Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A Cosmic Marvel Of Two Different Worlds

“You are just one victim of the Skrull invasion that has threatened our civilization for centuries. Imposters who silently infiltrate, then take over planets.” ~ Supreme Intelligence

“I know a renegade soldier when I see one.” ~ Nick Fury

“Does announcing your identity with branded clothing help with the covert part of the job?” ~ Carol Danvers

The Marvel Cinematic Universe rolls along without a hitch with a new addition to the fold. Captain Marvel tells a tale set a couple of decades in the past, featuring a mysterious woman, cosmic conflicts, familiar faces, and ties to what lies ahead for the heroes and villains of the Marvel universe. Brie Larson joins the growing cast of heroes as the title character, and the direction is done by a pair of filmmakers whose work is collaborative- Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. The film that results is a highly satisfying cosmic thriller with strong characterization, grounded in a solid performance by Larson.

The film opens with Vers (Larson), a member of Starforce, an elite team of soldiers for the Kree empire. She’s having recurring nightmares of a woman. She has abilities- flight, superhuman strength, and energy projection. Her mentor Yon-Ragg (Jude Law) is training her, and an organic artificial intelligence called the Supreme Intelligence, which rules over the Kree, urges her to keep her emotions in check. Vers and her team engage the Skrulls, a shape shifting enemy race to the Kree, and Vers is captured by their commander, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). An escape leads her to Earth, where she encounters two fresh faced S.H.I.E.L.D agents, Nick Fury and Phil Coulson (Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg), and discovers that she is in fact Carol Danvers, a military pilot who was presumed dead and whose biology was altered in an explosion.

The idea for a solo film was already in the works back in 2013 for Carol Danvers, at a time when the character was still using the long-term codename Ms. Marvel in the comics. Five writers are credited with the script (aside from the character’s comic book creators). Two are the directors. Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve worked extensively on the film story during development, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet picked up where they left off. Usually that many writers is a sign of trouble, but not in this case.

The story is an origin story, but dispenses with the need to tell how the protagonist gained her powers by starting things off with her already powered. And the story as it unfolds, with its grand, cosmic stakes, nonetheless grounds itself in strong characterization, not only in its leading characters but in those around her, both good and bad. It also makes good use of established characters like Fury and Coulson- here years younger than when we first met them in Iron Man- and of established races in the comics universe like the Kree and the Skrulls. The Kree have been seen before in the MCU- in Guardians Of The Galaxy and on the small screen in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., but this is the first we’ve seen of the Skrulls, a shape shifting race that are so often the villains of a story, and first tied to the Fantastic Four in the comics. The story presents the Skrulls one way and then takes it in a different direction, which I liked.

To this point, production values in Marvel Studio films have been exceptional, so that hasn’t been a worry in terms of world building, special effects, or other aspects of filmmaking. That continues here, as the sequences set both on Earth and amid the stars and distant worlds feel real and integral alike, as opposed to green screen hell as you might expect in a different studio’s film. One of the tricks that’s been used to a smaller degree in some of these films- the de-aging of characters like Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark or Michael Douglas as Hank Pym for short set in the past scenes- is used to great effect here. As the bulk of the story is set in 1995, Samuel L. Jackson spends the whole film looking a lot younger than he actually is (while Clark Gregg’s Coulson gets some of the same treatment). The technique looks natural, as if the actor filmed their scenes back in the day as opposed to when the film was actually in production. The look for Captain Marvel feels very much like it is at present in the comic books, which is a welcome thing, as her present costume design is a particularly good one.

Boden and Fleck have worked together as directors and writers on character and indie films like Half Nelson, Sugar, and Mississippi Grind. It says a lot about the MCU that directors who are often not previously involved in blockbuster action thrillers, but character films, do so well with these films. As directors they have a rapport with actors that a blockbuster director might not have (imagine Michael Bay being let loose on a comic book film, and, well… you’d have a Michael Bay film). Instead, the directors can focus on the story, the acting, and the flow of the film and just trust that the production crew knows what it’s doing. Such is the case here. Boden and Fleck’s directing style keeps the film balanced between the scope of the story and the intimate and richly drawn interaction of characters. It’s paced well, never feeling like it lags.

We’ve seen some of the cast before. Lee Pace and Djimon Housou appeared in Guardians Of The Galaxy as Ronan the Accuser and Korath, two ruthless Kree warriors who were among the villains of that film. They reprise their roles here, years before the events of that film, and play the roles differently. Pace’s Ronan is not yet the zealot he will become in the years to come, but still a force to be reckoned with. Hounsou’s Korath is a member of Starforce, second in command of the group and lacking a whole lot in humour. Clark Gregg, who started out in Iron Man as the calm Agent Coulson and has taken that role into other films and into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., appears as his character, something of a rookie in the job in how the actor plays him (and de-aged thanks to the CGI).

Annette Bening gets more than one role in the film, voicing the Supreme Intelligence (which in the comics has always been somewhat creepy and certainly plays out that way here). The Intelligence is the sort not to be disobeyed, a brilliant organic program that rules the Kree with authority and a measure of ruthlessness, which Bening invests into her performance. And yet that’s not quite all she does, appearing in a double role as a scientist, Wendy Lawson, whose true form is that of a renegade Kree with a benevolent agenda. In this capacity, in flashback, the character is sympathetic and very much a hero.

When the film was still in production, the expectation among many was that Jude Law would be playing Mar-Vell, the predecessor Captain Marvel to Carol. That isn’t the case in the movie, though he starts out as a mentor to Vers/ Carol. His Yon-Rogg is based on a comic book version, an enemy of Mar-Vell among the Kree. He starts out in one way, as an authoritative and capable commander, but there are hidden secrets beneath the surface, which Law plays to throughout his performance. It’s a character who proves to be quite different by film’s end, and one that I’d like to see again.

Lashana Lynch plays Maria Rambeau, a former Air Force pilot and colleague and friend of Carol Danvers who happens to be a single mother to daughter Monica (who in the comics has quite a history of her own). The character is resilient, likable, and independent, with a lot of strength and just the right kind of attitude that you might expect out of a pilot. She provides some of the emotional grounding that Carol needs to find her way back to herself, and the actress makes her really come to life through her scenes.

Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn has played a whole lot of different roles down through the years, and in recent years was noted for his take as King George VI in Darkest Hour and for the villainous Imperial official Orson Krennic in the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One. Here he plays the Skrull Talos (and since he’s a shapeshifter, other characters) in more than one way. The comic book reader expects the worst out of a Skrull, and so we expect the villain. Instead his Talos starts out deemed the enemy (and given that he seems so relentless in the pursuit, we just accept it), but there’s a different angle on the character that shows up as the film progresses. Mendelsohn gives Talos a somewhat laid back approach in how he plays him. It’s a complicated role, but he handles it well.

Samuel L. Jackson has been a regular force in the Marvel cinematic universe as Nick Fury. Here he gets a lot to do as a younger Fury, before the general state of perpetual crankiness and the eye patch. Fury is essentially in a bureaucrat’s role at this point in his life, more affable and less cynical in his general approach. For the character, this is his first time dealing with a superhuman threat, and it forces him to change his mindset. Jackson plays to that, and his take on the character is that of someone who needs to learn to trust this superpowered being he’s come across. It makes for what ultimately becomes something of a buddy film between Fury and Danvers in terms of their rapport.

Brie Larson gets the main role as Carol Danvers/ Vers/ Captain Marvel and makes the most of it, becoming the bedrock of the film and showing how good she can be. Previously I’ve only seen her in the thriller Kong: Skull Island, so this is the second go around for me with the actress. Her take on Carol Danvers matches the best of the character that we’ve seen in the comics. She’s strong willed, sassy, smart, and has a whole lot of fortitude. Even without power, she’s courageous, ethical, and refuses to quit. Larson gives the character a tremendously sympathetic, compelling take with a lot of depth, making us empathize with her. I’m looking forward to more from her, both in the upcoming Avengers film and in another solo film. While the character’s existence was teased in Infinity War, this is a splendid introduction to her that’s done in the right way by the actress.

Captain Marvel establishes the character in a big way in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but gives her a chance to shine on her own. The film balances in the right way the cosmic stakes of the larger story with the characterization that is needed to ground such a story. With a cast that is well chosen, either in returning or new character roles, the film has the ideal players in their roles, especially so with its protagonist. Brie Larson firmly establishes a place for Carol Danvers in the wider Marvel universe, and in her performance, the film finds its greatest strength. I look forward to more down the line. And I haven't even mentioned the cat stealing the show.


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