Captain Marvel and Faux-Nostalgia

So, I finally dragged my butt into a theater and saw Captain Marvel. I’d intended to go see it last week, before I was smote with the Head Cold of Doom, but I finally got into a theater today (thankfully, the godless entertainment industry doesn’t follow the Sabbath rules, so they were open). The verdict? Good, but not great. However, as Voltaire wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.” And when you’re comparing this film with a franchise that claims both Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Captain America: Civil War (and through IP connective tissue, Logan), well, it’s much better than Ant-man, but still a distant second from the first Avengers. We’ll unpack the comic book stuff later, but suffice it to say that I felt the way about this film that I did about the film adaptation of BFG, that a film of this pedigree shouldn’t be this underwhelming. Having said that, it’s all by comparison, and, if you get a chance to see it at a matinee price (as I did), I’d recommend it as a way to kill an afternoon (again, life kind of sucks when you’re on doctor’s orders to take it easy and not tear around like a lunatic)(you blow out your knee just one time…).

What hit me most of all was the weird sense of nostalgia. Now, I’ve heard that the American nostalgia-loop is on a thirty-year clock, so Captain Marvel might’ve jumped the gun a bit by setting it in 1995 (with flashbacks to 1989)(which was another jarring aspect; keeping the multiple timelines straight really requires Bob Saget narrating). Weirdly, seeing this film made me understand my own father a little better. Dad’s on the older end of the Baby Boomers, and he’s pretty solidly resisted any sort of nostalgia about the 60’s or 70’s, which, as an impoverished Millennial, I didn’t understand until I saw this film, which portrays 1995 in a soft, rosy light. I remember that year well — we didn’t have Internet cafe’s (they’re in the film)(I don’t remember the first one before 1998, which might be nit-picking, but when you were around for it, these tiny anachronisms rankle). Yes, there was Gwen Stefanie and Kurt Cobain, but there was also Smashmouth and Michael Jackson’s creepy pedophilia. Nostalgia, I realized while watching this film, is a sort of lie by omission — it presents only the better parts of a decade, while leaving out Monica Lewinsky and Bob Dole. Normally, I’d discount that sort of thing, except the film aggressively goes out of its way to establish that it takes place in the 90’s. Without including the line, “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” Seriously; there’s a scene where they smash a Blockbuster Video, which is the logical, appropriate reaction of anyone who’s been in a Blockbuster store. Again, before I dive into the spoilers and in-depth analysis, it’s a good-if-not-great film.

Speaking of the 90’s and comic books (and comic book films — anyone else remember Mystery Men or Batman and Robin?)(it was a dark time), it’s worth pointing out that comic books were abysmal in the 90’s — that was the time that Marvel screwed up the X-Men series AND Spider-Man so much that they sold the film rights for both to Fox in order to keep the company from sinking completely, which is why The Avengers, Iron Man, and Carol Danvers — all positively B-list characters compared to Marvel mainstays like X-Men and Daredevil — now get their own films (I read a fascinating piece once about what comic book movies would look like if Marvel still had all their IP film rights and hadn’t been financially forced to gamble on an under-funded Jon Favreau pet-project called Iron Man in 2008; it concluded that we’d likely be getting endless remakes and sequels to X-Men and Spider-Man, instead)(which we’ve pretty much got, anyway). 1990s comic books had Venom as a main character, and Peter Parker’s Clone Saga (which is even dumber than it sounds), in addition to the multi-year, multi-timeline-inducing headache of Dark Phoenix. I was reading Asimov and Clarke in the 90’s — I should’ve been the target demographic for them, but it was like jumping into Lost mid-season; there was just too much I’d missed (and, lest anyone think I’m beating up unfairly on Marvel, let me just say that DC killed — and resurrected — Superman, and crippled — and healed — Batman in the same decade).

But I digress; let me just say, I remember the 90’s vividly, and it was not a great decade. As the film points out, we had dial-up Internet. So, it’s weird and not-totally-appreciated to see the decade I grew up in painted in this rosy light. But all of this underscores a larger problem: Captain Marvel doesn’t feel like the main character in her own movie. As much as this film totes its grrl-power message and feel (and there’s a lot of that, but, in a phrase I never thought I’d write, DC got there first and better; with Wonder Woman), it’s undercut by the nasty, almost-patriarchal thread that Captain Marvel can’t stand on her own. She’s partnered with Nick Fury, there are constant (albeit opaque) references to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of almost-men on the Internet were upset about Carol Danvers’ promotion from Ms Marvel to Captain Marvel (bad news, guys, she’s been Captain Marvel in the comics for years), which is a sad reflection on the rapidly shrinking, white, heteronormative majority. Even my brother and father — normally fairly liberal folks — feel (or claim to feel) a little put-off by this sudden upswing in diversity in Hollywood. To use the (appropriately sexist) vernacular of The Greatest Generation; tough titties. As a newly-minted disabled person (well, with passing privilege; as long as someone doesn’t need me to move faster than 10 kph or move over rugged terrain) who suddenly saw himself in Steve Rogers (another cripple who was made well with mad science)(you have no idea how much I appreciated that message as a cancer patient in a clinical trial), representation is important. It’s critical that people see themselves and their struggles on the big screen and know that they’re not alone. In this light, Captain Marvel is sorely needed; so young girls everywhere know it’s cool to be a figher pilot (or anything they want to be). It’s just that this message falls a little flat when you constantly have Jude Law (and his creepy yellow eyes) mugging at the camera and mouthing, “We’re the bad guys from Guardians of the Galaxy!” And for everyone who feels threatened by diversity, I offer this brand-new ancient Yiddish curse: May you one day be at the mercy of those you treated most cruelly.

I realize there are certain conventions that need to be followed in an origin story, but the film’s over-focus on the context of Captain Marvel within the MCU and the subplot of Nick Fury: Origins hamstrings the character’s development. It’s not that the film is bad — it’s pretty good — it’s just that it feels like a grudging compromise between Disney and its focus groups, and one of those focus groups happened to be angry, Neo-Nazi Internet trolls. I realize that the white patriarchy isn’t going to be happy about their decline into irrelevance, and they’re not going gentle into that good night, but it would’ve been more refreshing for the film to just shrug, say, “Who cares?” and focus entirely on Carol Danvers, her fellow former fighter pilot, and protecting space refugees. It would’ve been a weird, experimental movie, but that feels like it would’ve been a bigger, better gamble than the sleek, over-produced, demographic-targeted film we got. I realize I’m dating myself, but I remember when all these superhero films were (to use Danny Boyle’s phrase) medium-sized movies that were mostly-experimental, before Disney — being Disney — scented massive money and started getting protective about its brand. And there is an amazing scene where Captain Marvel kicks the crap out of Jude Law (to be fair, I’d watch an hour of Jude Law being randomly punched), but that’s after the better part of an hour establishing him as the The Man In Charge. I get that makes his inevitable betrayal and Captain Marvel’s chosen identity more powerful, but that’s also 40 minutes that could’ve gone to Carol Danvers overcoming rampant sexism in the Air Force or beating boys at the go-cart races, instead of the weird, fragmentary interstitial scenes we sort-of see.

I realize I’m starting to rant, so the TL:DR version is: it’s a good-but-not great film, with a mild feminist message that will only upset the most-fragile of male egos, and, if you can see it at a matinee price, you should. The irony is, this film feels like it wants to — and should — be something much bigger and more special than it is, but is held in check by a male-dominated industry.

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Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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