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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In part one of our two-part look at Captain Marvel: how the movie tries, and fails, to frame memory and perspective.)

Between the two halves of its massive finale — the apocalyptic Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming Avengers: Endgame — the Marvel Cinematic Universe feels like it’s being stripped for parts.

Ant-Man and the Wasp, a smaller, more intimate entry, did away with the trappings of the Marvel formula, though it failed to supply a working substitute. Its leads no longer provided quip-laden momentum (a task that fell to supporting players independent of the plot), but the lead characters had no internal conflict either, despite pasts that so clearly called for some. The film sidestepped the usual pre-visualized mayhem divorced from story, though its climax might as well have had no stakes at all. And rather than Marvel’s half-hearted expression of meaning — often a character arc culminating in punching harder — the film had no real theme to dramatize.  

Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is a swing in the opposite direction, amping up the well-worn Marvel template to the point of inducing whiplash. It’s fun in parts, and it magnifies the series’ strong-suits; though in doing so, it exposes just how low the bar was set to begin with. The film can’t help but magnify the series’ weaknesses too, since they’re often one and the same.

Everything that was missing from Ant-Man and the Wasp comes rushing back, with the studio’s very name stamped across the title, as if to parody the common through-lines of twenty prior films without the self-awareness to do so. And while it’s filled to the brim with metaphor and ostensibly political outlook, the film is both haphazardly assembled, and shackled by the same constraints as fellow military-funded entries Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Only this time, the effects of the film’s mandated propaganda are significantly stronger.

Captain Marvel is a Marvel movie through-and-through, and that’s a problem.

Captain Marvel 90s References

Oh! Carol

After a tumultuous comic book history, Carol Danvers (then Ms. Marvel) rejoined the Marvel A-list in 2006, before graduating to the “Captain” mantle six years later. Brie Larson brings a combination of wit and gravitas to the character, and a self-assured demeanour that captures Danvers’ recent incarnations. The problem however, is that the Danvers of the comics — a headstrong leader with agreeable charm — builds on decades of stories, absorbing the ones that work while subverting those that don’t. Whereas the Danvers of the movie, the amnesiac “Vers,” is an awkward fit for a story about someone still trying to find her place.

Wit and charm aren’t just this Danvers’ affectations. They’re her equilibrium from start to finish, despite the film being about her losing and subsequent re-discovering her identity on Earth.

In an early training scene on Hala, the Kree home world and the only place Danvers fully remembers, Star Force commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) learns of the disjointed dreams and memories Danvers can’t seem to piece together. In response to this, and to Danvers’ aggression as they spar, Yon-Rogg tells her to keep her emotions in check. A loaded statement no doubt, and one particularly gendered, though from this point on, the film seldom positions this mandate as something for Danvers to overcome.

Even the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), the Kree A.I., which takes the form a mystery woman from Danvers’ past, frames these flashes of lost memory as torrid, intrusive impulses. “You struggle with your emotions,” the Supreme Intelligence tells her, “With your past that fuels them.” Though Danvers’ emotions and fractured memories never manifest as struggle, nor do they compel her to go against the grain of authority to embrace her apparent fervour (she seems to have already done so before the movie begins). Being told she’s too emotional is a problem on paper, but it rarely manifests in practice.  

Danvers is incredibly personable, and her dynamic with a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) offers delightful momentum, but scarce are the moments when Larson is allowed to express something more nuanced than cheer. Danvers’ journey on Earth involves both gathering intelligence, and in the process, solving the mystery of who she is. Yet this lack of identity never feels urgent, beyond once yelling “You don’t know who I am. Even I don’t know who I am!” when confronted with new information. Shortly thereafter, Danvers resumes her natural, seemingly unfettered state.

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Capturing Captain Marvel

The film’s visual framing falls victim to a similar indifference. Except for a single moment when the camera holds on Danvers — a key beat, where a filed photograph confirms her human past — nothing about the way she’s shot, or the way her perspective is framed sees any kind of shift, despite change in perspective being key to the plot of Captain Marvel. It’s as if the film is on auto-pilot, with actors tasked with line-readings that rarely, if ever, unearth the potentially riveting subtext of a woman having her identity stolen and re-molded by hostile masculine forces.

Danvers’ relationship to authority is key to her persona. She rebels against Yon-Rogg’s orders, though she does so from the get-go, resulting in her later betrayal of the Kree feeling all too easy. When confronted with evidence that all she knows is a lie, there’s little struggle involved in actually changing her perspective. In one moment, she believes one thing. In the next, she believes another. If anything, she comes off as instantly, perhaps naively trusting, even though it’s likely unintended; the film rarely clarifies when gaps in her memory have been filled, so what drives her decisions in a given moment feels uncertain.  

This wishy-washy P.O.V. goes hand in hand with Danvers starting out rebellious. This is who she already was on Earth, rather than having to grow into this rash persona (or grow back into it, when she re-discovers herself). Her disentanglement from brainwashed militarism feels almost insignificant; starting out so defiant means her embrace of emotion is fairly acceptable too. It’s only a mild issue for her commanders — despite what Yon-Rogg says, he seems to delight in their banter, and there are no consequences when she lashes out at him with lasers — and it even seems like a non-issue for Danvers herself, rather than something she’s forced to suppress, and subsequently embrace or reclaim.

Many of these problems are rooted in the film’s expression of memory.

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