Thanos Has Already Won--Captain Marvel Fizzles!

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Captain Marvel opens in the U.S. on March 8, 2019.

It seems so long ago, but it was only just one year ago when Marvel made cinema history. Just a couple of months prior to last year’s Avengers: The Infinity War, Marvel released Black Panther. Director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler set the bar impossibly high, crafting not just a tremendous super hero movie but a cultural sensation. The film was the 18th in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the ninth highest grossing film worldwide of all time, and was nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. The huge, galaxy-spanning scope of Avengers: The Infinity War kept that film from being overshadowed by Black Panther, and the Russo Brothers had an embarrassment of riches when crafting their first installment of the climactic finale to the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vols. 1 & 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War, and Marvel’s joint venture with Sony Pictures Spider-Man: Homecoming were all highly successful in their own right. Marvel, it seemed, could do no wrong.

This year, ahead of Avengers: Endgame, which brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a reset point (and ahead of Disney finalizing the deals that brings The Fantastic Four, Namor, Doctor Doom, and a whole bunch of beloved mutants back to the Marvel movie family), Captain Marvel get the chance to set the stage for the final battle. With Chadwick Boseman debuting as the future king of Wakanda in Captain America: Civil War, audiences already had a sense of the character. Captain Marvel was given an end credits scene, or rather her iconography was, and if you haven’t been a big Marvel Comics reader in recent years you probably didn’t recognize her symbol. Clearly, the old spy master Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) thought she was important enough to signal just before Thanos’ “Snap That Killed Half of the Universe” caught up to him.

Maybe he should have called “Shazam!” While the intent was admirable, the execution of the Captain Marvel story was an abysmal failure.

Directors/screenwriters Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had success with Half Nelson (a 2004 Sundance Film Festival prize winner and Best Actor Oscar nomination for Ryan Gosling), and the well-received 2008 baseball drama Sugar, but their 2010 adaptation the Ned Vizzini young adult novel “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” was only kind of successful. 2015’s Mississippi Grind was shown at Sundance, but got only a limited theatrical release despite a cast headlined by Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds. I’m not sure what Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige saw in those decidedly earthbound character studies that made him think they would be a good fit for a mostly cosmic superhero film, but it’s a rare miss for studio. Lacking the humor and understanding of the characters that made James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films work so well, Captain Marvel gets lost in a clutter of exposition, poor development of the supporting cast, and a generally lackluster level of action for the most inherently powerful Marvel superhero to hit the big screen this side of Thor.

For her part, Brie Larson does well as Carol Danvers, hotshot Air Force pilot, and eventual cosmically powered super-heroine. Danvers is not as quick to quip as Black Widow or as unassuming as Scarlet Witch. Her military training grounds her, much like Captain America. She’s self-confident in her melee combat skills thanks to her trainer Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), the leader of Starforce, an elite combat unit of the Kree Empire.  Wait, she’s in the Air Force and Starforce? How does that work? That’s the problem—her origin story is as befuddling as listening to a President Trump speech. Boden and Fleck have the cast ricocheting back and forth between deep space and Earth. She may be amnesiac, yet she generally seems to remember everyone she encounters. I can’t fault Larson for the shortcomings of the script and direction. She projects an every-woman persona; while gifted with great powers, she’s still a “normal” person who looks out for very normal friends. She’s Marvel’s “Wonder Woman” in the sense that she’s the kind of character young girls could aspire to be, and better still she’s an attainable role model. Nobody is going to ever attain Greek demigod status. It will be far more interesting to see how the Russo Brothers incorporate her into Avengers: Endgame, than the hodgepodge homage of 80s/90s action films that don’t add up here.

The rest of the cast is a mix of old and new, borrowed and blue. Starforce consists of Guardians of the Galaxy alumni Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace, returning to their roles as Korath the Pursuer and Ronan the Accuser, respectively. Gemma Chan plays Minn-Erva, the team’s sniper and rival of Captain Marvel. Algenis Perez Soto is Captain Att-Las and Rune Temte is the muscular Bron-Char.  The blue-hued Kree warriors are resolutely loyal to the Supreme Intelligence, a kind of bio-organic artificial intelligence overlord who appears differently to each individual, as to view the Supreme Intelligence in its natural state is beyond human or Kree comprehension. To Carol Danvers, it appears in the form of scientist Wendy Lawson, an old friend from her past, played by Annette Bening. Larson’s earthbound costars include the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson. Jackson and Gregg each borrow 25 years of time to return their characters to 1995 condition, though the CGI isn’t nearly as magical as Tahiti, as I’m sure fans of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would agree. Lashana Lynch is an effective counterpoint to the chaos of Carol’s life as her best friend Maria Rambeau, mother to cute and spunky Monica Rambeau played at different ages by sisters Akira and Azari Akbar. McKenna Grace and London Fuller likewise play Carol Danvers at different times in her youth. The bad guy…sort of...is Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, a member of the Kree’s hated enemy, the shape-shifting Skrulls. I can’t explain why he’s only “sort of” the bad guy without spoiling the plot, but consider this: there is no right side in any war. Oh my, I almost forgot: Stan Lee makes his final cameo appearance in Captain Marvel. Thank you and “Excelsior!” to you, Stan!

So if I don’t have any real issues with Brie Larson, and I generally like the rest of the cast, what’s my problem? The first half of the film is bloated with disjointed exposition. Honestly, do we absolutely have to tell the origin story in every superhero’s first film? Heck, it was some 40 years between Star Wars and Solo and judging by the latter’s dismal performance at the box office, fans were just fine not knowing the details of Han Solo’s origin. The Guardians of the Galaxy included a short segment on Starlord’s origin, but Drax, Groot, Rocket, Gamora and Nebula are mostly just explained in short, snappy banter. “I am Groot.” pretty much tells you all you need to know and doesn’t get in the way of the film’s flow or action. In Captain Marvel, the action never feels as big as it should be. Starforce should feel like the Guardians on steroids, with battle-tested warriors feared throughout the universe. For all of their implied prowess, they are woefully ineffective here. No wonder Peter Quill manages to take out Korath by himself and Ronan with a dance-off when these “warriors” catch up to him closer to the current timeline. Why does Captain Marvel need so much power when a lucky fool like Quill gets the job done? If people had issues with Rey having a seemingly instinctual grasp of the Force in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, they're certainly not going to be any happier here. I sincerely wish Bolen and Fleck had positioned Minn-Erva as the real threat. It's a shame to leave Gemma Chan's character to simmer at petty jealousy and outsider mistrust. I'd have liked to see the character more fleshed-out and maybe poised to return as the lead antagonist in a sequel. I'm not so sure this warrants a sequel, but advance ticket sales will assure Disney a good if not marvelous return on their investment. Perhaps this misstep will make Disney reconsider their hard line on reinstating James Gunn, whose deft handling of the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was clearly superior. Probably not, though--the old mouse is far less forgiving these days.

Ultimately, the biggest disappointment I have is the missed opportunity. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Captain Marvel to Black Panther, but since they were both positioned to serve the same purpose—to set up each half of the Avengers versus Thanos grand finale—I feel I have no choice. That Ryan Coogler’s inspired treatment reverberated around the world and especially with people of African descent was a huge bonus. I can’t imagine that Kevin Feige planned for that reaction all along.  Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had the same opportunity to tell an empowering tale for women, given this opportunity to craft the first female-led entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They just fell flat at every turn. Nothing feels epic. Little feels cosmic. There aren’t many truly funny moments or memorable lines. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is still the leader for empowering super-heroines, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Captain Marvel just doesn’t feel like she’s even close to being number two—Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Danai Gurira’s Okoye were both more memorable in Black Panther. Marvel introduced their most powerful weapon against Thanos, and I’m afraid that many won’t care. If Captain Marvel is indeed the one who takes down the Mad Titan, I will be extremely disappointed.

And don’t even get me started on her damn cat...

Captain Marvel opens in the U.S. on March 8th, 2019. If you have to ask  if there are extra scenes in the credits, you’ve obviously never seen any of the twenty films that came before it, so why are you starting now? Wait for Shazam! instead--it may prove to be the more enjoyable film to feature a character known as "Captain Marvel."
Grade: 
2.0 / 5.0