Film Review: Captain Marvel (2019)

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@James Pyles

I finally got around to watching Captain Marvel (2019) last night. I said previously, I probably wouldn’t view this film until it came out on DVD, which is exactly what happened. I reserved it at my local public library but had to wait until over 100 other people, who also had it held, watched it before it was my turn.

Even before I saw the movie, when it was still out in theaters, I wrote commentaries about the controversy surrounding the film thanks to actress Brie Larson’s (who stars in the title role) injecting her personal issues into the public marketing of both this movie and Avengers: Endgame (2019). I’ve tried to the best of my ability to be objective in my review, but unfortunately, Larson’s “personality” sometimes got in the way. As it turned out, so did Disney’s/Marvel’s apparent viewpoint.

First of all, “Captain Marvel” was better than I thought. All of the objective reviews of the movie said it was “middle of the road” at best, which is probably true, but like all origin stories, it nicely chronicled the passage of an insecure, identity-seeking person into a true hero. Of course, at the beginning of the movie, thanks to a case of alien-induced amnesia, she remembers none of this.

Oh, if by some chance you haven’t seen the movie yet, this review contains tons of spoilers, so you’ve been warned.

Brie Larson actually put some emotion into the character of Vers/Carol Danvers, unlike her appearance in “Endgame” where she appeared to have the emotive depth of a block of wood. Yes, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) told a woman to stop being emotional, which is a classic male-to-female trope, but Vers couldn’t channel her full power until she became really angry (sort of like the Hulk?).

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Cover image for the first issue of the “Captain Marvel” comic book (1968)

I read some of the original Captain Marvel comic books back in the late 1960s and early 70s, when Captain Mar-Vell (a hyphenated name, not two words as it was explained in the movie) was a Kree spy posing as a (dead) scientist named Walt Lawson. Carol Danvers was originally a security chief at NASA and a potential love interest for Lawson/Mar-Vell. I stopped reading before Danvers (and then others) transitioned into the role, so I have no familiarity with how she was portrayed (outside of initially having a costume with a bare midriff).

I should also say that ever since the early issues of the Fantastic Four comic book in the 1960s, the shape shifting Skrulls were villainous and totally evil.

However, in the film, set primarily in 1995, such is not the case. Vers, at the movie’s beginning, believes she’s one of the Kree. She even bleeds blue blood. She has this underlying ability that she can’t quite channel as she’s being rather harshly tutored by the aforementioned Yon-Rogg. She tries to understand herself through her interactions with the Kree’s AI Supreme Intelligence (played by Annette Bening who also plays Dr. Wendy Lawson), who appears differently to each individual. Even then, she doesn’t recognize the person the Intelligence is styled after.

All that changes when, on an ill-fated mission, Vers is captured by the Skrulls and mind probed. This triggers some of her memories, usually embarrassing and humiliating ones, and all caused by men, including her Dad. He must have been a pretty rotten  father to have never believed in his daughter (Brie Larson’s biography includes having a cold and distant father, so who knows?)

As an aside, Danvers was training to become a fighter pilot, which she eventually achieved, but not without significant hazing by her male counterparts (the whole “cockpit” scene, for example). I’ve known women who have worked in traditionally male-dominated jobs, such as law enforcement, and yes, they take a tremendous amount of abuse, so that part was pretty accurate.

Vers escapes, channeling some of her superpower, and ends up on planet Earth pursuing her Skrull adversaries. After an encounter with a terrified security guard at a strip mall, SHIELD agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), both actors “de-aged” to how they’d have appeared nearly 25 years ago, show up along with some Skrulls and chaos ensues.

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Promotional image for the 2019 film “Captain Marvel”

Vers and Fury team up to continue the chase, as Carol slowly regains her memories, including those of her mentor Lawson and her best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), who she reunites with along with Rambeau’s adorable 11-year-old daughter Monica (Akira Akbar).

I should mention at this point, that in a scene set in 1989, Carol and Maria comment that female pilots in the U.S. Air Force are not permitted on combat missions. I looked it up and in Israel, the first woman to earn her combat pilot’s wings was Yael Rom and that was in 1951. I guess our military was a little behind the times.

Then there was Lawson’s cat (not really a cat) Goose, played by four different felines, which attracts Fury, turning him into a baby-talking idiot. Totally out of character for Fury at any age except maybe childhood.

In a strange twist of events, it turns out the Skrulls are no more than a group of interstellar refugees seeking asylum, and it’s the “noble” Kree race that has been persecuting and annihilating them (so much for illegal aliens). Lawson, whose real name was Mar Vell (as opposed to Mar-Vell), was in disguise on Earth posing as a scientist while attempting to develop a faster-than-light drive in order to use it to find the Skrulls a safe haven. Danvers and Mar-Vell were on a test flight with the drive when they were attacked by a Kree ship captained by Yon-Rogg. The plane crashed, killing Mar-Vell, but she died only after telling Carol that the drive had to be destroyed rather than captured. Danvers used a Kree weapon to do so, but the resulting explosion robbed her of her memory, and totally transformed her, imbuing her with fantastic power.

In the end, Captain Marvel saves Skrull refugees which have been hidden on Mar Vell’s cloaked ship in orbit around Earth for the past six years, defeats the Kree raiding party, including Yon-Rogg, and saves the day, becoming the MCU’s mightiest superhero in the process.

The movie had some problems.

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Promotional image for the 2011 film “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

First of all, Mar Vell was using the tesseract, which first appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and later in The Avengers (2012). In the latter film, it was revealed that Tony Stark’s father Howard Stark retrieved the cube while searching for Steve Rogers’ (presumably) dead body, which would have been around 1945. So how did Mar Vell end up with it and use it as the basis to create her FTL drive? Audiences have presumed between 1945 and 2012 that after the senior Stark found it, the tesseract remained in SHIELD’s custody until the events in “The Avengers.”

In the “Captain Marvel” movie, Goose swallows the tesseract, only to puke it up like a hairball on Fury’s desk in the after-credits scene (the mid-credits scene was a direct tie-in to “Endgame”), which explains how SHIELD got a hold of it. Also in the movie, Danvers’ Air Force call sign, “Avenger” is used as the inspiration for Fury initially creating his “initiative.” Oy.

Now, we see both the Kree and the Skrulls on multiple planets, leading the audience to believe (and rightly so) that both races have FTL capacity. We know this for certain since each race has ships that are able to travel from other parts of our galaxy to Earth. So why did Mar Vell have to use the tesseract to create an FTL engine for the Skrulls? Her race had the technology and she had a cloaked ship in orbit, which probably came from somewhere in the Kree empire. She couldn’t have used that to transport the immigrant Skrulls? I mean, where did they come from in the first place?

Bad guy Skrulls turning into good guys, persecuted immigrants, and refugees and being pursued by supposedly good guy Kree who turn out to be bad guys was (to me, anyway) a direct reference to the current asylum crisis at the United States’ southern border. I’m sure Yon-Rogg was a deliberate stab at President Donald Trump (although his hair was much nicer). But there were other social justice points in the movie.

There are only two significant white men in the film, Yon-Rogg and Phil Coulson. The former was a totally bad guy and evil to the core and, in this movie, Coulson was almost an afterthought and, outside of graciously allowing Fury and Vers to escape from a SHIELD manhunt, uh, “personhunt”, was totally ineffectual. Really, Phil was played as a buffoon.

Actually, the most significant male in the movie, Nick Fury, was also played for goofiness, at least in terms of his interactions with Goose. Okay, I get it. This is Fury before he becomes SHIELD’s director, probably before he becomes a deputy director at a SHIELD office in Bogota (see the 2014 film Captain America: The Winter Soldier). He’s supposed to be a little less “Fury-like”. That said, he shouldn’t appear as if he got a personality transplant, and he should, as the senior SHIELD agent on the scene, appear totally badass and competent.

Speaking of which, Fury loses his eye because an alien cat scratched him. Really? That’s just plain dumb. In the aforementioned movie “The Winter Soldier,” he told Steve Rogers, “The last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye.” Was he talking about trusting Goose or Captain Marvel?

Oh, back to competent males. The only one in the movie, really the only one at all, isn’t even human. He’s the Skrull immigrant Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). He’s very calm, collected, and utterly likeable. He’s also a victim along with the other Skrull refugees, who must be rescued by Captain Marvel.

Now, is there a problem with having a powerful woman as the star of a superhero movie? No, absolutely not. The Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel character has existed in the comic books for decades, just like the much older character Wonder Woman, so it’s natural, with so many Marvel superheroes coming to the big screen, that Captain Marvel would be one of them.

However, do men in a “female-driven” superhero movie have to be universally portrayed as either villains, idiots, or likeable victims? No, not at all, but it’s how Marvel Studios, and writers and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, chose to portray them. As I said before, even Fury seemed a lot less capable than I would have expected.

Some interesting asides. The film was dedicated to Stan Lee, and why not, since he died not long before the movie was released? In fact, the entire opening sequence depicted Lee’s various cameos and other appearances rather than the usual collection of Marvel heroes. The Captain Marvel comic book was created later in the Marvel superheroes cycle, but was still helmed by Lee along with artist Gene Colan. However, the more familiar Mar-Vell with the red, yellow, and blue costume, was revamped by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, so by the time the Carol Danvers version came along, Lee was largely uninvolved. It might have been more appropriate, at least thematically, to dedicate “Endgame” to Lee instead.

Scene from the 2008 film “Iron Man.”

On the DVD, there was exactly one preview before the film commenced, “Captain America: The First Avenger.” I found this a tad ironic given the rather feminist tone to “Captain Marvel,” since Steve Rogers is the epitome of heroic maleness. Just thought I’d toss that one in.

Early in the movie, after Vers fell through the roof of a Blockbuster Video store, she encounters a security guard in his car. He subsequently calls someone, which is how Fury and Coulson end up on the scene. However, if SHIELD is a covert organization, he more naturally should have called the local police. How did SHIELD get involved unless local law enforcement had standing orders to contact SHIELD in the event of an alien crashing into a Blockbuster?

I’d like to say that now I’m all caught up with each and every Marvel film, but I’ve yet to see Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), which is currently playing in theaters. I’m glad I saw “Captain Marvel” first, though. It was a pretty good film for the most part, setting aside the various political and social justice jabs, and you really have to see it in order to understand the mid-credits scene in the current “Spidey” movie (yes, I read some of the spoilers).

Oh, one more thing. The movie, as I said, is set in 1995, but SHIELD is called SHIELD in the film. However, in the 2008 movie Iron Man, Phil Coulson repeatedly introduced himself as an agent of the full title of the organization, which was quite a mouthful. Only at the end of that film did he call it SHIELD, suggesting that the acronym was freshly minted.

For more, see Brie Larson’s exaggeration of Captain Marvel’s powers at Inverse.com, a review at Christian website Crosswalk.com, and a rather excessive bit of fandom at Inside Edition.

EDIT: Also see ‘White, male and brawny feels tired’: is this the age of feminist Marvel movies? and 4% Challenge: Inclusion Initiative & Time’s Up Aim to Boost Number of Women Directing Top Films.

EDIT TWO: I just recalled another scene that, while semi-subtle, did reveal a lot about the character’s and the film’s intentions. Just after Vers crashed through the roof of the Blockbuster store, she idly strolls through the aisles looking at various video tapes. She happens upon a cardboard display of the 1994 film “True Lies” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, and she photon blasts the part of the display of Arnold, leaving Curtis’ cardboard likeness mostly intact. I guess she and the movie were making a commentary on Schwarzenegger’s kind of hero. By the way, I love “True Lies.”

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