Prove Yourself, by Tyler Smith

6 Mar

There is a moment late in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel in which the main character defiantly proclaims that she doesn’t need to prove herself to anybody. It’s a powerful moment, but one that is ultimately undercut by the film itself. The first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature a female hero as its lead, Captain Marvel is under heavy scrutiny, both from those that looking to champion the film’s nod toward equal representation and those that are suspicious of it. It is more of a burden than any one popcorn film should have to bear, but it’s not necessarily impossible. The best way to do this is to focus squarely on character and story and let the cultural chips fall where they may. This is what made DC’s Wonder Woman such a satisfying filmgoing experience. Unfortunately, despite its claims to the contrary, Captain Marvel throws back its shoulders, juts out its chin, and challenges its critics to take a swing at it, out to prove that it is every bit as legitimate as Iron Man or Captain America, losing much of its narrative – and, even worse, its character – thread in the process.

The story begins by introducing us to Vers (Brie Larson), a strong-willed soldier in service of the Kree, an intergalactic civilization at war with a group of shapeshifting terrorists called the Skrulls. After an early skirmish, Vers crash lands on Earth in the 1990s, getting the attention of U.S. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Together, our two heroes attempt to root out Skrull infiltration on Earth, as Vers begins to learn more about her mysterious past and her powerful potential.

As an origin story, Captain Marvel serves its purpose. We get a slight sense of who these characters are, and what’s at stake. The problem, however, is that any entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can no longer be seen completely on its own, and should be rightly considered as a part of a larger whole. As such, to introduce a completely new character like Captain Marvel in between Infinity War and Endgame puts even more pressure on the character – and her story – to live up to the monumental scope of the events in those films. And, sadly, anything less than a spectacular, inspiring origin story  just can’t help but be anything more than a placeholder in circumstances like that, and Captain Marvel, while functional, is certainly not up to that challenge.

As an action movie, the film is about on par with films like Jupiter Ascending or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The action is fun enough, but nothing particularly creative. Like so many other modern action movies, it’s just one computer-generated effect fighting against another, as booming-but-unmemorable music blares out of the speakers, insisting that we should be more invested than we are.

Of course, the chief way to engage an audience in even the most mundane of action sequences is to incorporate characters that we feel we know and care about. Sadly, Vers isn’t really one of these. While Brie Larson is a very capable actress, able to navigate material as varied as Room and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, there is only so much she can do to elevate bland material. While I do believe she has the on-screen presence to carry a film of this magnitude, the small army of writers and story contributors do nothing to help her. By the end of the film, the character remains vague, though not in a mysterious way. As eager as the film is to champion a female superhero as every bit as engaging as her male counterparts, the script certainly isn’t doing her any favors.

Much has been made these days about the concept of the “strong” female hero. With characters like Rey in Star Wars, Katniss in The Hunger Games, and the Tris in the Divergent series able to hold their own in an action sequence, the conversation began to move to the true nature of a strong action hero. A character’s ability is important, but their personality quirks and motivations are what make them special, regardless of race or gender. The 1980s gave us an embarrassment of riches, providing audiences with characters that were capable in spite of themselves. These include Indiana Jones, Sarah Connor, John McClane, and Ellen Ripley (who may have been the protagonist in Alien, but didn’t become a true action hero until James Camereon’s Aliens in 1986).

As many have pointed out, a character’s strength isn’t derived from their physical capability so much as their emotional depth. The writers of Captain Marvel seemed to take this discussion to heart and have attempted to create a protagonist that is overly-emotional and flawed. We know this because the other characters in the film are constantly pointing out that Vers is overly-emotional and flawed, often while she is proving to be the most powerful character on screen. I applaud the writers’ effort in deepening an otherwise-uninteresting character, but simply having others declare things about her isn’t the same as her displaying these elements. The result is a film that insists on the hero’s complexity while she herself shows us nothing of the sort.

It should be noted, however, that whatever effort the filmmakers were unwilling to put into their main character was clearly spent on reminding the audience, over and over and over again, that the film takes place in the 1990s. Blockbuster Video and Radio Shack. Pagers and America Online. And, of course, a soundtrack packed with songs straight off the top 40. Time and again, the film trots out these elements, often for comic relief purposes. The joke begins to wear thin within the first few minutes of Vers arrival on Earth, but they just keep right on going, assuring us that simple audience recognition is the same as an effective punchline.

One saving grace of the film is the supporting cast. Heavy hitters like Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, and Annette Bening play vital roles. And they deliver. Whatever personality the film can be said to have comes from these performers, who are able to pull off humor, pathos, and menace whenever they are required to. Specific mention should be made of Bening, who does more with her limited screentime than most actors do with an entire film. It’s a shame that the filmmakers weren’t able to give Larson the same freedom they clearly gave the supporting players.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, though. In the end, Captain Marvel is a perfectly enjoyable diversion. The characters are watchable and the action is serviceable, though far from stirring. But throughout it all, the film keeps insisting that it has weight that it hasn’t actually earned. It avoids showing and instead chooses to tell, making for a film that clearly wants to prove itself, but never actually doing so. While I have no doubt that the character of Captain Marvel can be further developed in future films – and that Brie Larson will be more than capable of rising to that challenge – here she is mostly lackluster.

It is worth noting that the film begins with a very touching tribute to the late Stan Lee, allowing the audience to celebrate not just the man, but his creations, as well. Many of those creations were characters with real problems, both internal and external. Their willingness to overcome those problems in service of a greater good is what made them heroes. There are elements of this in Captain Marvel, but as a fitting tribute to Lee, it falls well short of the mark.

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