' ' Cinema Romantico: Captain Marvel

Monday, March 25, 2019

Captain Marvel

There is a scene in “Captain Marvel” when the eponymous superhero (Brie Larson) finds herself, and assorted others, in 1990s Louisiana and needing, for convoluted reasons, to upload a CD rom to a bulky home computer. A member of Starforce from the planet Hala, as advanced as a 2019 8 year old with an iPhone XR would appear to a jaded teen from the grunge era, she looks at Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), her right-hand man, confused about what’s taking so long to acquire the needed information. “It’s uploading,” Fury says. If it’s a cheap back in the day joke, it’s also emblematic of “Captain Marvel’s” editing and pacing, a refreshing departure from the favored frenetic, eye-wearying comic book movie aesthetic. Shots, bless editor Elliot Graham’s soul, are held for two, three, four, even five, seconds, like a tense moment where two characters board an elevator and the shot is held as is rather than cutting to a close-up of Fury’s“wait a second” face. Indeed, most every cut, like every zoom and tilt, counts, maintaining a linear progression of events so you see how each moment leads to the next. Best of all, however, is the editing’s emphasis on its Marvelous Captain, always ensuring she is the show’s star.

That should come as no surprise since writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are dramatists whose oeuvre includes character-centric films like “Sugar” and “Mississippi Grind” in which their protagonists undergo odysseys toward fledgling states of self-discovery. That essentially describes “Captain Marvel.” Larson begins the movie as Vers, green-suited Starforce member in a galactic battle against the villainous shape-shifting Skrulls, eventually unlocking her true Carol Danvers self by coolly unleashing her superpowers rather than tempering them at the behest of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and modifying her uniform to the iconic red, blue and yellow. Her journey starts when a rescue mission yields imprisonment and a memory probe at the hands of the Skrulls’ Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), whose green reptilian face re-proves no actor is more committed to letting himself look like shit than Mendelsohn. But Carol escapes to the planet below, C-353, mid-90s Earth, as it turns out, meaning “Captain Marvel” hurtles into the past, mirroring its character’s emotional journey.

The 90s place her squarely in era of the Riot Grrrl. Among the tenets of the Riot Grrrl ethos, as explained in Kathleen Hanna’s manifesto, is how Riot Grrls “know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock ‘you can do anything’ idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours.” Carol Danvers, in other words, which is why her desert highway sequence aboard a motorcycle being scored to Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains” is not mid-90s nostalgia but an embrace of her inner riot grrrl. Alas, this remains Marvel, which demands action scenes, meaning that frequently physical survival, as flashbacks evince, tie into Carol’s psychic life and mostly, sadly trumps her cultural life. A photograph of young-er Carol in a Guns ‘n’ Roses t-shirt singing karaoke provides a glimpse of cultural life, but that’s all, just a glimpse, limiting the character’s backstory to a militaristic context, less a well-rounded person than a fighting machine figuring out who needs to be fought.

“Captain Marvel”, however, is not simply Carol’s spiritual reclamation but The Avengers’ genesis too. In her earthly battle with the Skrulls, she partners with pre-eyepatch S.H.I.E.L.D agent Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged Jackson) whose collaboration with Carol triggers the idea of enlisting superheroes to his Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. Jackson hints at this idea by echoing Carol’s give-no-ground attitude, not awed, just impressed. At the same time, Jackson understands whose movie this is and willingly cedes the spotlight to his co-star (and the cat) when necessary. His being there also naturally allows for the intermingling of black and white, and then eventually green, which is as much allegory as “Captain Marvel” yearns to stress. Though there might be overtones of incendiary Middle East politics, Boden and Fleck limit the film’s air to a broader bleeding-heart liberalism, evoked in a dinner table scene near the end, heavy-handed though undoubtedly also destined to enrage bothsidesists because it, like, you know, presents all sides.

No, “Captain Marvel” works less as an allegory and more as Carol coming into her own and, by extension, Larson’s finely calibrated performance, one truly conveying the idea of maintaining an even keel in the possession of immense power. Larson grasps a star’s symbiosis with the camera is frequently dictated on less being more and even in a movie of grand set pieces, she generally remains still in frames, able to generate a laugh simply by rolling her eyes to the right. And she renders her entrance into a train car long after its left the station with such self-possessed charisma that it’s kind of the comicbook version of Lauren Bacall moving through the Martinique hotel bar in “To Have and Have Not.” Larson is so low-key, high voltage in this moment she even turns the obligatory Stan Lee cameo into a decent comic beat. The movie’s biggest moment, teasing a showdown seemingly set up since the first scene, becomes a comic beat too, where Carol does not finally recognize how to master her power but recognize she has had it mastered all along, reducing the conspicuous male across from her to a variation of Ron Burgundy priggishly screaming at Veronica Corningstone. The moment’s inherent simplicity might simultaneously epitomize the overall lack of more traditional thrilling blockbuster CGI sensation, but sometimes a single star is brightness enough.

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