Friday, March 8, 2019

Just a Girl with Fireball Fists: "Captain Marvel" a good start with Brie Larson owning title role


Captain Marvel (2019)
124 min.
Release Date: March 8, 2019 (Wide)

Since the DC Cinematic Universe scored with 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” Marvel Studios finally decided to play long-overdue catch-up with their bid to give a female superhero—Carol “Vers” Danvers—the chance to headline a solo origin story, so it’s impossible not to root for “Captain Marvel.” Beyond this being groundbreaking for Marvel, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (2015’s “Mississippi Grind”), who co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet (2018’s “Tomb Raider”), get stuck with the setup phase, which they at least construct as an amnesiac mystery, and are obligated to fit their title character into the grander universe. Even as the twenty-first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it somehow feels more like a Phase One installment by not showcasing the best of which Marvel is capable, though it’s thankfully not as forgettable and underwhelming as 2010’s “Iron Man 2” and 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World.” “Captain Marvel” proves sturdily entertaining and empowering all the same, but the best is likely yet to come.

Plagued by strange dreams, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) still has no memory of her life before living on planet Hala, colonized by the Kree, but after being rescued from a crash, she has been mentored and groomed into a warrior by commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who calls her “Vers.” He urges Vers to fight without using her superpowered abilities, like blasting fireballs out of her fists, and Kree’s A.I. ruler Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening) tells her to control her emotions. During a mission with Yon-Rogg and Kree’s Starforce team, Vers is captured by the shape-shifting enemy Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), to read her mind and then escapes, hurtling towards Earth and landing inside a Blockbuster Video (the time period is 1995). To Vers, Earth is Planet C-53, and once she attracts the attention of a younger, pre-eyepatch-wearing Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Vers will discover how she started as an Air Force fighter pilot, and together, they will have to put an end to the intergalactic war and protect cosmic cube Tesseract.

Marvel has continued to hire exciting filmmakers to bring a signature style and really let their creative personalities shine through. With “Captain Marvel,” it should come as no surprise that co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s first giant, effects-driven tentpole shines the best during the quieter, human-centered scenes, like when Carol and Nick Fury are just bantering or when Carol goes to Louisiana to visit best friend/co-pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s 11-year-old daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). After all, Boden and Fleck are known for indies, like 2010’s disarming gem “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and have previously worked on a much smaller scale, so it is a bit disappointing that their action scenes aren’t as confidently helmed, often rendering them murky and choppily edited. There are rousing if not exactly memorable action set-pieces, and if there are any sequences that stand out, there is an entertaining double chase on a train between Carol and a Skrull, who keeps shape-shifting into different train passengers, as Fury and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) are chasing Carol below the train. 

Pay no attention to the misogynistic, “He-Man Woman Haters Club” trolls: the inestimable Brie Larson is well-cast and wonderful as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Defining the role as well as Robert Downey Jr. did with Tony Stark, she has a plucky, no-nonsense but charismatic presence with a quip at the ready; sick of being told that she’s too emotional, Carol is an ass-kicker but also a peacemaker. The character doesn’t experience a conventional A-to-B growth, nor has she been written with many interesting flaws besides rebelliousness, but what she learns about herself is more of an internal arc, and the viewer discovers more about Carol at the same rate she begins to fill in the blanks of her past. Looking like he just wrapped “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” Samuel L. Jackson gets to be funny and loose, sharing a playful, snappy buddy-comedy chemistry, and shows a softer side when it comes to kitty cats. The most seamless effects work actually happens to be the “fountain of youth” digital trickery for Jackson’s Nick Fury, and Goose the cat is also a scene-stealer with a surprise that makes him more than just a furry feline. Lashana Lynch provides warmth and strength as Carol’s best friend Maria, and her reunion with Carol might make up the film’s most affecting moments and could have been deepened even more. Annette Bening and Jude Law certainly make do with their allegiance-shifting roles, but it is Ben Mendelsohn, who has played a number of baddies and brings unexpected shading and comic timing in his reptilian make-up to Skrull leader Talos that will surprise viewers to have their opinion of him change over the course of the film.

With such high expectations for Marvel to keep striving for more and hitting a successful stride, particularly with their “firsts” like 2014’s unapologetically goofy “Guardians of the Galaxy,” 2016’s visually exciting “Doctor Strange” and 2018’s culturally significant “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel” is a good but unspectacular start. The incorporation of ’90s-era nostalgia does contribute to the fun without overdoing it, including references to dial-up Internet, payphones, pagers and tied-at-the-waist flannel shirts, and decade-specific tunes, like TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Nirvana’s Come As You Are,” Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” and No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” which is prominently used. There’s also a very nice tribute to Stan Lee in the studio logo, as well as a requisite cameo that will make filmmaker Kevin Smith especially happy. If “Captain Marvel” rakes in the dough—and it will—it leaves room for improvement in a sequel now that the table has been set in introducing Carol Danvers. Whether going by Carol Danvers, Vers, or Captain Marvel, she is a welcome addition to the MCU and the Avengers, as she will make a formidable force against Thanos.

Grade: B -

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