Maybe I have a problem with Marvel’s approach to space fantasy. Maybe. For half of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY I sat in the theater not really impressed by what I was seeing on the screen. No one was real. It was all posturing, and call-backs to favorite songs, and archetypes rather than characters, splotched against a world of heightened colors and jokey one-liners. It wasn’t until a drunk Rocket Raccoon was raging about the monster he was that the masks dropped and I saw…people. With hopes and dreams and needs and fears. And , at the end, “We are Groot” just devastated me. Re-watching that movie now, understanding what Gunn was aiming at, I can dig the hell out of it from the first frame. And in the sequel, when Gamora says to Nebula “I just wanted a sister.” I FELT that. There is a beating heart at the core of it, and it fits smack dab in the middle of what I’ve always considered “the Marvel universe.” Sound and Fury and Technicolor fun…with a beating heart.
I’m sad to say there was no such moment in “Captain Marvel” (played with conviction by Brie Larson) I had the exact same feeling I had for the first hour of “GOTG” only this time it lasted the whole two hours. Oh, the tribute to Stan was wonderful and opened my heart, but diving into the fractured time-lines, and multiple character levels and alliances switched identities and enemies and locations without ever letting me really FEEL anyone, anywhere, was disorienting. Where are we now? WHEN are we? WHO are we? Is THIS what I’m supposed to care about? How about THIS? How about this action choreography that looks like dancing instead of fighting? How about this relationship between Pilot/Alien warrior Carol Danvers and her human friend (Lashana Lynch) , who grew up with her? Scattered memories, none of them triggering emotion in our character, extracted from her mind by aliens seeking information…or more honestly, by a filmmaker seeking to throw enough back-story at you that you would suspend disbelief for the CGI mayhem to come.
The story of an amnesiac warrior from another galaxy dropped into 1990’s Earth in search of a weapon or a star-drive (we have a galactic empire. Two of them. Maybe three. But none of them have developed a FTL drive, although they seem to hop around the stars rather blithely. I don’t understand).
All right…Carol Danvers is perky and intense and brave, maybe the story starts when we reach Earth? And meet “Agents” Fury (Samuel Jackson) and Coulson (Clark Gregg)? That was fun, and Coleson is a welcome de-aged sight…but de-aged Fury is off. In no way does he seem the hard-edged alpha badass we’d seen in the other films, let alone the original comic books, where he was the ultimate WW2 Sargent who was tapped to run SHIELD because of being such a dominant man of action. So…they move WW2 up to Desert Storm or something, right? No, this guy is comic relief, the kind of moron who stops in the middle of a world-saving invasion into a top-secret lab to coo over a cat. WTF? And in the entire film, the best thing he does is a junior spy move with scotch tape that we’ve all seen a hundred times, and hasn’t been impressive since the first Mission: Impossible? And then gives us an oh-I’m-a-clever-boy approval-seeking grin?
They could have grabbed me there, but no.
Back and forth they go, from one time line, memory stream, and set-piece to another. All competent, but feeling like the notes from the executive suite rather than the vision of a filmmaker who really, really loves comic books and heroes and remembers what it is like to sink into the dream and just feel. To go on a ride with a likeable rogue or hero (Tony Stark or Steve Rogers) or accept a world apart as a place with real people with real hopes and needs and aims (Wonder Woman or Black Panther).
I could feel them swinging for the fences, and whiffing it again and again. Tananarive said to me last night “this must be what people who don’t like superhero movies think they’re all like.”
I agree. I’d hate to look back ten years from now and feel: “Ah. Infinity War was Marvel’s Pixar’s “Cars 2” moment, the first time we could see that they were juggling too many balls to really bring the heat to every film.” Paler still is my thought that what made the Marvel films work is that unlike DC, the creative heart of all these books and sagas, Stan Lee, was still alive. The cheerleader, the creative heart of Marvel could sit in a room with the writers and producers and directors and communicate sheer PASSION to them, tell them precisely what the Bullpen was in the 1970’s, when they hit their stride and it was just a lava-flow of creativity. And I suspected that when he died it would fracture, and Marvel would lose its magic. Now, he didn’t die until after Captain Marvel was in the can, but his life-force had clearly been diminishing. Everything that rises falls.
If Civil War or Winter Soldier or Black Panther was the peak of their accomplishment, that’s still a hell of a ride. And maybe I’m seeing blips here. Can’t wait for the new Spider Man (oops…but that’s Sony) and fingers crossed for Black Widow and Black Panther 2 down the road. Fingers crossed…but there are troubling signs here, a little like watching Man With The Golden Gun’s fruit-loop slide whistle car-jump. Or speaking of jumps, I couldn’t help but think of Fonzie and the motorcycle and the Shark when “Captain Marvel” tried to hit the nostalgia button with a “Happy Days” lunch box.
I wanted it to work for me. It didn’t. It isn’t down there with the worst of the Marvel films (“Thor: Dark World” maybe? One of the “Hulk” movies? Not sure.) But this was so ambitious, and so fractured, that it might be the most disappointing.
Sigh. Well, I hope Stan liked it. I really do.