Thursday, March 14, 2019

On the existence of a Captain Marvel movie in general, and some of my thoughts on it in particular (Spoilers, obviously)

Brie Larson, Super Saiyan
Well, Marvel Studios actually did it. They made a theatrically-released, live-action feature film starring their Carol Danvers character and, what's more, it is actually a pretty good film and, by all of the metrics I've seen thus far, it also seems to be extremely successful.

I honestly didn't think it would ever happen, and it was really one of those instances where I had to be in the theater, actually watching the movie unfold before my eyes, to be convinced it was happening. There were a variety of reasons for this, one of which I outlined in a post five years ago, a post that I just went back to re-read and laugh at my own lack of imagination and all-around wrongness*.

If memory serves, online discussion regarding when Marvel was going to get around to a female-starring movie began almost immediately upon the surprise success of 2008's Iron Man, as what would become the now ten-year-old "Marvel Cinematic Universe" was just beginning to coalesce. The difficulty of that became immediately apparent.

Unlike DC Comics, Marvel Comics didn't have a Wonder Woman just waiting around to have a movie made about her. Introduced in 1941, Wonder Woman wasn't just one of the greatest and best-known superheroes of time--one of the three whose comics have been in continuous publication since her debut--with decades of TV shows, cartoons and merchandise keeping her within pop consciousness, she was also one of the relatively few female characters whose existence wasn't defined or even related to a male superhero, nor part of a package deal with a team consisting of male heroes.

All of Marvel's best and best-known female superheroes circa the '00s were X-Men, and Marvel Studios lacked access to that pool of characters (they also couldn't do any movies featuring any of the many Spider-Women or Spider-Girls, or a Sue Storm solo movie...if those were actually movies they wanted to make). The remaining prominent-ish female Marvel heroes had the unfortunate aspect of being distaff, spin-off versions of male heroes. Why greenlight a She-Hulk movie instead of a Hulk movie, for example, and even if you did make a movie entitled She-Hulk and made the jade giantess the protagonist of the film, wouldn't your Cinematic Universe's more-popular, already-established Hulk character need to at least appear in it?

Founding Avenger The Wasp seemed like a good bet, but her origin and powers were tied to those of Ant-Man Hank Pym; could the studio introduce a Wasp before an Ant-Man, especially if they were planning on making an Ant-Man movie...? (Well, yeah, they could have, but they decided not to, obviously).

The presence of Black Widow in the first Avengers film as the sole female character on the roster seemed an odd choice, and seemed to owe something to Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's reinvention of the franchise in their 2002-launched Ultimates miniseries than her being one of the publisher's more prominent characters or one long-associated with The Avengers team (Wasp and Widow were the only females on the original Ultimates line-up, and then a Scarlet Witch got added). It was probably also a matter of the character fitting in better with the MCU's more grounded, more realistic (than the comics, anyway) approach to superheroes, and the military/espionage tone of the films. And, of course, there weren't many other options.

Looking at a list of Avengers over the team's history, the list Marvel had to seek out characters to give movies to features a lot of relatively minor characters**. (And, keep in mind, while Iron Man, Thor and Captain America are all A-List Avengers characters, they were all also decidedly C-List characters in the overall Marvel Universe at the time of their first films; you only do an Iron Man movie when someone else has started doing X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Punisher and Ghost Rider movies, you know?)

After The Wasp, you had Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Mantis (who appeared in Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2), Moondragon, Hellcat (who appeared in Jessica Jones and was just beginning to develop cat powers in the last episodes of the final season), Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers, Tigra, She-Hulk, Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau, Mockingbird (who appeared on TV's Agents of SHIELD), Firebird (I had to look her up), Sersi (ditto), Spider-Woman, Crystal (who appeared in TV's Inhumans), Firestar (ironically, one of the better known female Avengers, even though she was originally created for Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends), Silverclaw and Captain Britain Kelsey Leigh Shorr (Actually, I could see a Captain Britain movie working pretty easily).

And then, after "Avengers: Disassembled," the nature of the team became less that of a stable institution, and characters would come and go from various iterations or factions of the teams, some of which were on different sides of the law at various points. Anyway, in the years between "Disassembled" and the first Avengers movie in 2012, characters added to the team/s included Ronin/Echo, Jocasta, Valkyrie (who appeared in Thor: Ragnarok) and Jessica Jones (who had her own TV series).

Looking at that list, there's not a ton of promise, and few of those characters were ever able to even support their own ongoing comic book title--just Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau, Hellcat, Jessica Jones, Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers, She-Hulk and Spider-Woman, several of whom had the whole female-version-of-male-characters problem--so maybe Carol Danvers was the best option a careful film studio had.

After The Wasp and Scarlet Witch, and the already-established but tenuously connected to the team Black Widow, it gets a bit difficult to connect some of these characters to The Avengers franchise. (Honestly, any of them could support a film of some kind, but it's hard to imagine a Tigra movie, for example, turning out to be something everyone would be happy with; then again, who on Earth would have predicted a fucking Guardians of The Galaxy movie, or that Rocket Raccoon would play a bigger role in a Marvel Cinematic Universe than, say, She-Hulk?).

Even once you get to Carol Danvers as your best bet, there's the problem of her origins (she was tied to the male Captain Marvel in much the same way that She-Hulk is tied to The Hulk) and her convoluted history (which includes a handful of different, terrible code names). All superheroes have convoluted histories, as they temporarily change their costumes or powers or relationships or geography or status quos, but many of them return to a sort of baseline, original version of the character between. That is, big, resilient characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Captain America, The Fantastic Four and so on have a sort of elasticity--companies and creators can pull them pretty far into different directions, but they will snap back. Carol Danvers, as a more recent creation and one who has gone through many changes as a supporting character in other characters' books for much of that time, lacks a place to snap back to. Or lacked, I should say.

And that is what I found most remarkable about the Captain Marvel film. Between 2012, when anything other than a Black Widow and maybe a The Wasp movie seemed like a real challenge for Marvel Studios, the folks at Marvel Comics, particularly writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, seemed to just do the work to make Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers into Captain Marvel and one of the biggest, most powerful and most influential characters in the Marvel Comics Universe, essentially market-testing the character's ability to support a solo film as the title character and protagonist.

Ugh, Wonder Man.
Remember, Danvers didn't even become Captain Marvel until 2012; that was a good half-dozen films into the existence of the MCU, the end of "Phase One" and well into the planning and in some cases filming of some of their "Phase Two" films. When trailers for Iron Man started showing up, Danvers was dressed in a black bathing suit, thigh-highs and opera gloves, providing Frank Cho-drawn cheesecake in Mighty Avengers. (Written by Brian Michael Bendis, who also put a lot of work into making her a primary character in the Marvel Comics Universe, particularly in the Civil War II event series, although he also depicted her as a very dumb, very emotional, unreasonable bad guy in that second hero vs. hero war. Regardless, it was difficult to pick up a Marvel Comic without seeing Carol Danvers in it for a while there.)

Since the time that Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow helped the guys fight off a big screen alien invasion, we've seen Carol Danvers in her new red, blue and gold suit as Captain Marvel in the pages of DeConnick, Dexter Soy and company's 2012 Captain Marvel (and its rather random 2014 and 2016 relaunches), ten issues or so of the short-lived 2012-2013 Avengers Assemble (written by DeConnick and Bendis), Bendis' Guardians of The Galaxy, the 2015 miniseries Captain Marvel and The Carol Corps (DeConnick again, with co-writer Kelly Thompson), A-Force (the 2015 miniseries, written by G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennett), A-Force (the short-lived 2016 ongoing series by Wilson and Thompson), writer Al Ewing and company's 2016 The Ultimates and The Ultimates 2, the Bendis-written 2016 Civil War II and its scores of tie-ins, the 2017-launched The Mighty Captain Marvel, Margaret Stohl and Carlos Pacheco's 2018 miniseries The Life of Captain Marvel and Jason Aaron and company's current title The Avengers.

Now, I've read probably less than half, maybe a third of the comics mentioned above, in part due to my profound disinterest in the character Carol Danvers, regardless of her ever-changing code name and status quo. (Is this due to some unconscious sexism on my part...? It's possible. I hope not. There are plenty of male Marvel heroes I am similarly completely uninterested in, including Wonder Man, The Vision***, Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock, seven-out-of-ten X-Men...) Many of those that I did read were somewhere between not very good and actually kind of terrible. But that's not the point; the point is that Marvel and a couple of creators in particular worked on that character to the point where she seems to have starred in more comics than Wolverine in the last half-dozen years or so (Although, I guess Wolverine has been kinda sorta dead for a portion of that time, so maybe that is actually a terrible example...)

It's unclear to me how much of this was the folks at Marvel Comics attempting to make Carol Danvers a character capable of carrying a "Phase Three" film and becoming the publisher's answer to Wonder Woman. Given the Marvel Comics business-people's inability to think beyond the very short term, it's hard to imagine their launching an ambitious seven-year plan to secure Carol Danvers a movie and help sell it by priming their core, direct market audience to agree she's awesome, although it's pretty clear some of those most recent comics exist to make sure the movie star is ready and waiting in trade collections and new issues should film-goers seek out comics starring her. It seems more likely that individual creators like DeConnick, Bendis and Thompson just really liked the character, saw potential in her, and went about pulling her into the spotlight, and then turning up the intensity of that spotlight over the years.

This is a long, tedious way of saying that I am still a little shocked that they made a Captain Marvel movie. And that I am shocked that it is good and that I liked it. And that it's worth noting that, whatever success the film might attain, however much the performances of Brie Larson, Sam Jackson and others' might contribute to that success, and how skilled directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and their various co-writers are, that film almost certainly wouldn't have gotten made were it not for DeConnick and company's comics work over the last few years.

Anyway, let's talk a bit about the movie, huh?

Here Is Some Stuff That I Liked About The Movie

•That was quite an elegant decoupling if Carol Danvers' Captain Marvel from Mar-Vell's Captain Marvel, I thought. One solution to this would have been to just excise Mar-Vell from the narrative completely, and have Carol taking his role, being Captain Marvel from the start and having never gone through a Ms. Marvel phase. They come up with an even better solution, though, so that Carol is still a human being from Earth gifted with super-powers from a Kree named Mar-Vell during an's just not a male character with the superhero name "Captain Marvel". The film keeps the essentials of her origin, simplifying and improving on it in a way that works quite well within the context of the film and the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That gown is 1,000 times a better, more practical superhero costume than about half of Carol Danvers' costumes were.
•I know a lot of people with Twitter accounts are extremely invested in the film's success and/or failure, for the obvious reasons (You know, those who are rooting for it want there to be a high-quality film featuring a good role model for young girls in superhero films, and/or to see themselves reflected back at them in this under-representative film genre, while those rooting against it are assholes). But the two people I am happiest for right now are Kelley Sue DeConnick and that little girl who met Brie Larson in that one picture that was all over the place for a while there.

DeConnick's not writing the current Captain Marvel book, The Mighty Captain Marvel. Instead she's writing Aquaman, the current comic book series featuring the Distinguished Competition's latest movie star, whose film was also a somewhat surprise (to me)  box office success. (UPDATE: Oh, wait, make that the three people I am happiest for right now, so we can include DeConnick's mom.)

•It was nice to see so much Sam Jackson in this movie. It seems like he has at least a cameo in, like, all of these movies, but he's usually crowded out by all the superheroes. For much of this film, he's in a sort of buddy cop relationship to Larson's Vers/Carol. Similarly, I would hope that Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill gets this amount of screen time in some MCU movie eventually.

•By the way, the origin of Carol Danvers' Kree name, "Vers", made me laugh.

•The Stan Lee stuff was all pretty great. The bit with the studio logo at the very beginning got me feeling a little verklempt, and elicited some applause from the opening night audience I saw it with. His cameo in this film was particularly good too, I thought. This being set in the 1990s, he literally played himself, in the act of rehearsing for a film in which he would also play himself; 1995's Mallrats. Kevin Smith's second film sure was ahead of the curve when it came to putting Stan Lee in movies, huh? Oddly, that was perhaps his best and juiciest role, despite the fact that he would go on to appear in somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 superhero movies in the years that followed.

•They included Monica Rambeau in an interesting way. For some reason, I thought Lashana Lynch had been cast as Monica Rambeau, and I kept thinking that even after she was repeatedly referred to as Maria Rambeau (Her pilot nickname, written on the side of her plane? "Photon"). It wasn't until her daughter Monica is called by name that I realized she is the character who will grow up to be Captain Marvel...or more likely Photon, Pulsar, Spectrum or whatever in some future MCU movie. Maybe Captain Marvel 2 or 3 or, in a perfect world, Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. At any rate, in the "present" she will be, what, in her late 30s? Early '40s? Old enough to be a superhero, anyway.

•That was a pretty great role for Annette Benning. It's nice, if a little fucked up, that this year we've seen women of a certain age getting fun, fantastic roles in big, tent-pole superhero movies. Like, Nicole Kidman has made, what, 3,000 movies in her lifetime, and the most successful one she's ever been apart of is the one where she played Aquaman's mom...? (That said, I'm not sure that was the best way to show The Supreme Intelligence. Like, giant fat head with tentacle hair floating in a tube isn't that great either, but I wonder if they could have compromised between Annette Benning in her other role and the source material's depiction of the Supreme Intelligence).

•The Carol-standing-up sequence, which the trailers made much of, was still pretty effective, despite having seen it out-of-context in those trailers so many times. I got the sense the directors were shooting for the equivalent of Wonder Woman-in-No Man's Land sequence, and while it wasn't that good, it is certainly a great scene, one that immediately imprints on the mind and memory and is sure to be a classic moment among the many, many Marvel movies.

Here Is Some Stuff That I Did Not Like About The Movie So Much

•I thought the first 15-to-20 minutes--all the outer space shit, really--was kind of tiresome and dull. It was pretty generic and unimaginative-looking, something that was perhaps predetermined by the fact Marvel's outer space was previously designed and defined for the filmmakers in the two Guardians movies, and it struck me as very, very dark. Like, Solo dark. And I'm referring to the lighting, not the content. The friend I saw it with said it was more the fault of the theater we saw it in than the film itself, but I guess there's no way for me to test that without, like, seeing it a second time somewhere else.

•I didn't much care for the computer gimmickry employeed to make Jackson and Clark Gregg look 20-years-younger. Jackson bothered me less, probably because I am so used to seeing him at that age in movies, but Gregg's young Agent Coulson looked much to me. It wasn't as weird and disturbing as, say, CGI Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One but it was a little weird.

On the other hand, I guess it was cool for Gregg to get to be in a Marvel movie again, given that he was around for so much of the groundwork-laying of the earliest Marvel movies, and then got killed off when the MCU really started to take off as a perpetual blockbuster machine.

•I didn't care for the on-screen appearances of The Skrulls on, like, any level. The shape-changing was a bit laborious, they looked a bit too much like "modern" Skrulls rather than original Skrulls for my own personal tastes, and their make-up jobs looked kind of cheap, like something more a appropriate for a TV show than a big budget movie. In fact, when the Main Skrull appears in Rambeau's house, sipping out of a straw, it hit me that there was something very Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel about their appearance. And I don't mean that as a compliment. (Similarly, Ronan and his Accuser bro looked less good than he did in Guardians of The Galaxy. Did they sink most of the budget into young-ifying Jackson and Gregg, and making Brie Larson light-up...?)

•I may have audibly sighed when the tesseract showed up as minor plot point. I really thought we were done with infinity stones/gems/gemstones. In fact, after years of trying to keep straight where each of the stones were and where they went from movie to movie, after Avengers: Infinity War I purged my mind and memory of all knowledge of the stones, assuming I would never need to know anything about them ever again. And now Captain Marvel asks me to ponder how Annette Benning got her hands on it, and where it went after it was inside a cat for a portion of this movie.

•I realize they made a very conscious decision to not play up Carol Danvers/Brie Larson's sex appeal or invite the male gaze to her body at any point in the film, which immediately differentiated it from every prior film starring a female comic book superhero, up to and including Wonder Woman, but it occurred to me later that Marvel Studios movies almost always feature their male heroes shirtless at some point, even if only for a second, and even if it seems somewhat forced or completely incidental to the plot (Remember Chris Hemsworth taking off his clothes to splash around in a pool to commune with Asgard or whatever in Age of Ultron?).

I know, if I was Brie Larson, and I had spent months working out for this role, pushing Jeeps and shit, I would at least one a second or two of me in a tank top or athletic bra to show off my arms and abs, you know?

•I was kind of disappointed that SHIELD Agent Director Peggy Carter didn't put in an appearance at all, or even get mentioned. Remember when Hayley Atwell showed up in old lady make-up in Ant-Man, in a flashback sequence set in, was that the 1980s...? It would have been nice to see her here, and not just because it's always nice to see Hayley Atwell. Having Marvel's first female hero sharing a scene with their first headlining hero would have seemed appropriate, as, in some ways, Carol Danvers is probably the realization of some of Carter's dreams, and it would likewise be nice to see the woman who worked with Marvel's "first" Captain there to pass the torch on to the new one.

At the very least, when Fury mentioned his boss being mad at him, I don't think it would have killed them to add a "Director Carter" after the word "boss." The whole point of Marvel Cinematic Universe period pieces should be to get more Peggy Carter on screen, really.

Ah well. I still hope for a Secret Avengers film set somewhere between the late 1950s and 1980s, with Atwell's Carter, Tony Stark's dad and Hank Pym forming SHIELD and Carter helping lead a team of behind-the-scene superheroes like the original Ant-Man and The Wasp on a daring adventure.

Things That Was Neither Good Nor Bad About The Movie

•There was something very DC Comics about Captain Marvel at the climax of the film, I thought. Like, a hero flying at super-speeds, punching space-ships, scaring off an alien invasion and hovering dramatically above the Earth before plunging down towards it? That's all very Superman, although other DC superheroes do that kind of thing too, like Green Lantern, Supergirl, Martian Manhunter and so on. Outside of Thor and a few analogue versions of Superman, Marvel's biggest stars don't generally operate at the same power-levels that DC's super-people do, so it felt a little off-brand to see Carol making like Superman at the end here. On the other hand, if Warner Brothers isn't going to do that kind of shit, I guess Marvel can have Captain Marvel fill that void too.

•I was fairly certain there was going to be a moment in the film where Captain Marvel rescues a Pakistani-American couple from a falling beam or chunk of rubble or something, a couple that would end up being Yusuf Khan and Muneeba Khan, as a little Easter egg teasing the existence of Kamala Khan, the future Ms. Marvel, in the film...not unlike the way Spider-Man: Homecoming suggested there is totally a Miles Morales in the MCU, ready to take over as Spider-Man in 15-20 years when Tom Holland ages out of the role. Originally, when the movie was first announced, I thought they might have a baby Kamala and her family being rescued, laying the groundwork for a future Ms. Marvel movie, but since Kamala's supposed to be a teenager, she wouldn't have been born in the '90s. I guess maybe that's something we'll see in Captain Marvel 2.

*In my own defense, I did hedge in that post, ending it with this:
But then, I assumed Fin Fang Foom would have been the first Lee/Kirby monster to appear in a major motion picture, but Groot was part of the Guardians of The Galaxy ensemble and is now a fucking household name, so hey, what do I know...?
So I guess I could always have been more wrong.

**Not that they had to stick with Avengers, of course. Doctor Strange and The Guardians of The Galaxy weren't Avengers-related. There was nothing stopping Marvel from doing, say, Elsa Bloodstone or Spitfire.

***I really like Paul Bettany as an actor though, so I'd probably be fairly excited to see a Vision movie at this particular point in history. But had they announced a Vision movie before Age of Ultron? Not so much. Ooh, unless it was Golden Age Vision.


LurkerWithout said...

Note on more Maria Hill in future movies, Colbie Smulders is now attached as lead to the film adaptation of Rucka's Stumptown. So you'll probably have to wait and see if that franchise manages to take off.

Lee Lemon said...

Took my 3 sons to see it - we all loved it!

David Lee Ingersoll said...

Thank you for the long post. I didn't realize how new Ms. Danvers was to the Captain Marvel title. I read the Ms. Marvel series when it was first published and caught many of her adventures with both the Avengers and the X-Men back in the 20th century but I haven't kept up with the ongoing stuff.

I enjoyed the movie and I'm looking forward to seeing more Captain Marvel in the MCU.