Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Captain Marvel: Brie, the change
you want to see in the world

They've made another Marvel film guys. Like you, I thought that big, noisy Avengers one was the last one, until I remembered there had been another Ant-Man since then, but surely that was it. What's left to do? Turns out that after ten years of dick-swinging testostersplosions Marvel realised they'd forgotten to put a lady in a super suit, so here's Brie Larson, the world's greatest woman to be named after a soft cheese, in what must surely be the final MCU film: Captain Marvel.
Despite myself, I still enjoy the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is either an inherent flaw in my genetic programming or a canny trick of expensive, laser-focused marketing that I actively look forward to these movies as much as I do. Sometimes they need a couple of viewings to bed in; my feelings towards Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, for example, improved considerably on rewatching it at home because when I saw it at a press preview it was inexplicably preceded by an unsolicited EDM gig that gave me a splitting headache and made me miss my train home.

So even though Captain Marvel is flawed, a little confusing at times for an old man like me and filled out with the usual messy space-explodey bits that have me checking my watch and wondering what's for dinner, I couldn't help but have a good time. Brie Larson is perfect in every way, Samuel L Jackson gifts us another sidekick-to-an-amnesiac-ass-whooping-heroine role that's almost as good as The Long Kiss Goodnight, and there's a brilliant cat. Sometimes that's really all I need to keep me happy.

It took a while to get there though: the story begins on the alien planet Hala, with Jude Law's Yon-Rogg dispensing pseudo-Jedi motivational waffle to Larson's Vers. Both are noble warrior heroes of the Kree race, who are at war with sprout-headed pricks the Skrulls, and I've got a bad feeling about this. I've already forgotten the name of the planet, and referring to yourself as a noble warrior hero is a bit on the self-aggrandising side if you ask me. But the MCU is an old hand at knowing what's old hat and subverting it for a post-post-post-modern audience, and before you know it (well, after a brief but exciting exfiltration mission which goes south fast), Vers finds herself - and us - dumped on the planet Earth. Specifically, in a Blockbuster video store. In 1995.
So far, so Thor, and like that film, this is where the fun really begins. But where Chris Hemsworth's giant walnut-man was a fish out of water, Vers takes like a duck to it. It's here where she meets up with Jackson's Nick Fury, sporting a complete set of eyeballs and a genuinely flawless de-aged face that makes X-Men: The Last Stand's similar treatment of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen look like it was done by pinching their skin behind their heads with bulldog clips. Vers and Fury team up to fight the Skrulls who've followed her to Blockbuster (presumably not to rent True Lies), and to work out why she has weird memories of being on Earth previously, only in an air force jumpsuit which is arguably more sexually appealing than the tight rubber one she swans around in at home.

So unfolds a fresh take on the superhero origin story, which organically meshes with its potentially hoary old noble-warrior-heroes-versus-sprout-headed-pricks fightgasm. Rugs are pulled and twists are twisted, and as someone utterly ignorant of Captain Marvel lore, I was continually kept guessing and frequently surprised by events, not least the hidden abilities of the cat. I was left a little baffled by a weird subplot featuring blue meanie Roland The Excuser, who I had to be reminded afterwards was the main villain in Guardians Of The Galaxy, but if you're a total MCU nerd then I'm sure it'll mean something to you. I was just happy to be kept entertained by Ben Mendelsohn as Chief Skrull Prick Talos, who spends most of the film buried under prosthetics but seems to have forgotten, so just does his Ben Mendelsohn thing regardless.
Given that one of Captain Marvel's USPs is its 1990s setting, I'm not sure it's 100% successfully mined for its full value. I'd have loved to see it lean into a '90s aesthetic a little harder: maybe it could have been shot on film; some life-size practical models could have been blown up and shot from eighteen different angles with each one cut together to protract the explosion; there could have been an erotic home invasion subplot with Sharon Stone somehow involved, I don't know. Instead we get a very 2019 movie, all arch and knowing, with its period detail limited to lazy references to the '90s. Alta Vista, Gameboy, flannel shirts, CD ROMs and pagers are all obvious gags here, although nobody ever mentions how much they're looking forward to the first Bond film in six years starring this Piers Bronson guy.

But the main attraction is, of course, the conspicuous lack of a cock and balls in the lead role, and Larson proves to be just as magnetic a screen personality as Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans and, uh, Ed Norton. Vers is positioned as a smart, capable woman who doesn't need rescuing, doesn't require a love interest to complete her, shows the guys a thing or two and - most satisfyingly - has close relationships with other females. Despite the frequent pyrotechnics, the film surfs an easy-going wave of charm that its male-centric counterparts sometimes lack. And while the script doesn't shove all this down your throat, it does allow itself a moment to say that women have been told what they can't do for too long, and now time's up. They can do it, and they can do it well. It's no accident that the most memorable scene in a multi-million-dollar, FX-strewn, sci-fi blockbuster is a simple, beautiful montage of shots of a woman standing up.
There's more socially relevant stuff, some of which gets lost in the mix a little: an underlying point about refugees and aggressive border controls is a welcome grace note rather than a fully satisfying theme, but the question of whether or not you're on the right side of a war when you haven't really explored all the angles is given a bit more due prominence. These are Good Things to stick in a kids' cape movie, obviously, but they're never going to resonate as much as more pressing issues like how Nick Fury loses an eye.

Still, it's yet another sign of Marvel's exponentially increasing development as a studio that we're now seeing whole films of things we loved seeing in one or two scenes only a few years ago: familiar actors convincingly de-aged; heroic females kicking several shades of shit out of a room full of blokes; Samuel L Jackson. If this does, as I confidently predict, turn out to be the final MCU film, well, they've gone out on a high. Personally I'd like to see Brie Larson team up with some of the other Marvel characters in an experimental crossover story, but sadly I think we all know that simply will not happen.

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