Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘Captain Marvel’ Revels in Its Eccentricities

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I’ve seen Captain Marvel twice in the past three days. The first time I saw it I will admit to being whelmed. My second time morphed my opinion from cool admiration to outright love. I was confused because I enjoyed so much of the film yet at the end I found myself oddly cold. I suspect that it was a symptom, much like A Wrinkle In Time, in watching a movie not aimed at me.

The farther I got away from Captain Marvel the more I found myself gleefully recounting the movie in my head and ticking off the things I loved. So I saw it a second time. I can report that the operation to remove my head from my ass was successful.

Captain Marvel is an audacious and fun movie aimed at a subset of the audience, but does not, in fact, alienate everyone else. Movies for certain people tend to be movies for everyone while movies for everyone oftentimes turn out to be movies for no one. Co-directed and co-written by the team of Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck, the duo proves themselves to be following in the footsteps of Ryan Coogler. Which is to say, Boden and Fleck have crafted a complex and rich world for their characters to inhabit.

Most big budget movies, comic book movies especially, spoon feed you every scrap of exposition and character information. Boden and Fleck drop us into the middle of Vers’ (Brie Larson) story and never look back. Captain Marvel begins inside her dreams and memories. Soon we are in Hala, an alien planet and home of the Kree.  We are introduced to Vers as a character via a training exercise with her close friend and mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). It does all of this in a matter of minutes and never once bothers to hold our hand.

Boden and Fleck, along with Ben Davis their cinematographer, dips us into Vers’ psyche. They allow us to essentially know more about Vers, than she knows about herself. Suffering from amnesia, she has no memory of her life before the Kree found her. In a sense, it’s a classic origin story insomuch it is about a woman trying to find herself.

But in another sense, it’s not. Vers, is actually Carol Danvers, a test pilot from Earth. Except who Carol Danvers is we are never told. It’s shown to us. Davis allows for flashbacks and dream sequences to inform our knowledge of the character. Boden and Fleck, meanwhile have fun with the internal landscape of their character. After being captured by the Kree’s nemesis the Skrulls, Carol finds herself being dragged down memory lane—but she has no recognition of these memories.

Throughout it all, she hears a voice overlaying the images. “Where are we? I’m confused? Go back further. No-wait too far!” Davis has taken a cue from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as we play around inside Carol’s head. The moments in her head do not dominate the movie but they demonstrate the fun Davis, Boden, and Fleck are having.

Larson is a consummate actress. She has a cocky, arrogant, and at times, weird presence as Danvers. Larson struts through Captain Marvel with a sort of easy-going puffed out chest devil may care attitude. At the same time, underneath all of the smugness is confusion and fear. After all, she has no memory of who she was or what she’s doing here. She knows she’s amazing but she does not know why. It’s a subtle and clever performance on par with Daisy Ridley’s Rey from Force Awakens.

It helps that Larson seems to be having no less than the time of her life. Even in fight scenes, she brings a certain wild-eyed kookiness. Early on, as she is fighting with a Skrull, he screams as he lunges at her. She screams back before punching him across the room. Carol enjoys the fight. Other heroes tend to avoid conflict if at all possible. Carol seems to not just relish but itches for a fight. At one point she sits atop a beam, swinging her legs with impatient glee as she waits for the fight to come to her.

Larson spends most of her screen time with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. It is a younger Fury, not the stern, dry, humorless, tight-lipped head of S.H.I.E.L.D. that we know. Captain Marvel takes place, we learn, in the 90s. Thus we have a smiling gregarious Fury, with both eyes.

We’ve seen Nick Fury on and off for the past some twenty films. We know him—or as much as anyone can know Fury. Here, Jackson is permitted to indulge in being less a comic book character and more human. The two have easy chemistry allowing for quips and back and forths as the two chase down the bad guys.

Captain Marvel started out as a cosmic war movie and effortlessly turns into a fish out of water buddy cop action movie. Boden and Fleck feel at home no matter which genre Captain Marvel is playing with. The tone never feels jarring or uneven allowing the movie to glide through the tonal shifts.

The Skrulls are a genocidal shapeshifting race hellbent on colonizing the universe. Their ability to shapeshift makes them a formidable foe. Though why a species would have a biological trait to shapeshift is, admittedly odd. Passing fans of evolution would say that biological traits such as these usually come from a species attempting to adapt and survive.

Boden and Fleck wrote the script along with Geneva Robertson-Dworet. The trio gives Captain Marvel a slyness and a subversive streak other Marvel films lack. Yes, there is military propaganda, as there is in almost all comic book films. The strange theme of authoritarianism pumps through the very veins of the genre. But Captain Marvel subverts the notion. Even as it has the most blatant instance of military propaganda to date, as her uniform design is the air force colors and symbol.

Carol’s Kree comrades chant “For the good of all Kree,” before going into battle.  She has been indoctrinated by the Kree army. Her beliefs and thoughts are not hers but those given to her.

Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), a woman hunted by the Skrull leader, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), offers the key to Carol’s release. As she and Fury dig into Lawson’s experiments and her disappearance, Carol begins to deprogram herself. Working with Fury she finds herself going against her teachings.

Part of her de-programing is the realization that while the Kree and the Skrull are locked in a genocidal war, it is waged by the Kree and not the Skrulls. The shapeshifting is an adaptation for survival. Even Dr. Lawson’s invention is an attempt to end the war. Making the Skrulls a displaced people and the Kree colonizing fascists undercuts moments of what is clearly meant to bolster the military’s image. The script slyly whispers and murmurs a rebuttal against the industrial military complex throughout the film. It’s not a war Carol is a part of; it’s a genocide.

Carol’s identity is the driving force of the narrative. A continual push to discover not just to reclaim her personality and past but who she is as a person. Her ideologies and principles shift as the movie rushes along, changing as new information comes to light. She is not in search of the Carol she was so much as trying to parse out the Carol she is now.

She is helped by her close friend and co-pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). Boden and Fleck imply Carol and Maria are more than “friends.” Implied “queerness” is nice but I am sure I am not alone in wishing Marvel would have stated rather than implied. Still, 2018 was the year of Queer after the fact. A year in which a slew of movies had queer characters-we just didn’t know it. Instead of allowing us to see them in the film we were told during the press tours. The queerness of the characters, we were told, was cut for time. As if movies weren’t already twenty to thirty minutes too long. Still, progress is progress even if it is a pittance and pitifully incremental.

Some may argue that I am reading too much into the interactions between Carol and Maria. Friendships between women onscreen are such rare occurrences and so often codified as queer, I am merely misunderstanding how women interact. A fair argument. But I ask you to go watch how Bradley Cooper looks at Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born and then look at how Maria and Carol look at each other. The look is one and the same.

I’ve droned on and on about Marvel action sequences and it brings me great joy to say Boden and Fleck are a departure. For one, there only a few actions set pieces. But the ones they do have are either clouded in planetary dust and shadows such as the beginning or done in broad daylight in a terrific subway chase scene.

The subway fight scene is breathtaking if only because for once the camera is not static. It flows between the subway car where Carol and the Skrull are fighting to Fury chasing her in his car. Combined with the editing by Elliot Graham and Debbie Berman, the action scenes move at a distinctly different pace and rhythm than other Marvel action scenes. It’s little touches like a sweeping camera or even having the fight in broad daylight.

Daylight is the enemy of a special effects team. More light means the strings and CGI become more visible. Think back to Winter Soldier or Civil War. The action scenes outside take place under cloudy skies or are completely green screened. Boden and Fleck show a remarkable sense of confidence as they blithely stage the action in multiple locations with the camera constantly moving. Or it could be the Marvel stunt team is getting restless and wish to challenge themselves. Either way, the scene is a sign of a shift in action scenes for Marvel movies as they move with a fluid motion.

One scene towards the end has Carol fighting to Gwen Stefani’s I’m Just A Girl. A bit on the nose, I grant you, but Graham and Berman edit the scene so the cuts are in sync with the song. Most third act action scenes seem lifeless and rote. But here, the duo creates a rhythm which plays along with the music. The scene has the feel of a rock ‘n’ roll charged ballet.

Sadly, the same problem that plagues almost all Marvel movies, plague Captain Marvel. While at times visually interesting and gorgeous, the movie plays it largely visually safe. Scenes, where Fury and Carol are driving in a car through the desert are filled with simple over shoulder one-shots back and forth. It is a competent and functional way to shoot the scene but hardly an inventive one.

I mention the scene not to nitpick but to illustrate what I mean by playing it safe. There are scenes where Carol enters a bar and she has flashbacks of her time. Memories of her and Maria, playing pinball and singing karaoke, are done in a playful and clever way. The memories appear in flashes of bright light only to fade away, each part of the bar containing a different memory for her with Maria. The aforementioned action scenes combined with the beginning of the movie are so alive and interesting it’s a little heartbreaking when the talking starts and the camera starts behaving.

It’s easy to confuse visually safe with “not good” as I did the first time I saw the film. Because for every time it was merely visually functional there is a time when the camera was weird and alive. Fury turning to the camera and holding out his badge as we hear sirens getting closer, for example. We never see who Fury is talking to, why should we. Said character is unimportant. But another filmmaker would have shown us either a cop walking towards him or the back of his head.

Boden and Fleck display a wonderful sense of economy with their storytelling. Carol and Fury go to Maria’s house to see if she can provide any answers. Carol meets Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). Normally this would be one of those scenes where we could go to the bathroom. A long and pointless scene where we have to sit and listen to characters recount the first half of the movie to the newly arrived characters. But Boden and Fleck simply cut to the next scene. The scene where Maria and Monica react to the information. They trust us enough to not waste time repeating information we already have. The omission of a rote and tedious scene by recognizing its uselessness is as priceless a gift as visual distinctiveness and style.

Fitting for a movie that seems intent on upsetting every basic modern day action trope. No cities are destroyed in a final epic battle. The bad guy does not kill himself nor is he killed. Much like Aquaman, Boden and Fleck understand the thrust of the story cannot be solved with a simple death or murder.

I’ve had my fill of climatic battles where the existence of all life on earth—nay the galaxy—hangs in the balance. So, when Carol deftly and easily deflects the “all or nothing” battle I found myself with a goofy smile. Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a movie.

The latest Marvel movie is so close to being a masterpiece it can be easy to get lost in the frustration of what might have been. Like Wonder Woman, Anne Bowden and Richard Fleck offer us a new blueprint for not just origin stories but comic book stories in general. As comic book origin stories go, Captain Marvel is one of the best.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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