wise it rehashes the Marvel standard-bearers of old, asserting an origin story with a main character learning to control her powers and finding her role in the universe. “I think people are bored of origin stories they’ve seen before or origin stories that are overly familiar,” Marvel honcho Kevin Feige said in 2015 prior to the release of the origin story Doctor Strange. If we weren’t bored in 2015, we sure are now. Heck, Captain Marvel even goes so far as to use the Phase One Tesseract as the MacGuffin for the fourth or fifth time.

It pales against the more recent Marvel flicks, too. You could look at any still frame from Black Panther and know it to be Black Panther. The design in that movie was that specific, that iconic, that intentional. Captain Marvel, conversely, looks like Thor and Thor: Ragnarok, looks like Guardians of the Galaxy, and outside of Marvel it looks like — *wince* — Green Lantern. Even if superhero films were the sole metric by which we judge Captain Marvel, it’d only stand out if it truly was the first of its kind. Twenty films into this franchise, there’s strikingly little originality to be found this time around.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Captain Marvel (2019)

Film as a film, though. Shorn of preceding Marvel films, shorn of the Shitboys and their behind-the-scenes bullshit, shorn of any superabilities at all, what are the character traits and motivations with which we should identify in Carol Danvers? We’re told she’s persistent and determined, but most of the developments of the film — including the event that grants her superpowers — happen to her rather than as a result of her. We’re told she’s “funny,” but most of the one-liners fall painfully flat. The entire structure of Captain Marvel as a mystery leading to the eventual reveal of Carol’s past really ends up revealing nothing of consequence for her character, serving instead as a reveal of the film’s true villain.

These rookie-level screenwriting gaps are somewhat of a surprise from writer/director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who succeeded on a much smaller scale with Sugar and Half Nelson in the 2000s and, to a slightly lesser degree, with Mississippi Grind in 2015. Uninspired direction might actually be forgivable, this being the duo’s first time on such a huge canvas with a blockbuster budget. The script, though, only marginally improves over time after a highly disjointed first act. Captain Marvel is strongest when Samuel L. Jackson, one of the only true veterans of the endeavor, is onscreen as a ’90s-era Nick Fury. It makes little sense that Carol would trust Fury as quickly as she does (based on diagonally-cut bread!) or that he would nonchalantly team up with an alien, but at that point it’s easy to ignore more questionable character decisions if it means Jackson is actually in the movie.

With all that being said, I do believe that Captain Marvel is held to a higher standard just by virtue of the gender of its star and the aforementioned positioning of this as a film of firsts. Carol Danvers is probably just as mediocre a character as Bruce Banner was in The Incredible Hulk, and the film on the whole is probably just as mediocre as Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, or any number of male-led superhero films from the past decade. Despite what the Shitboys would have you think, the film’s flaws have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with storytelling. In the future, sure, it’s entirely possible that Carol becomes a hugely complex character in Avengers: Endgame or carries a standalone sequel with actual heft. But in the vacuum-sealed world of this single film, Captain Marvel doesn’t yet live up to the name.

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