Film reviews

Captain Marvel – Review

It’s 1995, and Vers (Bree Larson), a member of the Kree Starforce, headquartered on the planet of Hala, is having recurrent nightmares involving a human woman and some kind of crash on what appears to be Earth.  These dreams are revealing ever more detail, but very slowly.  We learn that the Kree have been at war for centuries with the Skrulls, a race of shapeshifters.

In the course of a mission to rescue a covert operative, Vers is captured by the Skrull, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), and subjected to a probe designed to explore the memories that have formed part of her dreams.  Escaping, Vers lands on Earth, attracting the attention of SHIELD agent, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  With her mentor and Starforce leader, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) some time away, she will learn the truth of her previous existence as Carol Danvers: a US Air Force pilot.  With her friend Maria Rambeau, she identifies the lady in the dream as Dr Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening).  The technology Lawson was creating may hold the key to her repressed memories, to unlocking her full set of abilities, and to ending the long war with the Skrulls.

Frankly, the build-up to Captain Marvel has been toxic.  Some relatively innocuous comments from Larson asking for more diversity in the film reviewing community, and suddenly the film was being loaded heavily with trolling, nasty audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.  Stereotyped as flat and emotionless, [Oscar winner] Larson faced an uphill struggle with some sections of the audience before this film was even released.

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Happily, Brie Larson is terrific here, and a new star of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is born.  Her Danvers is smart, often funny, and moves with a swagger that increases in confidence as the film progresses.  Larson demonstrates, here, that indefinable gift of screen presence.  She commands the audience’s attention (and, for the record, she smiles on many occasions – if that sort of thing matters to you).  Her Danvers is malleable: able to melt into crowds; grand-stand as a hero; sass the bad guys; but also to play the quiet, vulnerable friend, and uncertain apprentice.

Such versatility should ensure Captain Marvel will have decent chemistry with any and all of the Avengers.  It is easy to see her working against Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, even Rocket Raccoon.  Larson can dominate a scene, or take a back seat, as required.  Whereas Robert Downey Jr. is a natural alpha presence in any scene, there will be flexibility to vary Danvers’ role in any given section of Avengers: Endgame

It is wonderful, finally, to be able to say some nice things about Ben Mendelsohn.  The man is a truly exceptional actor (again, see Netflix original, Bloodline, for details), but he has been coasting by in variations of the same role for some time: The Dark Knight Rises, Rogue One, Ready Player One, and last year’s Robin Hood were all, effectively, the same performance in similar roles – and a waste of a very special talent.  His performance as Talos demonstrates a level of ability that underlines why that was such a frustration.  To the credit of directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the film has presented, in Talos, a character with nuance: with shades of grey; and Mendelsohn has taken full advantage.

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The gamble of de-ageing Samuel L. Jackson to his mid-1990s look for a whole film works – mostly.  When the man runs, it’s a little bit more obvious that he’s 70 years of age.  Plus, what is it with Hollywood and toupees?  Both Jackson and Clark Gregg wear hairpieces that look like they were created by people who once had the concept of hair described to them.  Otherwise, it works, and a major potential stumbling block is averted.

Supporting players are solid, in general.  Jude Law is very good at essaying the ambiguities in his Yoda/Henri Ducard-type; Lashana Lynch convincing in a thankless role as what amounts to ‘the friend’.  Most notably, Annette Bening is wonderful, and dominant in every frame in which she appears, both as Lawson, and as the personification, to Carol, of the Kree’s Supreme Intelligence.  It can be noted, also, that Jackson is clearly having a blast being placed more front and centre.  The film looks like it was enjoyable for everyone to make.

In terms of the film itself, it is difficult not to damn it with ever-so-slightly faint praise.  This is mid-tier Marvel; elevated, though, by the fact this is so evidently an A-list character in this universe, unlike, say, Ant-Man.  Key moments do transcend this, however.  As with Captain America: The First Avenger, the characters are somewhat stronger than the film itself; which bodes very well, going forward.  As with that film, the sequel will be better.  Though landing all of its themes of discovery and self-belief, and taking the audience with it wholeheartedly, it is structured so close to formula, that some of its sense of individuality is lost.  It simply doesn’t have the personality of Iron Man or Black Panther.

The pacing is perfect, however.  Carol learned her full backstory at what felt like around 45 minutes in: it turned out to be about the 70 minute-mark.  The film laces action so well throughout the running time that the film never loses forward momentum, and the usual third act lull of a film switching off its brain and plot to launch into rote, pointless set pieces simply don’t quite unfold that way here.  Yes, the action escalates, but it is the logical culmination of our lead’s journey.  Where the first two acts are a very well executed example of formula MCU: act three outdoes their usual standard for a film’s conclusion.

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Into this mix, we have a decent child actor (Akira Akbar doing well as young Monica Rambeau), a scene-stealing cat (kudos to some of the CG work – the cat being weightless in zero G, G-forces pinning him another time), and a film that will be remembered, if for nothing else, for the beautifully judged tribute to, and cameo by, Stan Lee (Mallrats is now a release canon to this world everyone)

Captain Marvel takes a while to find its feet, but builds into a propulsive work, laden with good character work, decent and organically occurring humour, and possibly the most fist-pumpingly enjoyable example of a character discovering their powers that we’ve yet seen in the MCU.  It doesn’t reach the heights of the very best this continuity can offer, but the hit rate is now impressive enough that mid-tier really does mean very good.  Marvel Studios could do much worse than to build their future around this character, taking care to present challenges that test what could be a very over-powered skill-set.  With Spider-Man in the fold, also, suddenly the passing on of many of the elements of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t seem quite so catastrophic.

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