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Movie Review: Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel isn’t here for your sexist bullshit. In fact, the latest addition to the MCU gives absolutely zero f@#ks about your agenda or preconceptions as it just unleashes its first Omega-level hero on an unsuspecting and unprepared world. While the script and directing are a little clunkier than other recent MCU masterpieces, I don’t think Ms. Carol Danvers would want us ranking her or pitting her against her fellow heroes. And any problems with the pacing of the first act are more than made up for with a hugely satisfying, explosive finale.

Here’s the deal, geeks– we’re spoiled rotten with the likes of Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . When something doesn’t quite measure up to those levels, it’s easy to dismiss or criticize. While I have a lot of measured criticisms of the film’s pacing and action choices, the best thing we can learn from Captain Marvel is she’s not here for your approval. She’s not here to smile at you. She’s not here to be compared to your other films and heroes. She’s here to kick ass and save the world. And that’s about it.

But as a film critic, critique I must, but making sure we don’t fall prey to easy sexist traps that have largely infected a lot of mainstream publications’ reviews of this. I’m especially looking at both right wing rags like the National Review and a lot of the (fragile)-white-male-dominated online geek press. Let’s get over ourselves and just enjoy this movie, because (shocking, I know!) not everything needs to be made for us.

Our titular hero (Brie Larson) begins the film as a warrior for the Kree Imperium with the codename Vers and a case of terrible amnesia that she can’t remember anything before six years ago. Alongside Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and a team of Kree elite commandos, they are engaged in a long-term war against the Skrulls, a race of shape-shifting aliens. When she encounters Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), a Skrull leader, she begins to have strange flashbacks leading her to believe she had a life on Earth. where she then finds herself stranded in 1995 Los Angeles. She teams up with a young SHIELD agent named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to stop the Skrull infiltration of Earth. Or so it would seem. . . as the shape-shifting abilities of the Skrulls and their conflict with the Kree are much wider than we thought, and this bleeds into major pieces of the broader MCU.

Fans are going to get a lot of service here, which is one of the main problems with any sort of prequel: the need to explain how everything came to be. The movie keeps poking and prodding at the broader universe, including multiple gags where they seem to be joking “Oh, so that’s how Nick Fury lost his eye.” It’s similar to the old episode of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law where they explain the origin of Stephen Colbert’s Phil Ken Sebben and his iconic eyepatch injury where for several minutes straight he’s pointing sharp objects at his eye. We get the joke.

But the fanservice that does work is the tie-in to the broader MCU. No spoilers, but the payoff by the end, once we know what is actually happening? It’s like finding that one puzzle piece which reveals what the larger section is all about. It should go without saying, but remember to stick around through the credits for both a mid-credits scene that directly ties into Avengers: Endgame and a post-credits scene that bridges Captain Marvel to the events of The Avengers.

Oh, and Stan Lee. The opening for the film and its iconic Marvel comics image flip has been replaced entirely with Stan’s cameos, and a small dedication of the film to Stan the Man himself. This film also contains one of the most interesting Stan Lee cameos ever. It’s a little mindbending and I’m going to need time to wrap my head around it completely.

But perhaps what’s most surprising is the underlying meaning the film brings. Brie Larson’s cold, dispassionate delivery and demeanor makes it harder to connect with our hero, but that is entirely the point. This is what we tell women to do to succeed in a man’s world: don’t be emotional. Be sexy and available, but not too much or you’re a slut. But especially as a member of the Kree Starforce, she’s told to act without emotion. This is what war does to our soldiers. This is what war does to us.

The saying goes that the first casualty in war is the truth. And so we are challenged by this film to confront some uncomfortable truths about the stories we tell ourselves about war and ourselves as warriors. The overwhelming feeling I’m left with is this: maybe the United States of America are the Kree. Maybe we’re animated by hatred and xenophobia more than we’d like to admit. Maybe we empower genocidal maniacs (like a too-briefly appearing Ronan the Accuser) through our war-mongering.

And what snaps our hero out of it? Learning her human past. Reconnecting with her best friend and flight partner Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), the real secret weapon of this film. Rambeau shows us — and Carol — that she can be maternal and nurturing while also being a badass hero in her own right. It’s the quieter moments in Captain Marvel that work the best, which is maybe why we don’t give it the praise it deserves. Everything we’re criticizing the film for is actually a criticism of what patriarchy and war do to women, do to us. Maybe we should focus less on comparisons to Thor: Ragnarok and focus more on what the deliberate choices the filmmakers made in the first half of the film as a mirror of everything that’s wrong with us.

And then there’s that 90’s soundtrack. As a child of the 80’s and an adolescent of the 90’s (Go Team Xennial!!) there is nothing more precious to me than bands like Garbage, REM, and Nine Inch Nails that put me right back in that time and place. There’s also a surprising amount of pop R&B for a nice counterbalance. Watch for an article about the soundtrack coming soon, but beware– while some of the songs are not spoilers, per se, I think you miss out on the nice reaveals of a couple of them, especially a late scene with the Kree Supreme Intelligence and a climactic battle scene set to a specifically iconic mid 90’s bop that is going to drive the haters absolutely mad.

Speaking of? Haters– die mad about all of it. Take your lame attempts to tank the Rotten Tomatoes score and go die in a fire. Captain Marvel is definitely worth seeing, seeing on a giant screen with an amazing sound system that really lets you feel the groove of Elastica’s “Connection.” So go do it, and don’t let reservations that “Oh, but it’s not as good as Black Panther” worry you. Did that keep people from seeing Aquaman? Stick around for the finale– and maybe let Carol Danvers’ words resonate with you as she emancipates herself from Kree control and directly gives a giant middle finger to toxic masculinity that could’ve come out of the pages of a Riot Grrrl alt-weekly.

I can’t wait for Carol Danvers to show up in Endgame. She’s going to save everyone. ‘Nuff said.

3.75 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Captain Marvel Takes Off But Doesn’t Quite Soar

Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel (2019) poster CR: Marvel Studios

The first sure to be blockbuster of the year, Marvel‘s Captain Marvel is an entertaining film that never quite reaches its full potential. Based on the comics character, Captain Marvel is a new take on the classic character of Carol Danvers. Here, she’s a Kree warrior, part of their Starforce, doing battle with Skrulls, a race of shapeshifting aliens who infiltrate societies before destroying them.

The film is an interesting one that even as I write this, I’m still trying to digest and process. There’s lots of good. There’s lots of bad. And a whole lot of middle ho-hum. In the growing library of Marvel films, it’s somewhere in the middle as far as quality.

The film acts as a prequel in a way, taking place in the 90s and introducing the character of Carol Danvers who we haven’t seen up to this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film feels like a piece of the bigger puzzle, never quite standing on its own, and at times stretching for winks and nods to make the fans happy.

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck with a “story by” and “screenplay by” Boden and Fleck (Meg LeFauve and Nicole Perlman get “story by” credits and Geneva Robertson-Dworet gets “story by” and “screenplay by” credits) the movie has a lot going for it but also has some misfires as well.

Breaking from the usual narrative structure, the film is one of discovery where the “hero” attempts to figure out their “human side” as opposed the regular schmo discovering they’re a hero. With lots of action sequences, the film is Carol, played by Brie Larson, attempting to discover her past and stop the Skrulls.

Larson has the interesting task of playing a human trained by the Kree, an emotionless warrior race focused on logic. Warrior Vulcans in a way. That results in a character who doesn’t smile and doesn’t have the usual emotional latching on points we’ve seen as part of Marvel’s formula. Instead that role is given to Samuel L. Jackson‘s Nick Fury who becomes Danvers’ partner in crime as she attempts to complete her mission and discovers there’s so much to it and her. In this role reversal, the hero is the “straightman” with the sidekick the joker.

And that’s one of the interesting aspect of the film, it’s focus on Larson’s Danvers being “too emotional.” Part of the undeserved hate against the film is Larson’s lack of smiling in promotional material. She’s not supposed to, she’s Kree, they don’t show emotion. And that aspect brings out the film’s underlying theme of toxic masculinity and how women are treated in society. We see through flashbacks and other scenes Danvers is held back and told to not be emotional. One can just look at the reaction to female politicians to see there’s messed up societal standards when it comes to that.

The film, in many ways, feels like a woman attempting to break free from expectations. She’s also told this growing up. She’s trained to use logic over emotion. Not letting emotion get the better of her. And then eventually, saying screw that to unleash her inner awesome that she’s bottled up. It’s a middle finger to the “traditional norms” that today are being confronted in so many ways.

And that as a viewer had me experience something I haven’t before, trouble connecting with the hero. As a straight, white, man, I’ve never had someone tell me not to be emotional (beyond not crying) or I couldn’t do something due to my gender (I have had that due to my height but then I’d just get angry and go off, so once again, emotional for guys is totally ok apparently) so to see Carol being told over and over to not be angry or she couldn’t do something because she’s a woman, it’s an experience I’ve never had. And it made it hard to connect and enjoy her journey. I have no doubt that many others who will see this film will be able to relate to her experiences and will enjoy the film in a whole other way than me (this is also a good thing, not everything she be geared towards my demographic).

But, that disconnect between myself and the main character, the lack of quips of the hero, made me rely on the action for enjoyment and there the film is all over.

The direction of Boden and Fleck is too choppy at times relying on quick camera cuts making it difficult to follow exactly what’s going on. It’s not until the big CGI finale does the camera slow down, allowing the audiences to take in more of the action and enjoy it. Early fights are difficult to tell exactly what’s happening and it’s hard to tell if this is by choice or due to the difficulty of the setting. It’s most prevelant in a scene taking place on the metro.

The film also lacks the “f@#k yeah” moment until 3/4 of the way in. It’s a long wait for the hero to really come forward and show her inner awesome. It’s also a complete change from previous Marvel films which feel like they’re almost built to show off the character’s abilities in set time frames in a set narrative beat. The lack of that for most of the film is a change which honestly I’m still not completely used to. Compare this to Wonder Woman which gives us the beat on the beach, No Man’s Land, and the end of the film. It’s a different type of narrative that stands out from the at this point rather formulaic Marvel method.

The film being a prequel helps and hurts it. It uses that to get long time Marvel fans interested with the inclusion of Fury (how did he lose the eye!?) and Clark Gregg‘s Coulson. Reveals are a plenty tying the film in nicely to the Marvel Cinematic Universe but at times these reveals feel forced and a bit unnatural. Also, some of those reveals don’t feel like much as far as payoffs.

The supporting cast is other really good or rather wasted. Ben Mendelsohn as Talos steals the show with a fantastic performance (though Skrulls with British accents are weird, don’t know why). Jude Law as Yon-Rogg plays an emotionless Kree well and unintentionally adds a “good” moment when he gets his considering his not great past with women.

While Djimon Hounsou as Korath has much more screen time than he did in Guardians of the Galaxy his inclusion is still a bit head-scratching. Lee Pace as Ronan feels like he’s only included to tie the film into what has come before. Annette Bening‘s role is an interesting one and the less said the better but… I want more Annette Bening.

The rest of Starforce are solid with Gemma Chan as Minn -Erva really standing out. Lashanna Lynch as Maria Rambeau brings a lot of heart to the film and we better see more of Akira Akbar who plays her daughter. That combination had me excited for what could come.

The film is an interesting one and its themes and the topics it touches upon are ones that can be debated for some time. Beyond the toxic masculinity, there’s the obvious look at the war machine and deeper concepts whose discussion would spoil parts of the film.

There’s a lot done right here and in many ways breaks the Marvel mold and formula. It’s a film I have no doubt will have an audience that will celebrate it and enjoy it and even before opening has its haters. I’m somewhere in between. I can appreciate what it does and attempts to do and also see its flaws. I also recognize not all films are for me and this could be one of them.

Overall Rating: 7.0

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Grindewald posterFans of the Potterverse can rejoice: you have a great sequel on your hands. While the first Fantastic Beasts seemed more concerned with worldbuilding and funny side-business, this second act of a planned five Fantastic Beasts films goes deeper and darker than we’ve ever gone before. The adage goes that in act 1, you introduce characters; act 2, dig a giant pit and throw them in; act 3, get them out. This is a deep, dark wizarding pit and definitely in my top 3 favorite Potterverse films.

From the get-go, it hits you with a fierce intensity. An opening scene re-introducing our villain Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and a subsequent jailbreak have more action crammed into the first ten minutes than the entire first film combined.

We also get continued beautiful character development of our hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he is recruited by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to try to track the escaped Grindelwald down. Grindelwald is obsessed with finding Credence (Ezra Miller), who against all odds survived the confrontation at the end of the first film and is now hiding in Paris. Dumbledore is hiding a mystery of why he won’t move against the dark wizard himself, but fears the Ministry of Magic’s Auror office, headed by Newt’s brother Theseus, and their heavyhanded tactics will play into Grindelwald’s plans.

There’s another wrinkle, as Theseus is set to marry fellow Auror Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) who was a Hogwarts girlfriend of Newt’s in the perfect Hufflepuff-Slytherin relationship the fandom has always wanted. Newt, however, is still in love with American Auror Tina who is also in Paris searching for Credence and Grindelwald. So when her sister Queenie and now-fiance Jacob Kowalski show up on Newt’s doorstep, they all head to Paris searching for each other, for Credence, for Grindelwald.

Everybody get that? Sorry, it’s complicated.

The plot is more layered and delicate than a perfect french pastry. Even better, the characters and their arcs also feed in to the broader themes of the film. A big part of this is also about accepting and loving people because of, not just in spite of, their differences.  Expanding the main quartet from the first film to six by adding in Theseus and Leta is a brilliant move that is executed flawlessly. You have a half dozen people who are so incredibly different from each other and they all love one another in very different ways. Whether related by blood or not, they are like family. And so much of Credence’s story — despite him being the macguffin for this story — is very much about his own search for meaning and who his family is.

There’s also great commentary woven in here about how we co-exist with one another. A major plot point revolves around the legality or acceptance of marriage between the magic world and the non-magic world. There’s a complex morality about whether maybe wizards and witches should reveal themselves to the human world in an attempt to help the humans? Or just outright rule them. And ultimately identity and who we love is the main focus of this film. It is heartbreaking on multiple levels.

You also have Dumbeldore and Grindelwald as these perfect foils for one another. While not mentioned in the film, it would be worthwhile to review their early relationship around searching for The Deathly Hallows and the fateful three-way duel between them and Albus’s brother Aberforth which resulted in the death of their sister. (Note that all of those events take place several years before the first Fantastic Beasts film– you’ll want to get your timeline straight when you see this.)

The film also delivers a climax of epic proportions. When I compare this to the artistry and moral stakes of the finale of The Empire Strikes Back, I do not invoke that comparison lightly, but it is the best analog to what we have in this film. There are emotional stakes. There are plot twists. Bring tissues.

Sounds pretty amazing, right? It is. But the film has some other, er. . . problematic areas.

The first is the casting of Claudia Kim as Nagini. In later films/books, we know Nagini becomes Voldemort’s pet/horcrux, and fans have (rightfully) pointed out the racism in casting a Korean actress as a character who later becomes a pet. Rowling also caught justifiable flak for defending her choice saying:

Yikes. Koreans are not Indonesian, Chinese, Javanese, or Betawi. Ok, so this is hella problematic.

Here’s the deal, though: Claudia Kim in this movie is magic– no pun intended. She gives one of the best performances of the movie. Her character is a strong woman with agency, morals, and a personal story arc. She can also transform into a snake and is Credence’s best friend. It’s actually really terrible that she has to be Nagini and not just some other unnamed Maledictus, as she was originally listed in the casting. This is, of course, a problem endemic to prequels.

The other giant glaring problem with this movie is Johnny Depp. I don’t care what you think of Depp as a person or as an actor. But he is garbage in this movie. I haven’t seen someone so clearly just picking up a paycheck and not expending any effort since…  well, Johnny Depp in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I haven’t seen a character so grating and unappealing in a tentpole franchise film since… well, Johnny Depp in the last Alice in Wonderland movie. He is terrible, and Warner Bros need to cut their losses and recast him for the inevitable (and well-deserved!) sequel. He’s a distraction every time he’s on screen, because he is expending so little effort that it’s simply, “Look! Johnny Depp in a platinum wig!”

The film’s saving grace is he isn’t in it very much despite being the title character. The downside is, this character deserves better. Here’s the real deal: Grindelwald has a point. Like Thanos, like Erik Killmonger, like the best baddies of 2018, he is a villain whose logic is sound, whose grievances are real, but whose methods are immeasurably unconscionable.

This is otherwise a near-perfect film– easily the equal of an Infinity War. But Johnny Depp’s magic spell he casts on this film is to drag it down by an entire star just by himself. In a cruel twist of either irony or tonedeaf marketing, most prints are being paired with the trailer for Aquaman starring Amber Heard as Mera. If there is any sense of cosmic justice, Aquaman will kick Grindelwald’s butt at the box office and Warner Bros may wise up that, hey, maybe having Depp star in our tentpole franchise is a bad idea.

Just sort of expend as little effort as possible in paying attention to Depp– at least as little as he is expending in performing– and try to enjoy the film pretending he is replaced by, oh, say, Christopher Plummer– just kidding. But seriously– Ewan MacGregor. Or Russell Crowe. Or Javier Bardem. Or Paul Bettany.

If you can do that, you will absolutely fall in love with this film. It raises the stakes, dashes expectations, and leaves you wanting more. Bring on the third Fantastic Beasts movie — and look for a spoiler-filled article from me later about why Newt Scamander is the hero we all need for 2018.

4 out of 5 stars

Jude Law in Negotiations to Join Captain Marvel

It is being reported that Jude Law is in negotiations to be the male lead opposite Brie Larson for Marvel’s Captain Marvel. He has not been officially been cast and is still in negotiations. Marvel has not commented on the rumor.

Law will play Doctor Walter Lawson aka Mar-Vell who is the mentor to Larson’s Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel.

In the comics Danvers is an Air Force Pilot who is fused with alien DNA and gains powers like flight, superstrength, and energy projection.

Ben Mendelsohn is on board as the villain and the film is being directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck with a script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet. Meg LeFauve and Nicole Perlman penned previous drafts.

It has been announced that the film will take place in the 90s before the Avengers assembled and Samuel L. Jackson will reprise his role as Nick Fury.

The film is set to come to theaters March 8, 2019.