Captain Marvel (2019)

Directed by: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Written by: Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Captain_Marvel_poster                  I sit in a place of ignorance as to whom Marvel expects its average viewer to be: comic book nerds well-versed in details? “ordinary” film-goers? or some demographic in between: nerds whose nerd-dom was born with the company’s cinematic universe? I can’t say I identify with any of these demographics, but when it came to watching Captain Marvel perhaps that was a good thing. I knew nothing of the character going in and as such my first impression of the film was simply that it was very mysterious.

The film’s opening moments involve protagonists Vers (Brie Larson) engaged in some jedi-esque training with her commanding officer (Jude Law) to fight for the extra-terrestrial Kree people. As part of her training she also communicates with a personalized-semi-imagine-spirit-adviser (Annette Bening). This training leads her and her fellow Kree to a battle with shape-shifting Skrulls, a fight which in turn leads her to end up on earth.

I didn’t love these opening moments: there was a bit to must action for disinterested me. Still, I was intrigued. Given that superhero films tend to be origin stories, I was impressed that Captain Marvel seemed to be doing something different: throwing viewers in its established world and asking us to understand it.

Maybe I fell hook-line and sinker for that one. Captain Marvel doesn’t end up as some genre-transforming superhero movie. Still, it offers plenty to enjoy along its way. As Infinity War made plain, the typical Marvel hero is a cocky, and often slightly-funny man who has to overcome ego issues on the way to becoming a hero. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first (central) female hero, Vers breaks that trope as well. As a highly trained alien combatant sent to Earth, her persona resembles that of Arthur Weasley: she is politely fascinated by the “primitive” culture she arrives in and acts somewhat naively as a result. Vers’ naïve-power is nicely complimented by the (previously established Marvel) character who comes to be her sidekick: he too is funny, but in a more vulnerable way than that set by Marvel’s established model.

Captain Marvel has its flaws of course: its ending seemingly takes believe-in-yourself logic to an absurd extreme, and none of its lines or characters particularly resonated in my memory (maybe the cat, a little bit). Most interesting amongst its shortcomings are its politics. In my otherwise positive review of Mission Impossible VI, I noted that it was a work that both had and lacked ideological analysis, in what I could only assume was a move to appeal to several audience-types in one. While I can’t explain the contradiction in Captain Marvel without spoiling the movie, you’ll notice it in the bit in which Vers redesigns the colors of her suit. While Vers’ brand of heroism (powerfully demonstrated in her display of mercy near the film’s end), is all around an endearing one, I am nonetheless left with questions about whether the likeable character we see in the film squares up with what we are told about her previous career choice.

If you’re completely shut off to the idea of liking superhero films, Captain Marvel is probably not the work to change your mind. Otherwise however, I suspect many will find this canonically important edition to the Marvel story arc an enjoyable cinematic outing.

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster[1] When I first saw the trailer for Avengers Infinity War, I mentally sorted it into the so-bad-it’s-good category of film. In other words, it was the kind of thing I secretly desired to see but would make fun of in respectable company. Its trailer reminded me a classic viral video called Too Many Cooks (which you should watch, but in case you don’t the joke is…well…too many characters). The film seemed like the kind of thing that was parodying itself. Surely, I thought, no wise writer would try and fit that many main characters into a story. How, for instance, I asked could they find screen time for the eighth most important character in Black Panther? How, I asked, could they justify bringing in all six Guardians of Galaxy characters, when their’s feels more like a sci-fi than a superhero franchise?

In short, going into the film, part of me knew it had too much going on to be well written and as such I was willing to dismiss it. On the other hand, part of me wanted to believe that the writers were aware of this absurdity, and as such would brilliantly weave all of those fates together into a masterpiece (or at very least present a self-aware piece with Too Many Cooks style humor). Unfortunately, it was the first of these statements that proved true.

Avengers: Infinity War opens with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) confronting Thanos (Josh “I’m having a very good Marvel Month” Brolin). This is the point where I have to admit I’m no comic-book-nerd nor have I systematically seen each Marvel film. That caveat noted, I found this introduction oddly direct yet simultaneously very confusing. We are not introduced to Thanos, we are just expected to know who this purple giant is and somehow make sense of the complex dealings he has with Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thanos, it turns out, is a solid villain. His ambition is to save the universe by wiping out half of its population. He is a twisted idealist, who despite being incredibly powerful, makes himself sufficiently vulnerable to regularly engage with, and even take a punch or two, from the film’s heroes.

Following the opening confrontation, the Avengers (an all star team of Marvel heroes) are gradually brought together. This allows for some pleasant comedic moments. Marvel heroes tend to be at least mildly funny, allowing for banter between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Thor and Star-Lord (who, in my Marvel naivety, I briefly confused for the Iron Giant (now that would be a cool, Too Many Cooks-esque cameo)) to be somewhat entertaining. From then on  the film gradually re-introduces characters including The Hulk (a funny, if, inevitably underused, Mark Ruffalo) Spider Man (Tom Holland) Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Captain America (Chris Evans), leaving time for funny banter, as well as some compelling drama (particularly in Thanos’ relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana)).

Infinity Wars’ problem, however, is that its humor peaks too early, giving way to dull action scenes. Its comedic style is also off-putting when it comes to its portrayal of Spider Man. That Marvel’s most famous superhero is left fairly one-dimensional (his one personality trait being that he seems to constantly, and nervously seek the approval of Iron Man) rings somewhat hollow. I could rant now about how hollywood needs to get over its intellectual-property bullshit and just accept that there were already good Spider Man movies made in the 2000s and there was no need to reinvent the character, but I suppose that’s going off topic.

Infinity Wars’ drama meanwhile, suffers from being too spread out, due to the film’s dearth of protagonists. Numerous characters die in the film, but these deaths lose their dramatic effectiveness due to our understanding that they exist in a cinematic universe. In some cases we know these deaths to be temporary: some characters die way too quickly and unmarkedly given their importance in the franchise (also we know some of these characters are slated to appear in future movies). I understand that the writers had their hands tied when it came to writing these “deaths.” More frustrating, however, is the death of one character which is stylistically distinct enough from the others to give off the impression that it is a permanent.  This death scene is nonetheless,  so rushed and early in the script that it does no justice to its target. This character (who I will not name) is a sad casualty of Marvel’s Too-Many-Cooks-foolhardiness that simply left them without enough screen timing to meaningfully tend to all the characters they chose to depict.

R.I.P. *CHARACTER NAME CENSORED TO PREVENT SPOILERS*: you will be missed.

Perhaps Marvel nerds will love Infinity War. It certainly takes the Avengers’ struggle to a new level. Nonetheless, I suspect casual fans (especially ones like me who don’t watch the movies for their action scenes) may be disappointed by the film’s narrative structure. Thanos is an engaging villain, and Thor, The Hulk, the Guardians and perhaps some of the others are fun protagonists. Unfortunately, the film seems to rely too heavily on the premise of “look at these cool characters fighting,” rather than truly considering how best to make their narratives collide.