I saw Captain Marvel, the latest frontier in the Marvel Extended Beach House Fund. It's gotten what you could call "mixed" reviews (81% on Rotten Tomatoes, but 65% on the more granular Metacritic), which instantly dampened by expectations since I apply a 20% reduction to the critic score of any Marvel movie (the elusive and mysterious Ronan Factor).
Well, surprise: I fucking loved Captain Marvel. It's now hands-down my favourite MCU movie, beating out last year's Infinity War. To explain why, I have prepared a rambling, unstructured (spoiler-free!) list of thoughts.
This is one of the best superhero origin stories
Captain Marvel is the first origin story in the MCU since Doctor Strange. Superhero movies have long been thought to suffer from the "origin story problem", in that half of their first movie is spent explaining how and why they became a super-person and it drags the movie doswn (see for example the aformentioned Doctor Strange, where we need to spend twenty minutes watching the titular doctor be an insufferable dick before he becomes a wizard).
Captain Marvel inverts this pretty cleverly by starting with Carol Danvers as a super-person and making how she got that way a mystery that both propels the plot forward and serves as the direct catalyst for her character arc. It's a neat way to subvert a played-out concept.
It's "feminist", but could have been more so
There's been a lot of hand-wringing among some Marvel fans and movie pundits in general over whether Captain Marvel would be too "girl power"; specifically, whether it would cross that dreaded line into having An Agenda and thus no longer being the empty, completely theme-free experience that internet man-bros apparently crave for some reason.
Yes, the movie is "feminist" in that it sort of hinges on a woman overcoming adversity due to her gender and there are bits where men tell her to smile and stuff. But it's actually not as heavy on the "girl power" (is there a less cheesy name for it than that?) as you might be expecting, and that actually ends up hurting it slightly.
To go into exactly why would be a spoiler, but basically, there's a Big Scene near the climax of the movie (you'll know which one I'm talking about when you see it) that feels like it needed just a bit more narrative support to fully set it up. Leaning more heavily into the GRRRRRL POWER would have achieved this--again, can't explain why exactly, big spoileroos--so it's a shame that the movie is actually quite thin on the Yas Kween front.
I kind of suspect this may have been done to try to pre-empt accusations of the movie being too "political", since it feels like there was a lot of stuff about Carol's earlier life that was cut fairly late in development, which would be a shame if it was true.
(See, angry-bros, having Messages and Themes and Agendas can actually improve a story! What a shock).
Speaking of politics,
One of the shadier elements of Captain Marvel is that it appears to be functioning as US Air Force propaganda, a la Top Gun. This is fairly obvious not just from events surrounding the movie but within the work itself, which is disappointing.
On the other hand, the US military getting behind the movie is surprising since it's a not terribly subtle criticism of America's post-9/11 foreign policy (yes, really) and includes some super obvious digs at specific pieces of Trumpian rhetoric. In fact, if you really wanted to go wild, you could argue that the whole story is kind of an anti-American allegory.
...I mean, I seriously doubt that's what anyone working on it intended, but they stumbled into that territory anyway.
Goose the cat
There's a cat in the movie called Goose. Goose the cat is incredibly cute. Goose the cat is also the catalyst for an extremely long joke that the movie spends over half its runtime setting up. The punchline resulted in some of the biggest laughs I've ever heard in a cinema.
(This movie is a real crowd-pleaser. Irish cinema audiences generally aren't very reactive compared to Americans--you can laugh at jokes, but are otherwise expected to sit in strict Catholic silence at all times, lest someone catch you displaying emotions in public while sober--but people were cheering and even applauding all over the place in my showing).
It has plot twists I didn't see coming
Marvel movies tend to be kind of predictable. You know that bit in Infinity War where Doctor Strange says "Yo I looked at a billion futures and it turns out we're super boned" and Iron Man is like "How many of them do we get un-boned in?" and he's like "one"? A ten-ish year old girl sitting behind me whispered the answer to her parents before it was stated on-screen. When a child can lip-sync the dialogue to your movie, that's kind of a bad sign.
Which is why I was pleasently surprised that Captain Marvel has several big plot twists that I legit did not see coming (this is why I made this post spoier-free, unlike my usual approach).
You're all wrong, Brie Larson is Good Actually
One of the common complaints I'm seeing about this movie is that Brie Larson does a poor job/doesn't portray Captain Marvel well. Naturally, this is factually incorrect and it turns out that I'm right about everything.
Now admittedly, in the first few scenes in the movie she does actually have some distinctly wooden line deliveries, but this is because the dialogue she's being forced to recite is awful, clunky exposition that absolutely no one could do a good job with. Once that stops--which is pretty soon--I thought she delivered a refreshingly subtle performance.
Over the years, MCU movies have developed a kind of house style when it comes to acting. It was codified all the way back in the first installment by Robert Downey Jr.'s inaugural run as Iron Man and then cemented in the first Avengers; it involves quips, quipping, jokes that are quips, and lots and lots of quips. Over time, the Quip Virus spread to nearly every single character in the franchise, to the point that they all start to feel like slight variations on Iron Man (this is particularly bad in Infinity War, where the three worst offenders--Iron Man, Doctor Strange and Star Lord--are all on screen together).
Even when the quips are toned down, the Marvel characters tend to be larger than life and "heightened", and the performances are crafted accordingly. This is not a movie franchise that features a lot of subtle, nuanced acting.
In contrast, Brie Larson plays Carol Danvers like she's in a drama and not a superhero movie. She's more reserved and controlled, and I can to an extent understand why that might be jarring for audiences used to their superheroes gurning and mugging wildly every time the camera is aimed at them. But I thought it was great and I look forward to seeing Larson in more of these.
It has action that works with the plot
Here's something that bugs me about a lot of action/adventure stories.
Pretty much every story in either of these genres has an "action" plot, where the main character is trying to punch/shoot/stab the bad guy to death, and also a "character" plot, where they're trying to, like, reconcile with shit or whatever.
In good action-focused stories, both of these strands come together at the climax; whatever the protagonist does to defeat the bad guy also constitutes the step they take to reconcile with the shit (or whatever). Saving the day consists of some sort of choice or meaningful action beyond just killing/defeating a person or entity.
In bad (or at lest flawed) action-focused stories, these two things are totally disconnected. The hero will come to their big realization or complete their character arc somewhere in the mid to late third act, and then the final confrontation will be an empty fight where the hero wind because they managed to grab a sharp thing at the right moment and jam it into the bad guy's abdomen.
My go-too example of this is Breaking Bad. Walter White's story functionally concludes in the "I did it for me" scene right before the climax. Everything that comes after that moment is just a formality.
(For another example, look forward to the next Oscar Debate post).
Captain Marvel avoid this problem in a pretty clever way by directly tying Carol Danvers' character arc to her ability to punch stuff and shoot laser blasts out of her fists. As soon as she has her big Reconciling With Shit (Or Whatever) moment, the movie drops any pretense that she might actually lose, and the final battle turns into a ten-minute victory lap where she effortlessly pummels the bad guys. Instead of trying to create tension where there can't be any, the movie goes for catharsis.
That mid-credits scene
That mid-credits scene, though