Movie Review: Captain Marvel (2019)

After the nonsensical to middling Avengers movies, and last winter’s mediocre Black Panther, I must admit that I didn’t expect much from Marvel Studios’ newest movie, Captain Marvel, for Hollywood’s only mega-studio. With mixed themes and flat characters, it’s Marvel’s worst movie yet. But, even on Hollywood’s new feminist Me, Too terms, this putters.

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Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island), an affable actress, like everyone in this movie, including series mainstay Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law (Closer) and Annette Bening (American Beauty), deserves better screenwriting and directing.

Larson is not what’s wrong with Captain Marvel. But she’s so stiff, dull and distant, the opposite of Marvel’s male comic book heroes, that you keep waiting for an alien to pop out of her to explain her lifelessness. And, oddly, a good chunk of Captain Marvel derives from alien abduction/torture conspiracies or fantasies.

With supernatural powers in a faraway galaxy with flying cars and some sort of Middle East type conflict that goes unexplained, Larson’s blank character aimlessly wanders wondering about her true identity. Though her mentor, played by Law, assures her that he seeks through her superior’s “supreme intelligence” to guide her toward her own “best version”, something’s off about the altruism. Somber music and platitudes forewarn.

But what exactly is the mystery and why doesn’t she remember her past? I stopped caring after a while. Any but the most diehard Marvel fans and Disney investors will, too. A race of shape-shifting aliens resembling a cross between Lucasfilm’s Darth Maul and Mandy Patinkin’s character from Alien Nation that figure into the plot are more interesting than Larson’s plain, ordinary woman.

In terms of plot, my primary objection is that the protagonist fails in almost every task at almost every turn. She’s either incompetent or incapable or both. But the lack of heroism, let alone superheroism, stands out. This fact is on prominent display when an earthling pal (Lashana Lynch) shows up and Captain Marvel, which measurably lacks anything remotely marvelous, turns into a female version of Top Gun complete with cocky pilots, rock music and a mascot named Goose. The gals strut and mutter about how they’re going to “show these boys how we do it”.

The audience is primed to react to the movie’s feminism via the soundtrack cues which include a nonstop string of female rock anthems from the Wilson sisters’ Heart, Gwen Stefani and Lita Ford. With fetishism, a Ford Mustang cameo and the multiculturalism of TV’s Deep Space Nine with the snooze-inducement factor to match, Larson’s confused woman traipses around with Cybill Shepherd’s style minus the sex appeal.

All of this might be tolerable or defensible as escapist fare if the protagonist accomplished anything but she rarely does. When she could use a hostage early in the action, she runs away instead, abandoning her shot at using the leader of the antagonists as leverage to make a clean getaway. By the time Captain Marvel arrives on earth circa 1995, complete with visual reference to the Smashing Pumpkins (minus, of course, their male vocals), you hope against the odds that, as one character puts it, “it all makes sense”.

Captain Marvel doesn’t come close to pulling it together. Each plot point is predictable. Every crash, dogfight and effect looks like it’s taken from a video game. Screenwriting is stale. Characters are boring. Women either dress like Madea and stomp about in perpetual, causeless anger or they pose, turn and pose again and wear outfits that men mock. In its forced feminism, Captain Marvel tries too hard and goes too far in counting on a sisterhood it never earns.

For example, a child character named Monica at one point enthusiastically urges her sole guardian, her mother, to fly into space against an army of aliens knowing that her mother, who expresses that she’d rather stay, live and enjoy raising her child, may die. Not only is this a shocking scene that’s hard to swallow, it is played for emotion, as if the audience should want the child to urge her mother to choose near-certain death. That this happens after the child is kidnapped by an alien, held at gunpoint and forced to watch an alien attack on earth is disturbing.

Larson’s character destroys private property with abandon, never once offering to compensate anyone for her crimes. She muses about what it means to be human, it’s true, between her many unsuccessful attempts to display that women, too, can be as devoid of values as nihilistic or inscrutable men. That she does this in a t-shirt that makes reference to a nihilistic male rock band whose name refers to a male sex organ is at once too clever, stupid and appallingly condescending to the rational individual.

I “can’t unsee” Captain Marvel, to borrow a phrase from Jackson’s Nick Fury character played here as younger thanks to computer animation, though this, too, feels forced as no one really used that expression in the mid-Nineties. I’m pretty sure this includes secret agents of the government.

But I can say that I have seen Marvel’s newest politically correct mixture of carefully calculated plot points and call out its cynically lazy sexism.

At a crucial point, one female character asks another female character: “How’s my hair?” This line sums up Captain Marvel‘s value as art and entertainment. Add a not-so-subtle plug for the pro-Palestinian “BDS” movement against Israel that’s being spread on college campuses and you get the essence of a movie about a woman that neither deserves to be called a captain nor what one might rightly consider marvelous. In this tale, the woman is pretty and she’s pretty dim.

The Women’s Movies

Though watching The Post felt like I was seeing the first major motion picture affected by the Me, Too pop-mob hysteria, Ocean’s 8 is a top contender for the first major movie to either be made with Me, Too favorably in mind or the movement’s looming threats affecting its outcome. The Warner Bros. movie, directed by Gary Ross with an all-female leading ensemble cast, puts in its lead a conniving criminal (Sandra Bullock) that’s one half of a lesbian couple. Together, they assemble an all-female team of criminals that glamorize woman as criminal more than any movie since Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct killer lesbianism in the 1990s.

But it’s Ms. Bullock’s thief leading the way toward revenge against the man who snitched on her, so even though she’s a convicted criminal, she’s supposed to be regarded as a victim. Of course, women banding together to get back at men has a ring to it. Classic Hollywood pictures from Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman to versions of The Women and, eventually, Ridley Scott’s post-feminist road picture Thelma and Louise share certain qualities with the bland, derivative Ocean’s 8.

Women’s pictures, like women’s sections in newspapers, used to relegate women to catty, calculating and hair-pulling stereotypes, though actresses such as Harlow, Stanwyck and, especially in early films, Joan Crawford, elevated the scripts. All-female bands and wronged woman types were often depicted as fallen, tragic figures. This type of depiction started to change with Westerns, film noir and movies such as The Fountainhead, On the Waterfront and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as well as later, lighter fare such as Working Girl by Mike Nichols. Female characters in these pictures were interesting, different and distinct from previous characterizations. They tended to be highly independent, self-reliant and individualistic; they were complicated. Consider Silkwood (also by Mike Nichols) with its power plant band of unique individuals who were working women, the women in the village of Chocolat, or in the fields of Twister. Around this time, Mr. Scott’s explicitly feminist film, the seminal Thelma and Louise, depicted woman as victim, as doomed victim. In a way, the stereotype of woman as predatory resurged but they often accomplished or stood for nothing. For a while in the Nineties, it seemed like many major female film characters were predetermined to sacrifice themselves or become irrevocably damaged.

Ocean’s 8 glams up the feminism and magnifies the nihilism. And it comes with this downward sensibility that men are mostly, inherently bad unless used for their bodies, muscles and brute strength. Women, conversely, are both perpetually persecuted and inherently superior. According to this view, the sex difference lies in knowing how to subjugate men to women. Read my full review of Ocean’s 8, which opens in movie theaters this week, here.