A few weeks ago, concurrent with and possibly motivated by one of the many snowy disasters that has marked the early months of 2019 here in the South Puget Sound, I watched all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in chronological order. Most of them I had seen before, either in their initial release (sporadically as I found them to be relentlessly mediocre and all pretty much the same) or last summer, around the time I started reading comic books again for the first time in 30 years. The books too I’m tackling in chronological order, following the Marvel Literary Universe from its Silver Age inception in 1962 with Fantastic Four #1 on into the present day (so far I’m somewhere in 1965). Watching the movies in order has given me a sense of how they have changed over time, responding to current events (especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the election of Donald Trump) in occasionally interesting ways and forming their own internal structure through a system of Phases which can serve as markers for changes in tone and approach as the series has progressed. Reading the books has given me a new perspective on the films as well: not only can I now find them wanting as action films (the house action style is poor without exception: the editing a half-assed knock-off of Paul Greengrass’s already bad Bourne movies; the choreography, even when it is good, buried under whip pans, extreme close-ups, blurry images and too dark night scenes designed to hide the seams of CGI), as auteurist expressions (with authorial voices as distinct as Ryan Coogler, Louis Leterrier, Shane Black, Kenneth Branagh, Peyton Reed and a host of less interesting types smooshed into the familiar rhythms and bland imagery of a bad knockoff Joss Whedon (including Whedon himself)), and as adaptations of one of the unique 20th Century American art forms: the comic book.
Watching the MCU films as comic book adaptations highlights two of their biggest shortcomings in the middle phase of their run (roughly Iron Man 3 through Ant-Man, with Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron and the Civil War (technically Phase 3 but in spirit belonging to Phase 2) being the big ones). This is Marvel’s “We Make Real Movies” phase, where heroes deal with trauma in increasingly dangerous and irrational ways. It’s Marvel’s only real attempt to deal with contemporary politics, albeit at least a decade too late (I mean, it is Hollywood), as the various heroes discover that the government is full of lies, that those lies are used to prop up a global system of never-ending war for the benefit of capital, and that the human consequences for both the people who fight the wars and the people who get caught in the middle of them are incalculable. But, rather than seriously explore these issues, or the contradiction of being critical of this system while also being a multi-billion dollar profit-generating machine for one of the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world, the MCU films are content to merely touch on them at the most basic level of exposition or sad-face acting, brief pit-stops on the way to another nauseatingly hyperactive bout of fisticuffs or a weightless car (ship, plane, robot suit) chase through empty pixels. Borrowing from prestige television, the movies never really end: individual episodes are merely subsumed into the mass whole, with any glimmer of individuality or self-contained storytelling swallowed up by the need to hype up the next installment (a trend which reaches its apotheosis in Marvel’s unwatchable Netflix series, where every episode of bleak dullness blends into the next in a formless, personality-less mush of moodiness).
But, with Phase 3, things begin to improve. These are the movies I’d mostly skipped when they were released in 2016 and 2017, and so when I caught up with them last summer I was pleasantly surprised to see that Marvel appeared to be moving on from its moody teen years and rediscovered some of the fun of its pre-1990s self. Doctor Strange is a misfire, a rote origin story with a tenth of the imagination that the character should inspire, but the rest of the group (new movies for Spider-Man and Black Panther; bright, goofy sequels for Thor, Ant-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy; with Civil War and Infinity War as the big crossovers) are pretty good. Civil War, split between classic superhero vs. superhero stuff that’s been essential to Marvel’s storytelling since the very beginning, and gritty psychodrama is half good (guess which half), while Infinity War is the closest the MCU has yet gotten to the kind of all-star crossover epic these films are supposed to be: bright and fast-paced yet expansive in its world and never too self-serious (despite the whole killing half the universe thing). The others all approach having an individual style, with Taika Waititi’s Ragnarok being the closest the MCU has yet gotten to a true auteur movie, while Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther fights the good fight against the series’ corporately-mandated middle-road politics, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man movies continue to shine in small moments (though they mostly fail in big ones), and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films do a pretty good job of capturing the (mostly safe) weirdness of Marvel’s cosmic adventures.
So, it’s with all that in mind that I found myself watching Captain Marvel, the penultimate film of Phase 3 (Endgame wraps it up next month while another Spider-Man kicks off Phase 4 this summer). And, well, it’s fine. It’s an origin story, albeit one that, like Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming before it, avoids many of the clichés of that genre (unlike Doctor Strange). Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers is blessedly free of dark trauma, rather she suffers from some kind of amnesia while serving in the Kree army (the Kree being an alien race that figures in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie) in their on-going war against the Skrulls, another alien race, this one with the ability to shape-shift into other humanoid beings. The Skrulls head to Earth in search of Annette Bening’s MacGuffin, and Larson follows them there. She teams up with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury (this being set in 1995, Jackson has been digitally de-aged, a ghoulish special effect that hopefully will quickly be dropped from the language of cinema and forgotten for all time) and the two have adventures while on the run from the Skrulls, the US government, and the Kree, led by Larson’s boss and mentor, Jude Law (doing little more than fulfilling the contractual obligation wherein every actor in Hollywood must appear in at least one MCU movie).
Like most recent MCU films, Captain Marvel is at its best in its smallest moments, with Larson’s impetuous quips and her easy rapport with Jackson, who appears to be having more fun than he has in any of his big spectacle movies to date, or at least since he battled a plane full of snakes. Larson’s performance is closer to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in its bug-eyed charm and confidence than any of the MCU’s stiffer, more tortured heroes, and the character should fit easily into the cosmic side of the cycle, alongside the Asgardians and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Which is good, because that’s where the Captain Marvel character belongs: she’s way too overpowered to be dealing with Earth-bound drama. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, mostly known for well-regarded little indie dramas that I haven’t seen like Half Nelson and Sugar, are an unlikely choice for a slightly goofy interstellar epic, and it shows in the film’s lack of visual and aural imagination (1995 was apparently a strip mall in suburban LA playing a “We Love the 90s” mix CD and that’s about it) and its action sequences, which are almost entirely bad. The fist fights (between Larson and Law in the beginning and between her and various other stunt people later) are jumbled to incoherence, which is to be expected, and Larson doesn’t appear to be a natural for this kind of physical performance: she always looks off-balance to me. Her stunt double is probably pretty good, but it’s hard to tell what they’re doing amid all the editing and camera movement. The only halfway decent action comes at the end, with a reasonably well done dogfight and then when Danvers has achieved full power and just turns into a fiery ball of CGI vengeance, ripping through spaceships like a superstar.
Captain Marvel is, of course, the first MCU film built around a woman, and much of the film’s marketing has revolved around this fact. People much more qualified than I am should speak to the film’s feminist credibility, or about just how much its representation is worth. It doesn’t seem to me though that it’s as nuanced in its engagement with feminism as, say Black Panther was in its examination of potential responses to institutional racism. Rather it’s content to just assert its heroine’s power as an end it itself. And that might actually be more revolutionary, more joyously liberating than Black Panther‘s middling neo-liberalism. Danvers begins the film as a subservient tool of the patriarchy and ends up burning a bunch of men to the ground before heading out to dismantle the entire social-political system they’ve constructed. It’s a real comic book movie and that works for me.