Captain Marvel Film Review: Technical - 2/5 Personal - 1/5

Technical rating 2/5  Personal Rating 1/5

Writing:
Dialogue 2/5
Plotting 2/5
Acting 3/5
Cinematography 1/5
Editing 3/5
Characters:                        
Presentation 1/5
     Progression 1/5

Music 2/5 
Acton Direction 2/5 
Special Effects +1 
Costuming +1       Total: 17/45 = 1.8/5

Ok, this is a controversial one folks!  So, buckle in. 

I have given this film a much more in-depth treatment than I will give many others. This is partly because I do rate it so differently from the average reviewer and I wish to defend that deviance, but also because I believe this film is particularly important!  I hope you will stick with me.

Writing – I found the dialogue poor, painful in several places and just barely passable in others.  However, it was the plotting that was even more problematic.  It was a combination of confusing, boring and scattered.  I strongly suspect this film went through some serious re-scripting and re-writing at least once.  It was pushed back several times for a total of eight months for MCU structural reasons.  In addition, there were some last minute reshoots, which are not uncommon industry practice lately.  But there were also rumors of last-minute re-writes and re-cuts resulting from extremely negative audience reactions to early screenings. Whatever the causes, the results are jumbled at best.  It looks like they had a very clear message in mind for the first draft and deviating from that proved difficult.  What they ended up with is a passable plot that goes a lot of places but doesn’t really land anywhere.  Chekhov left several guns on the wall that never got fired, and the few that do go off have very little character impact because they aren’t fully explained or they aren’t flushed out.  I have a few ideas about what the original intentions were from the negative spaces in the film, but I will save that for another time.  Ultimately, it’s is a story that drops several balls and packs less punch when its final punches do land.    

Acting – The acting highlight in this film is absolutely Ben Mendelsohn.  Both as the human version of himself, and the one under all the Skrull makeup and prosthetics.  He elevated a role that didn’t require it, in a film that desperately needed it.  Sam Jackson was fine, but he was playing a very different version of his character.  While the CG de-ageing was amazing, the characterization of Nick Fury was disheartening.  I don’t feel like I got a good bead on Brie Larson’s acting.  She acted about as much as the Queen of Naboo.  That is to say, not at all.  She remained stuck between smug, stoic, and slightly confused.  I strongly suspect that this is exactly what she was told her character was supposed to do.  Again, I am uncertain about the original plans for the character, but when your long-lost best friend is sitting across the table telling you she is a combination of sad to have lost you, glad to have you back, mad you left, and understanding it’s not your fault, and you sit there like a slightly constipated sack of potatoes, the audience should be told why!  Again, I suspect Larson really may not be to blame for this, but I can’t praise acting that isn’t there. 

Cinematography - Simply a non-factor in most scenes, and an actual detractor in many. The action cinematography was truly terrible in the later fights making the them impossible to follow.  The conversational cinematography was so bad I actually spent some leisure time after the film planning what could be done besides the most elementary shot-reverse-shot.  I have also been scripting a video essay contrasting the cinematography of similar, better-done scenes in other marvel films.  I would unabashedly describe it as offensively bad.  The strange thing was, in the first three minutes there were some beautifully done perspective shots that transitioned from dream, to sleep, to waking which displayed some creative skill.  But all of a sudden it stopped.  I don’t know what happened but whoever shot that first few minutes should have done the whole movie. 

 Editing – Many of the plotting problems are also editing problems but the micro editing has some issues.  A number of moment-to-moment character interactions have a few strange hiccups and the scene where everyone is running around the spaceship in the third act has very little cohesion.  It really looks like the latent effects of re-cutting a film to re-write a character under a time crunch.  If that is what they did I am surprised that they got as much polish in place as they did.  The editing for humor and much of the car/train chase is at least correctly done. 

 Characters – This is the big one, and the one that falls truly flat.   I talked about the re-shoots theory and the possible changes in plotting, but I think the biggest thing that was changed was the story around who and what Captain Marvel is.  But I can only fairly judge what is there on screen.   So setting all of that aside, Captain Marvel as a character is entirely mishandled.  She is simply a bland, emotionless, and highly unlikable individual.  We follow her as she puts down everyone she encounters for no reason. The writers sacrifice the coolness and likability of Nick Fury to make Marvel look a bit cooler, but it just made her look like more of a jerk and him look like a punk (Look up The Warf Effect).  But even more importantly, she has no hero’s arc.  Her goal changes every ten minutes so the payoff of each segment has no personal impact on her.  She doesn’t ever grow, experience loss, feel either pain or fear.  She never overcomes her own inner challenges, nor does she experience guilt or even a sense of responsibility for her past actions as a Kree soldier.  She has nothing that would make her an actual super hero, much less a real person. 

This is where I will touch on my personal connection to this film so I will move on, but ultimately Captain Marvel’s story arc leaves much to be desired.  Her finale ends with tensionless action and a lot of fireworks that have no meaning, followed by a resolution with the antagonist that doesn’t make much sense. I mean it really doesn’t.  It baffled me more than anything else in the film.  He spouts some nonsense at her that isn’t in character, and then she responds in a way that has no meaning to her.  It simply doesn’t hold any weight for either of their characters for any reason given in the story. And then it just kind of ends. 

As for the other characters, they were mostly political messages, one dimensional stand-ins for ideals, or punching bags. The other Kree soldiers actually looked like an interesting bunch who were enjoying playing their characters, but we never got a chance to know them beyond about one line each.  More’s the pity. 

The last thing I want to do is highlight and analyze the emotional impact of what is known as the “super hero outfit” scene.   If you don’t already know, this is often considered the most important scene in a super hero film.  The reveal of the hero outfit is always tied to what that hero does in that moment to earn the outfit.  Most times you don’t actually see the moment the outfit was put on.  You see the reveal.  This is because it is the moment of decision.  A powerful moment of becoming.  There is weight to it.  There is meaning.  What gives it meaning is a combination of personal risk, sacrifice, a choice and an acceptance to become something else.  In Captain Marvel…I just wanted to go next door and watch Alita: Battle Angel again instead.  Not only did Alita have a better version of that scene, Christof Waltz also did it better in an offhanded way in the same film! 

Music- Badly mixed – I think someone who doesn’t know sound mixing told the mixer the music needed to be more prominent. And it didn’t work.  A few of those songs were just a bit too on the nose. Go watch Umbrella Academy on Netflix to see prominent punchy music done beautifully right. 

Action Direction – A lot of it was summed up in editing, but that fight choreography was really rough, and the lighting on the darkened sets combined with the dark costuming, shaky-cam, and the music being more prominent than the sound effects made the final action scenes in particular both boring and unparsable.

Special Effects – Great but not showcased – They were absolutely there but just not used well.  The first few minutes in particular were really good!  But beyond that they were not utilized or capitalized on by the cinematography and editing or highlighted by the sound design – The Skrull makeup and effects were great! 

Costuming – Was fine and I actually really liked the look of the captain marvel outfit, especially the mohawk look when she had the space helmet up!  I thought that looked amazing and I feel like the camera really shied away from showing her much with it on.  It seems like they cut a lot of that final fight scene in space.  Sad, but I suspect there were re-write reasons for it. 

Personal Connection

So, my review of this film so far has been highly unflattering.  I have seen critics praise this film and I have been baffled.  Most of the ones who have praised it have done so on moral grounds, not technical.  The few technical praises have been based on box office numbers and special effects.  I have also seen praise of Brie Larson herself and her acting, a subjective subject on which it is hard to argue.  However, I have also seen critics I respect giving this film more moderate ratings, initially praising it based on its social value, but when they get to discussing the technical aspects they become quite a bit more critical than their rating would suggest.  While this is irritating it at least helps me believe not everyone has lost their good sense.  I suspect they fear to give honest criticism and from some of the things I have seen said even to them I believe such fear is justified. 

And to me that is what most makes this whole thing a travesty.  If something is important you should push for it to be presented well, and if someone presents something you care about poorly you should be irate at the presenter, not the honest critic.  The more important the topic, the more critical we should be of its presentation.  We should not be so desperate for a female super hero that we praise the un-praiseworthy. 

Now, if it were just that the film was technically poor I would not mind so very much.  I love many silly, poorly made films because they say something I love.  Many a badly made B film has inspired me, encouraged me, made me laugh, or taught me something important about the nature of the world.  I would be a hypocrite if I wrote off the value of any film just for being made badly.  The problem is that Captain Marvel is not only a poorly made film about a female super hero.  It is also a bad one. 

That is a strong statement and of course I must justify it.  Let me start by defending what may seem be an even more impossible statement: that it is not a superhero movie at all.

You see, the mistake made by people who don’t watch super hero movies (and occasionally by those that do) is to think that super powers are what defines a super hero.  They are wrong.  What makes a super hero is not their power set. It is the combination of their super human power and their astonishingly human failings.  The most beloved heroes, the ones that matter, the ones that are the most compelling are the ones whose powers are accompanied by their greatest challenges.  We don’t worry whether they will save the world, we worry whether they will save themselves. 

Tony Stark is Iron Man not because of his suit but because of his mind.  We know he can use his intelligence to save the day, but the real question is, will his all too human pride propel him too far, send him beyond his friends, and beyond morality?  And occasionally it has!  Captain America’s real shield is not made of vibranium, it is his unbreakable will. We aren’t afraid of the shattering of a painted metal disk, we are afraid of the loss of a man’s hope deep in his heart.  The Hulk’s battle is not with strength, but with his all too human rage.  Black Widow’s challenge is whether or not she will ever be able to stop running and hiding, not from her enemies, but from herself.  Hawkeye’s super power is not to be able to aim true at an enemy, but to be able to see clearly into the heart of his friends when they need him. And Spiderman, in all his impetuous youth, granted the physical strength of a titan and the skill to do endless good, grapples with the guilt of having done less than he could. 

It is not the power that makes the hero.  It is the challenges that are in their very soul.  Just as the power is in the hero so the challenge is also within the hero and Captain Marvel has no inner challenge to overcome.

People always say super hero movies are boring because the heroes always win. They are watching the wrong battle.  The film Avengers: Age of Ultron was not a victory for the Avengers.  It was a loss because Stark in his pride created the villain and it could be said that it was still in his pride he created the ally that saved them, and he dragged his friend into it.  Civil war was a loss because Stark’s pride and Cap’s will separated them and that rift is still there.  Spiderman has still never won the battle against his guilt for letting Uncle Ben die and the Hulk and Black Widow are still running from one another. Thor may think he is the Strongest Avenger, but he has lost everything in the last few films.  And Hawkeye is not even on the team anymore!  Nick Fury for all his plotting and planning against the powers of the cosmos was powerless against the endgame when it came.  Each of the avengers is still fighting a losing battle against themselves and each one, while they may save the world, is still fighting some inner demon, and the brilliance of the MCU is that sometimes even though the big battle is won, the hero may still loose.  And that is the beauty of where each of our Marvel heroes are right now.  None of their battles are won and many of them have been completely, devastatingly lost. 

Except Captain Marvel.  Because she had no battle.  There was no inner fight, nothing to conquer, nothing to win against.  Just a few spaceships to go through like tissue paper with no meaning at all.   Modern feminism says she can only be portrayed as a victim of oppression.  Other than that, she is perfect.  Perfect and dormant until that oppression goes away and once it does, she is all powerful.  I am afraid that was the character arc and story of Captain Marvel.  She was always perfect.  She had nothing to change.  Nothing to conquer.  She just had to realize the patriarchy was evil, and then she would be the perfect most powerful being and everything else was below her as it should be.  No stakes. No challenge, no growth.  No responsibility to anyone, no care, compassion, or responsibility for anyone around her, not even herself.  Nothing but pride and petty pride at that. 

That isn’t what a super hero is.  And it is boring. Also, she is just kind of a jerk!  Who just destroys some bartender’s jukebox for no good reason!?  Just why?  That didn’t prove you aren’t a skrull to Nick Fury at all, so why do you look so smug about it?  Wait, do you really think you don’t have to explain?  Oh God, I am so embarrassed to be a woman right now!  

When I watched Wonder Woman with my husband he looked over at me, unprompted, and said to me, “I want to be just like her!”  Wonder Woman was kind, she was gentle.  She was strong without being mean spirited.  She was smart and intelligent without putting anyone down.  In fact, she raised up the broken people around her.  She encouraged the men around her to be more masculine.  She did not judge them for their obvious faults but with a lovely determined beauty she made them want to be better just by being who she was.  She made them want to stand up and be brave like her!  That is an Icon, and a powerful female super hero. But as I watched Captain Marvel my heart ached for all the little girls who would be told that this was what they should be.  I looked over to my husband and said to him, “I want to be nothing like her!