'Captain Marvel and the Failures of Social Driven Capetales'

When Black Panther debuted in February of 2018 to unanimous acclaim, the tides of social driven superhero cinema were born with sheer definitiveness. Not that Panther provided a refreshing or unconventional tale of heroism in any which way, but its timing in the midst of the “Resistance” era seemed heaven-sent to African-American consumers of pop culture. The billion dollar hit must have hammered a point to studio executives that this trend of self-proclaimed social-consciousness is a cash cow, and to partner that with the millennium’s most successful library of blockbusters is a recipe for success. In walks Captain Marvel, the final addition to the Marvel Cinematic library before what shall culminate with Avengers: Endgame. Riding the excitement of blind progressivism in popular culture, Marvel Studios’ most recent effort results in, quite debatably, their worst to date. Instead of breaking down the barriers they wish to trounce, Captain Marvel’s folly rests in a plotless, sci-fi romp with a wooden lead, and derivative direction. In their quest for female empowerment, Marvel’s first flick of 2019 is self-defeating in its recycling of gender, racial, and genre tropes.

Vers, or Carol Danvers in her previous life, is an exiled humanoid in a Kree world that was introduced to audiences in 2014’s Guardians of The Galaxy. Vers is rigorously trained by her longtime mentor, played by Jude Law, who, from the get-go, is nothing but a representation of smarmy masculine elitism. His hollow, stale dialogue degrades Vers as overly-emotional and vulnerable, which he surmises are her fatal flaws. Perhaps this would be more compelling had Vers, or Carol, been written to be a loose cannon, or even remotely flawed for that matter. Carol Danvers is a yawn inducing action cliché: a masculinized, one-dimensional “good guy” of films’ past with a personality no more thrilling than wet cardboard. What Marvel tries to supplant for strife or personal demons is nothing more than after-school special histrionics: cookie-cutter bullies and want-less chauvinist men with no desire but to stomp women into the dirt. Though not her fault entirely, Brie Larson does nothing to make up for this.

Larson, an Oscar winner and household name, has received some mixed press coverage for her remarks regarding the movie’s (and I emphasize movie) political mission. Larson rebuked the legitimacy of film criticism on part of white men, which sent a portion of the internet reciprocating that rebuke right back toward her. Unfortunately, the absence of nuance in her aforementioned comments also translates to an equally nuance lacking performance. While Carol Danvers is poorly-written, without a doubt, Larson’s glazed demeanor and sheer aloofness disallow the possibility for her to excel beyond her material. (I was cackling like a menace at her robotic uttering of such a line as “My name… is Carol.”) In Larson’s mission to serve as a cornerstone of cinematic female empowerment, her dull range throughout the picture fails to endorse or encourage a mold-breaking model for young women and girls in America. It’s a shame this is a consistent thread throughout the movie.

We are also introduced to another model for girl power, particularly for that of African-American girls, in the character of Maria. Maria Rambeau (an odd hat-tip to Stallone’s ‘Rambo’) is played by Lashana Lynch, and fails to avoid becoming yet another cliché. Though Lynch puts forth a decent performance, it is hard to see much beyond her character aside from ‘90s tropes dutifully assigned to African-American women. (Her particular snarling at being called a “young woman” is an oddly-written and beaten exchange). If we are to believe Carol is indeed a loose cannon, which, again, she is not, it would serve the movie well if Maria had a contrasting dynamic to add into the mix. This is also absent. Both Carol and Maria are a near buddy-cop duo with their arsenal of snappy comebacks to the perceived patriarchal toxicity. That is another crucial detriment to the movie: instead of focusing on strong, empowering female characters, the screenwriters were thirsty for male degradation.

The script is structurally deficient, and much of that has to do with its obsession with making punchlines out of the men of the story. For some odd reason, Hollywood is convinced that the only way to empower women in cinema is by demeaning men. Rather than having an array of strong characters with emotional complexity, and the women being an important part of that dynamic, this movie resorts to cheap gags to lessen the value of the male component (a gag involving a species cataloging device that renders a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, a human male: low-to-none threat). The script also does its darnedest to shoehorn in statements of 2019 politics into its 1990s setting (making a case against border security and regulating immigration) with seam-popping obviousness. Such efforts paint the picture that this blockbuster is not so much about characters as it is politics, but Marvel has done that with better success in years past with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It is no mistake that, with the script’s moseying through each political beat, the production puts up a lazy aesthetic veil to distract the viewer. Its 1990s culture fetishizing is shameless and gimmicky; a bland and uninteresting appeal to the current nostalgia market. She just had to fall into a Blockbuster, right? It’s tricks like these that are poised to distract the viewer from the lacking complexity of the story, in favor of a nostalgic gag that serves no relevance to the plot whatsoever. Why develop your characters when we can reminisce about RadioShack and pay phones?

With the narrative blunders, there are a plethora of issues that need addressing. For one, a lack of exploration regarding the relationship of Carol and a former Air Force superior of hers (played by Annette Benning). Another issue would be the presence of a cat that is transparently used as a plot device to avoid asking any questions. When the holes in the story begin to gape wider… enter the nearest distraction. The visual flair, also, leaves a lot to be desired, from its oversaturated ‘90s iconography to its poorly-rendered CGI animals. However there are some slight saving graces to this actioner.

Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged to be a 45 year-old Nick Fury, puts forth an energetic performance that keeps the movie from sagging into obscurity. (Leave it to a 70 year-old man to supercharge the girl power flick.) Jackson is offered little to deliver on the part of his performance, but his natural presence and gusto remain as gravitating as ever. Partner that with Ben Mendelsohn, who brings an offbeat dynamic to his villainous role as Keller (in impressive make-up, no less). The movie also has a handful of science-fiction charged action that should serve as an effective spectacle of about fifteen minutes, to its credit. Aside from those small bright spots, this is an effort that is quick to shoot itself in the foot, as it trivializes its own premise.

Though not particularly groundbreaking, at least Jessica Jones gave a true effort in molding an emotionally complex psychology to its titular character (played efficiently by Krysten Ritter). In Captain Marvel, the movie is quick to dial-up every cliché of angsty Facebook chain messages to illustrate its strife (the biker who utters, “Come on, smile for me,” is cringe-inducing). By the end of the movie, one has already sat through numerous re-runs of Carol’s repressed memories, which apparently are exclusive to men subjecting her to ridicule, as if a woman’s sheer obstacle in life is to compete with men. This kind of melodramatic ham-fisting defeats the idea of women finding their own independent purpose. It is made clear: the endgame of achievement is not the obstacle. Mean men are the obstacle.

Though there are the aforementioned positives, Captain Marvel is thinly veiled in its quest to push social progressivism that stands in its own way. In Hollywood’s goal for its idea of inclusivity, gone are the premises of strong characters, a cohesive plot, and emotional resonance. Marvel Studios, at least this time around, believed that resentful snark and pointless, empty nostalgia could knock their message home. Simply put, we shouldn’t be told how great or amazing Captain Marvel is (toward the movie’s end, there is an embarrassingly-hokey exclamation by a recurring baddie, simply put: “THE WOMAN!”), it should be self-evident. If the aim is to stamp the impression that women are capable of everything (and more) that men are, the movie’s long winded verbalizations serve as nothing but self-congratulatory redundance. It is unclear where Carol Danvers will land after Avengers: Endgame swallows the box-office in April, but one thing is certain: it ought to be a better writer’s room.

// The Cinematologist [03-12-2019]