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In Review: Captain Marvel

March 14, 2019 No Comment

Marvellously Middle-of-the-road

Captain Marvel (2019) is the story of a human woman living her life under the name Vers (Brie Larson) who is unaware of her personal history. She’s a member of an elite galactic military unit called Star Force on the Kree alien home world Hala. A warrior, she possesses a unique superpower: destructive plasma-charged fists which she can light up and shoot at will. Yet she can’t remember her childhood or early adult life back on earth. The blue-skinned Kree, under the supervision of her Star Force team leader Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), have fit her with a technology which limits her powers as they teach her how to fight safely while managing her human emotions.

This makes the film a journey of personal discovery. Vers learns she is Carol Danvers a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who, while working under Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), gained her unique superpowers during an accident while test flying a faster-than-light aircraft. While learning who she is Danvers must also learn to be her own woman and how to control her superpowers without the Kree dampening technology. Much of her personal discovery journey happens on earth in the late 1990s where she is a fish out of water unfamiliar with her home world. (Fans will be reminded of the first Thor (2011) film where the Asgardian Thor (Chris Hemsworth) had a similar fish-out-of-water story line as an alien exiled to Earth.)

Her reason for being on Earth revolves around her Star Force team’s mission to retrieve a Kree spy which, when it goes horribly wrong, reveals a Skrull enemy plot. In the aftermath of that showdown a group of Skrulls headed up by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) make their way to earth and must be stopped. The Skrull are shape-shifting aliens who mimic living people to evade detection. These classic MARVEL villains are new to the MARVEL Cinematic Universe (MCU) but not to comic book fans. They first appeared in Fantastic Four #2 (1962). Among the humans mimicked by the Talos is S.H.I.E.L.D. director Keller, Agent Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) boss. As events unfold Vers/Danvers ends up working with this younger pre-iconic-shaved-head-and-eye-patched Nick Fury. Captain Marvel’s younger Fury is less jaded and more fun. His involvement with this mysterious woman from an alien world who fell from the heavens into a Blockbuster video store, along with his interactions with the Skrull and the Kree, set Fury on a path towards creating the AVENGERS Initiative.

Both Ben Mendelsohn and Samuel L. Jackson provide scene-stealing fun performances. Without them balancing the rather stoic performances of Jude Law, Brie Larson, and many other characters Captain Marvel (2019) would be a rather dour production which no amount of ‘90s pop-cultural references and musical set pieces could save. With Thor: Ragnarok (2017) MARVEL was already pushing its luck with the use of retro music here in Captain Marvel (2019) it’s use feels less fresh than it did in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) which used it more effectively. What does work well is including characters like Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and Korath (Djimon Hounsou) who first appeared early in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) as Kree warriors hunting down Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), as well as the addition of a youthful Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) who first appeared in Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and The Avengers (2012). He has become a central character on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (TV Series 2013– ) where there have been repeated plot points and interactions with the Kree aliens. A film like Captain Marvel, the twenty-first MCU film since 2008, needs to make these strong connections with other MARVEL films to help ground it in the ever-expanding story. This is a kind of prequel film intended to bridge a new character, Carol Danvers/Vers/Captain Marvel, with a familiar set of characters—the AVENGERS—in advance of Avengers: Endgame due out in April.

Since Captain Marvel is a prequel it relies on several storytelling devices to help shoehorn it into the ongoing story line.

First, writers Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet draw upon the complex comic book history of Captain Marvel. This includes a gender swap and amalgamation. Captain Marvel was initially a male Kree superhero named Mar-Vell, (first appearing in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (1967), with an Earth girlfriend Carol Danvers, first appearing in Ms. Marvel #1 (1977)). The two characters merged into a single female character revealed in the 2012 comic book Avenging Spider-Man #9 written by Kelly Sue DeConnick.

Second, the writers of Captain Marvel use dramatic irony to create tension. This takes advantage of details viewers may know from previously-released films set after the events of Captain Marvel. For example, the storyline includes one of the Infinity Gems later used by Thanos the Mad Titan (Josh Brolin) in his Infinity Gauntlet in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). In Captain Marvel Danvers receives her powers from exposure to the Infinity Gem in combination with a subsequent transfusion of Kree blood. Fans will recognize which Infinity Gem is used in Captain Marvel and will likely remember its previous appearances in MCU films.

Dramatic irony is also employed when the film deals with how Agent Fury loses his eye. Fans know that Fury loses his eye at some point along the way just not when or how. As a result, anything to do with Fury’s eyes piques interest for those who are in on the dramatic irony. Dramatic irony classically is any situation where the audience knows more about events than the characters they are watching. The whole film is a bit of dramatic irony because fans will likewise remember the post-credit scene in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) where Fury uses a pager to send an emergency message to the mysterious Captain Marvel. Viewers then know she will receive that message and come to the rescue in Avengers: Endgame (2019).

The third storytelling device used in Captain Marvel is something called retroactive continuity (retcon), a literary device used to establish new facts in a fictional work that effect and or change previously established information. Classically this is used for course correction or for getting out of a plot hole. For example, in Captain Marvel a detail is added concerning Danvers’ Air force call sign, Carol ‘Avengers’ Danvers, which Fury sees in a photo of Danvers with her fighter jet. This retroactively makes her a more important character hopefully changing the way audiences think about her and the other films since the AVENGERS retroactively are named after her. This is a bit of a gamble however as the MCU already has a prequel film set in 1940’s World War II called Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Some fans will feel that this unnecessarily pits Captain Marvel against Captain America.

A strong take-away is the destination reached by Carol Danvers/Vers/Captain Marvel’s journey of personal discovery that makes her an effective superhero: self-control.

As the MCU moves forward there will likely be more retroactive continuity additions. Sci-Fi/comic book audiences are becoming familiar with this literary device in everything from Star Wars to Star Trek to Doctor Who to The Terminator. How do retcons potentially impact these franchises? Think of the expanding MCU as a giant game of Kerplunk or Jenga; every change threatens to cause the fabric of the meta-narrative to collapse. Some people will like the changes and additions made in a film like Captain Marvel some will not. Because of the nature of the Carol Danvers/Vers/Captain Marvel character with her amnesia and journey of discovery, using retcon specifically centred on her character seems fair especially since the character has already experienced significant retroactive continuity shifts in prior comic books.

There is however something about retcon changes that often doesn’t sit well with audiences. On one hand people are creatures of habit and not always warm to the idea of change; here however Captain Marvel has obscurity on her side. She is not as familiar as characters like Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) so initial changes to the cinematic début of the Captain Marvel shouldn’t matter that much. Yet oddly they do. Where it becomes more problematic to general MCU continuity are the moments in Captain Marvel where added details and contradictions end up spilling over into previously released films like Iron Man (2008), The Avengers (2012) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) changing or colouring the meaning of key pre-existing moments of dialogue and in some cases effecting motivations of established characters. Complaints about established MCU continuity are understandable however the internet is also atwitter with people grousing about changes to the Captain Marvel character often by people who didn’t care one bit about the character five minutes before they started complaining. Many complaints come as a result of dissatisfaction with Captain Marvel MARVEL Studios and parent company Disney which seem poised to drag the MCU into the toxic identity politics of current North American culture. Essentially, adding virtue signaling and identity politics threatens to empty a film of its potential escapist quality which some audiences desperately seek. On the other hand, there could be a much simpler explanation to MARVEL Studios’ decision to make a feminist superhero film with Captain Marvel: they want a product to compete with DC Films’ Wonder Woman (2017) which was a smash hit.

Christian audiences may be unsettled by retroactive continuity changes in films like Captain Marvel (as well as in other sci-fi/comic book/fantasy genre products) because within Christianity this is how theological heresies develop. For example, the Gnostics reframe “the God of the Old Testament” as an imposter god who hates mankind and wants to keep them from their innate potential. Men like the Gnostic Marcion of Sinope (A.D. 85–160) removed books from the Bible to reshape Christianity into his own vision of what he believed it should be and in so doing changed for his followers the understanding of what was already present in the parts of the Bible he decided to keep. Changes that retroactive changed the continuity of what remained and created a heretical movement.

With that in mind, Christians will need to remember that while MARVEL fans may religiously attend all these films, what they are viewing is fictional entertainment. Getting bent out of shape about them may not be a very good use of a Christian’s time. If audiences no longer enjoy watching these films for one reason or another, they are free to stop buying tickets; the sun will still rise and set, and life will go on. The question which often arises with films that become controversial is whether the film is a product of the society or is a contributing factor to societal change. If on the one hand it is a product of a changing society and these changes are deemed problematic, the real object of opposition ought to be the ideas driving the change. If on the other hand Captain Marvel is an agent of change then it might be worth questioning. Because it is hard to know which it is, viewers will be left to make up their own minds about the nature of the movie. The fact that Captain Marvel is a film with a woman as its lead character shouldn’t be too much of a problem for fans as MARVEL all ready has a number of female leads in programmes like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Jessica Jones (2015–2019).

As a film Captain Marvel is middle of the road—not as good as Wonder Woman (2017), its direct competitor, yet not as bad as MCU offerings such as Thor: The Dark World (2013) or The Incredible Hulk (2008) and certainly not nearly as good as Iron Man (2008) or Black Panther (2018). Captain Marvel falls somewhere between Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The film gets off to a slow start only coming together in the last act. Thankfully, even as a prequel that includes a fair amount of MARVEL film crossover content, it can still easily be watched without remembering all the details from prior films, in fact for some not remembering all the details from previous films may help the viewing experience. At this point it grows harder for the people at MARVEL Studios to produce films that avoid derivative content—something audiences may need to consider both with this film and with future MARVEL films. This only leads to more questions: Is the film derivative or is it subversive? Is it both? Is that ok? Does it even matter? More importantly, was it enjoyable and worth the time to watch? Is it helped or hampered by all the hype swirling around it?

Scripture teaches that “a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls,” (Proverbs 25:28).

Many of these concerns and questions came in advance of the film and, while watching Captain Marvel doesn’t answer all these questions, there is something positive at the film’s core. A strong take-away is the destination reached by Carol Danvers/Vers/Captain Marvel’s journey of personal discovery that makes her an effective superhero: self-control. Scripture teaches that “a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls,” (Proverbs 25:28). Therefore self-control, regardless of whether the central character is a man or woman, is a good and virtuous goal. Scripture teaches that self-control is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:23).

After watching the film many viewers will convince themselves that it was better than it is and on the flip side, others will be busy convincing themselves it was worse that it is. In many ways Captain Marvel is like a season of the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stripped of its soap opera melodrama and condensed into 124 minutes but with better special effects and big-name actors. Overall, it’s just ok; not every MARVEL Studio film knocks it out of the park. It does however lay a solid foundation for this new version of Captain Marvel to build upon, and that might be the best they could have hoped for. MARVEL fans may have wanted to see a Black Widow film starring Scarlett Johansson before this film, but that’s not what they got so they will need to be happy with this and remember that Avengers: Endgame (2019) opens on April 24th. After that release they will have more to go on when considering whether they buy into Brie Larson as Captain Marvel and whether they enjoy the character.

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian LutheranReporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.