Monday, March 11, 2019

Captain Marvel

Review by John Lombard

After the dour and disappointing Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel superhero movies have taken a step back from grandiose melodrama.

Ant Man and the Wasp rediscovered the fun of the genre, with a portable wheeled office building and a Hot Wheels case concealing a garage of shrunken cars.

Now Captain Marvel returns to the intergalactic setting of Guardians of the Galaxy to tell a buddy adventure story of discovery with a light touch and welcome humour.

Vers (Bree Larson) is an elite soldier of the Kree Empire, an orderly and technologically advanced collectivist society organised by an Artificial Intelligence.  The Kree are in stalemate with the Skrulls, a nebulous and shape-changing alien race fighting a guerilla war against the Empire.

Vers sees herself as a heroic soldier keeping the galaxy safe by fighting terrorism, but inevitably learns that the Empire may not be the good guys.  A chaotic melee with the Skrulls separates her from her unit and strands her on primitive backwater planet Earth, where she joins tyro secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) on a quest to untangle her past and end the Kree-Skrull war.

Where Guardians of the Galaxy drew on the 70s for style and soundtrack, Captain Marvel takes aim at millennials with 90s nostalgia. Captain Marvel crash-lands on earth in a VHS-laden Blockbuster Video, where she picks up and scrutinises a tape of The Right Stuff.  The soundtrack features No Doubt, Nirvana, Garbage and other bands that scream “90s!”.  There are also many digs at the slow computers and primitive internet of the mid-90s, with an alien Skrull mortified at how long it takes a file to load on Earth technology.  Talos, we remember the pain.

Bree Larson is an unusual choice to play Captain Marvel, normally depicted in the comics as a serious and highly trained soldier.  Larson is instead playful and feisty, a likeable but impulsive hothead.  She has a wonderful mischievous chemistry with Samuel L Jackson.  Their rapport is instant, and their friendly banter does for superheroes what The Thin Man did for murder mystery movies.

Jude Law is competent but forgettable as Vers’ Kree commander Yon-Rogg.  Ben Mendelsohn is more compelling as alien Skrull cell leader Talos, although his best scenes are in ‘human’ disguise: the make-up and slurry accent of his true form cripple the performance.

Last year’s Ant Man and the Wasp gave a female hero second billing (and most of the heavy lifting in the plot), but after 20 Marvel movies none have been helmed by a female superhero.  This is especially baffling because Scarlett Johansson’s popular Black Widow has been knocking around since 2010 but somehow never got a solo vehicle.

Captain Marvel realises the female superhero brilliantly.  Her costume is functional rather than a lustful fantasy, the character is role model of courage and resilience, and the movie even passes the Bechdel Test.  This is where the movie shines brightest, taking the formula established by Iron Man and opening it up to a young female audience, who will see that being a hero is about standing up when you take a fall.

For all that, the Marvel mix of humour and adventure was already tired in Doctor Strange, and Captain Marvel struggles against the same fatigue, compounded by this being a prequel intended to fill in some blanks before next month’s Avengers: Endgame.  No more origin stories, please.

Captain Marvel is light, well-constructed fun, diverting but not a genre masterpiece like Thor Ragnarok or Captain America: Winter Soldier.

3 stars, but if you are a millennial add an extra star for 90s nostalgia.