Okay, we’re gonna get into some heavy shit here, so let’s get the burning question out of the way first…Who the hell is actually nostalgic for Blockbuster Video?
Whether you were working for it or shopping at it, Blockbuster was a shit company, with shit selection and even shittier policies. As the name implied, if you were looking for, say, a foreign film that never went through the MPAA rating’s board, or a classic monster movies that predated the modern rating system, you were out of luck. They treated their employees horribly, with long hours, low pay, and chronic understaffing…not helped by the fact their managers were all choosy bastards who insisted on drug tests. (No, I’m not still bitter about the time they didn’t call me back for a second interview. You’re still bitter.) And worst of all, the first thing they did whenever they moved into a new territory was either buy out all the existing video stores, or drive them out of business through the power of Name Brand Recognition.
They were a ravenous monopoly that destroyed everything in their path, clearing the decks for an even more ravenous monopoly to come along and destroy their entire industry. They were perfect example of why that old line about how, “Capitalism drives innovation through competition,” is a hideous lie, incepted into your mind by rich assholes who don’t give a fuck about anything except getting all your money. There. Having balanced my karma by saying all that, I will now say nice things about a Disney superhero movie…
By the grace of the old gods and the New, we now live in a world where both Captains Marvel have movies to their name. A part of me still gets a kick out of that, even with everything that’s happened since. I had no hope for either of them, because both their journey’s to the screen were long, convoluted stories, full of often-depressing comic book, and real world, history. I’ll admit to not having much contact with Carol Danvers until 2005, because my local comic book sources (a grocery store and a Wal-Mart) didn’t carry Avengers or X-Men comics until the Heroes Reborn Big Dumb Crossover event of 1996. And Marvel didn’t really start pushing Carol into the spotlight until the mid-2000s, when they looked around and realized they’d sold most of their other female character’s film rights to other movie studios.
Even Carol’s fifty-plus-year history is so terribly tied up with the X-Men that I could not imagine how anyone might winnow all that down to two hours and change. That they did so in a way that requires no previous knowledge of Carol, or her supporting cast – that, in fact, introduces and ingratiates them to almost every one of the completely apathetic civilians I’ve shown this movie to over the past two years – is a great reflection on the craft involved, and on my own failures of imagination.
So the X-Women with fanbases were all at Fox until Disney bought Fox out in 2019. Same with Electra, who’s forever cursed to be part of Daredevil’s package deal, and so migrated straight to Netflix. No one wanted to risk a lawsuit war with Sony over Jessica Drew or Mayday Parker, despite neither of them (as far as I know) being explicitly mentioned in the original Spider-Man rights agreements. And I seem to be the only person left on Earth who remembers Alejandra the Ghost Rider. That left Carol to be the standard barer of the whole damn company, which called up its own host of issues. Carol’s actual history is a parade of ugly betrayals, massive memory losses, comas, depowerings, repowerings, and that weird period where she was basically a ghost in Rogue’s head. None of which this film references directly, choosing instead to go all the way back to the beginning and imbed oblique references into it. This preserves the themes of Carol’s fictional life while starting her off on a new and (hopefully) better journey.
Carol was supposed to be in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, as if that team wasn’t unwieldy enough. Someone – probably Guardians writer Nichole Perlman – had a draft ready in 2013, and apparently the higher ups hemmed and hawed about it for six years – probably until Disney execs forced Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, and his paleolithic “girls don’t buy toys so why bother with the girl heroes?” mentality, out of the film side of the company. They were gonna get Ava Duverney to do this, then Emily Carmichael, but they both turned it down because, at this point, Marvel’s casting its directors as much as its casting actors, and some directors (as Marvel’s Distinguished Competition knows all too well) have a bad habit of wanting to put their own spin on things. Which is usually fine, except when changing anything would require scrapping hundreds of hours of work and thousands of hours of computer processing time.
As a result of this, when they aren’t going after Recent Oscar Winners or Robert Downey Jr’s friends, Marvel’s started tending to go after TV vets and hungry young indy directors. Mailable charges who don’t command big salaries and who will take the shit that rolls downhill and be glad for it. That’s been their MO ever since James Gunn turned Disney’s Star Wars backup plan into a billion dollar franchise. So we got Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck…do you ever just stop and stare at that the massive industrial machines that make these movies? Marvel at their brilliance…as it were? Of course you don’t. And you probably happier for it.
As is Marvel’s standard, they did the best they could to capture the spirit of fifty years of comics without adhering to the letter of any of them. That means this is Capt. Carol Danvers of USAF’s, journey of self-discovery, and self-re-discovery, after catching a bad case of movie amnesia from an exploding warp drive to the face and getting press-ganged by the Kree Starforce. She must find herself, just as every new writing team has had to find her all over again, ever since Bob Layton, David Michelinie, George Pérez, and Jim Shooter gave us the infamous Avengers #200. Just as every new reader must find her in ever new reboot of her book. Counting them across all media, this is functionally the seventh Captain Marvel #1 we’ve seen in as many years. I’d even call it “the best,” stripped as it is of all Carol’s accumulated story baggage. Or, at least, “the second best,” since this probably wouldn’t even exist without Kelly Sue DeConnick.
At first, Captain Marvel is “Vers” – a stray syllable, unmoored from the rest of herself as she is from the rest of humanity. She must recover her own full name and, eventually, gain a new one, courtesy of Nick Fury. In a very magical twist for a story dressed in the clothes of science fiction, Carol must re-learns her true name in order to access her true power. And she comes back to that name through her own investigations, with a little help (ok, a lot of help) from the healing power of friendship. Not love – or, at least, not the cishet romantic love Producer Logic means when it says, “If this picture had love interest it would gross twice as much!” (My sister’s review of this was, and I quote, “not gay enough,” which I can’t argue with.) – but friendship with a peer and comrade who knew her back when she knew herself. This allows her to reclaim the mantel of Carol Danvers – a pilot who ate an exploding warp drive and gained the power to punch-out starships. And that’s the best origin story I’ve seen for Carol in thirty years. Straight-forward, to the point, and self-contained, while grounding her in a web of relationships that can (and already have been) easily be spun out into other movies. Granted, the recovery of her memories was a lot easier back when she could just walk into Professor Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters and arrange a few therapy sessions…but, then again, so were a lot of things in that other Marvel Universe.
Of course the Kree are the real baddies – Ronan, the villain in Guardians, was Kree, though not much was made of his race back then, or the Kree’s long comic book history of empire-mongering, beyond one “blink and you’ll miss it” line. Just as you’ll miss Ronan’s presence here. Turns out The Accuser was less of “a boy” with boring politics back in 1995, when he had a real grown-up job calling shots for the Kree’s bomber starships.
For all the Air Force tie-in advertising that preceded its release (poisoning its well for most of my fellow lefties) this film does contain a bit of stealth commentary on the Forever Wars the USAF has happily participated in these last two decades. It’s just buried in the Kree, probably because that’s the only way you can sneak an anti-war critique through the production line of America’s Culture Industry. Which, lest we forget, for a movie this size, with this many military toys, runs straight through the Pentagon’s own censorship board.
So in the Kree we see an interplanetary empire that’s fallen to paranoid schizophrenia after years fighting an enemy – the Skrulls – who (according to the Kree propaganda) could be anywhere, and strike at anytime, for reasons the Kree don’t even speculate about. The better to avoid considering the Skrulls might be fighting for something, like their own survival. Instead, the Kree seek out and attack Skrulls wherever they find them, either nuking sites from orbit, inserting small teams of Tier One operators and spies into local populations, or both. Usually both, as in this opening. And they wonder why no one likes them. Except they don’t, since they’re told they’re doing the right and just and proper thing by every level of their highly militarized society. Especially the Supreme Intelligence that leads them, an AI and appears to each of them as a trusted figure from their past…even if they have no effective memory of who that person was to them. I’d say something snarky like, “and this is the future Liberal actually want,” but it’s the present that we already have now, so that’s not even a real joke.
On the broadest possible level, “Vers” indoctrination into the Kree Starforce is a metaphor for how right wing propaganda works. Yes, it trickles down from the top of an authoritarian society, but it only really works when it’s filtered through a trusted source. No matter who you are, or what you believe in, you’re much less willing to question it when everyone around you parrots it with dutiful conviction. “For the good of all Kree,” Vers’ Starforce colleagues say, because the best way to participate in a genocidal war of conquest is to convince yourself you’re actually fighting a defensive war against an existential threat to your civilization…and perhaps even your own sense of self. Pay no attention to how your boss, or your bosses boss, undermines your sense of self at every turn, forcing you to rely on them for reassurance, as Yon-Rogg and the Supreme Intelligence do here. Yes, that is just how cults (up to and including the most successful ones, like militaries) get people, but pay no attention to that either. Higher, farther, faster, baby. Oh yeah.
To top it all off, they put a chip in her neck. Not so clunky and obvious as the collars both major comic book universe use to contain people’s superpowers, but the principle is the same, and the subtlety of the chip does work in this movie’s favor. Carol barely notices it over the course of her journey, and even I forgot it was there until the climax.
I also find it interesting that, at a time when the entire right wing English-speaking politics believes some version of a shapeshifting reptile aliens conspiracy theory, here comes a film with the explicit intent of making people sympathize with the shape-shifting reptile aliens, going out of its way to (for lack of a better word) “humanize” them. Never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually glad the Fantastic Four (who have a longer and far more complicated history with the Skrulls) aren’t around to fuck this up. If anything, the Skrull are too “humanized” – stuck in a cloaked orbiting refugee ship with one pinball machine between them, wearing human clothes and having what sure look to me like nuclear families. Included the one headed by Ben Mendelsohn’s General Talos. But “the aliens aren’t alien enough” is a criticism you could level at every alien race people have come up with since before Gene Roddenberry came up with Star Trek. And the obvious counter-argument – that we’re pretty damn xenophobic down here on “C-53,” even to people from other parts of our planet – is still just as applicable.
And here I must pause to note that one of the things I love best about this film is that Earth is such a backwater shithole it doesn’t even get a name in the Kree Starforce star charts. Just a number. Whoever discovered us didn’t even want to waste their name on us, or the name of some mythological figure. It’s the position I wish Earth would inhabit in one of these comic book universes…but maybe I’m just sick of seeing all these alien invasions. Good thing Carol stops this one before it even gets started. Bit of a…secret…invasion…if you think about it…
Mendelsohn’s another interesting case here: a man who went from Australian award winner and TV vet to typecast Hollywood villain faster than anyone since Hugo Weaving. His playing Talos is supposed to prime the viewer to mistrust him, just as Jude Law playing Yon-Rogg is supposed to make my mom (or people with my mom’s taste in dudes) trust him. The fact Yon-Rogg and “Vers” start the movie as friendly co-workers while Telos kidnaps her and puts her into a brain-scanning machine also helps. But I question how much memory Carol Danvers would’ve been able to recover without a session in the brain-scanning machine…that you apparently have to be hung by your ankles from…and I like how the movie doesn’t answer my question, not even indirectly. Especially since this is still a Marvel film, so it feels the need to patiently explain almost everything else to an audience of assumed children.
And play it cute. Of course they have to play it cute. “It’s ‘Mar-Vel,’ Two words,” Carol says (the hyphen apparently being silent). And Nicholas J. Fury responds, “’Marvel’ sounds better.” Indeed. The prequel-itis is very cute, and – thank the gods – mostly confined to the end. Sure, a digitally de-aged Fury is with Carol for the duration, and in the beginning he’s partnered with a digitally de-aged Phil Coulson. Gotta resend my praise for Disney de-aging technology after this, since I know what 1995 Sam Jackson looked like. But that concludes the film’s S.H.I.E.L.D. Show until Fury’s at his desk, drafting The Avengers Initiative and naming it after Carol’s old call-sign. Of course, there was some non-troversy around all this, and of course, it was about the stupidest bullshit you can imagine. The idea Fury might’ve lied about what happened to his eye back in Captain America 2 was just too much for some people. Because if there’s one thing we know about Nick Fury, it’s that he’s unfailingly honest at all times, in all situations.
No, really, some people (the very small number of people making the argument in good faith) had a problem seeing Nick as just another agent, called into the field to deal with weird shit, rather than the not-so-secret puppet master of whatever plot he’s in. They feel this vision of him as younger, scrappier, and scrambling to find ad-hoc, super-spy solutions to the trouble he’s gotten into somehow undermines his character. As if the revelation that he’d been carrying water for the literal Neo-Nazis of Hydra, for literal decades, didn’t already do that back in 2014. But by importing the “shared universe” to film, Marvel’s wound up importing all the worst aspects of comic books – including the selective amnesia of their own fans.
But some of us dance to remember, even if we remember too much. My only real criticism of this film boil\ down to, “As PG-13 remakes of The Long Kiss Goodnight go, this one’s pretty good.” That sounds like a pithy insult, or (at best) a backhanded compliment, but no, I’m serious. An amnesiac white lady superhero (an super-spies are just super heroes for people who take themselves too seriously to read comic books) must recover her memories and stop the evil machinations of her former superiors (who, it eventually turns out, are the Real Bad Guys) with no small amount of help from Samuel L. Jackson. But nobody remembers Long Kiss Goodnight except for my friends and a few deranged conspiracy theorists who think it’s “predictive programing” instead of “the best Action movie of 1996.”
Captain Marvel may not be the best action movie of 2019, but it is the best Marvel movie of 2019, and that’s something. Personally, I see it as a throwback, not to the mid-1990s that it references in its first half, but to 2008-12 – Phase One of this Marvel universe’s grand roll-out. When B-tier heroes and their supporting casts were suddenly thrust into international spotlights and we all found out that they, and their supporting casts, could carry on quite well, thank you. Turns out all the tier-lists were in our heads the whole time. The fact we live in a world where Carol Danvers has her own movie, and it doesn’t outright suck, is more than I ever dreamed possible. In 2019, I took this as a sign I should stretch my imagination out more, perhaps even dare to hope things might get better. Then 2020 came along to disabuse me of that notion, but I’m trying to accentuate the positive.