Captain Marvel(3/8/2019)

Leading up to the release of Captain Marvel I was jonesing for MCU content like I’d never jonesed for it before.  When the MCU was first starting I was kind of indifferent to it and didn’t see the big deal and during its “Phase 2” I went into each movie not really sure if I was going to get a winner like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or a underwhelming product like Thor: The Dark World.  But ever since the release of release of Captain America: Civil War (the official start of (Phase 3) they’ve been on a pretty unprecedented win streak.  They started to finally give their movies good villains, they managed to make the franchise crossovers feel genuinely fun rather than advertisements, and they seemed to have found the right formula to allow filmmakers to add their own signature styles to the films while functioning within the house style as well.  Even some of the lesser movies during this span like Doctor Strange still had clear saving graces like that film’s trippy visuals or and the brand clearly reached a zenith of success last year with the release of the Oscar nominated Black Panther and the worldwide blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War.  Oddly though despite releasing three movies last year they put out all of them in the first seven months and as such we haven’t gotten fresh product from Marvel in over half a year.  Any other franchise and that would seem normal but we’ve gotten pretty used to out MCU fix and after what feels like a long wait we’re finally getting it in the form of Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel is the first prequel in the MCU, being set in 1995, but that isn’t apparent right away because it begins lightyears away on the planet of Hala, the homeworld of an alien species called the Kree.  Our hero Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of a Kree taskforce being led by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) who are acting in a war against another alien species called the Skrull, who can disguise themselves as other people. When a mission goes wrong she finds herself on a Skrull ship being interrogated about visions in her head of someone she doesn’t recognize named Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), she escapes her captivity and in her escape she finds herself on Earth.  There she meets a young agent with two functional eyes named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and quickly learns that four Skrull agents also followed her to Earth.  She and Fury must find out the significance of Lawson before those Skrull agents do.

Give Captain Marvel this, it’s not structurally formulaic.  That’s not to say it’s doing something truly radical here but it doesn’t necessarily follow the same predictable superhero origin path, which might partly be owed to the fact that the Captain Marvel comic book character has kind of a weird and convoluted history in a way that someone like Doctor Strange (whose origin was basically a redo of Iron Man’s).  That isn’t to say that the things it does differently necessarily work for it.  The way the film opens in the middle of this science fiction world that’s never fully explained before dropping the audience in the middle of a weird alien war is pretty disorienting and the film takes a while to find its footing.  Once the film finally (literally) comes to earth things do improve but even then it still takes a while to really come to understand our main protagonist and what her deal is.  Things also improve when Samuel L Jackson shows up and a sort of buddy cop dynamic emerges between him and Captain Marvel.  Jackson is being digitally de-aged through the whole movie and the technology behind that is quite impressive.  Even more importantly, being de-aged seems to have somewhat invigorated Jackson and snapped him out of the usual “angry old man” shtick that he’s been indulging for a while and he becomes a rather pleasant presence in the film.

Given the discourse around this being the first Marvel film about a female protagonist I was a little surprised that the film didn’t do more to lean into the whole feminism angle.  In fact I kind of wish they’d either done more of that or less of it because female empowerment never really feels like a consistent theme in the film and the moments of it that are thrown in at times seem to come out of nowhere.  We’re told that as a human our hero did deal with some gender discrimination in the air force, but given her amnesiac status at the beginning of the film that’s not really a foundational aspect of her character and instead her status quo comes in the form of fighting on what appear to be a rather egalitarian Kree task force.  At times the film seems to sidestep this by making her status as a human among Kree stand in as an allegory for being a woman among men, but again, she doesn’t know she’s a human until the very late in the timeline of all this so positioning it as a lifelong struggle again seems a bit strange and the decision to play No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” over a climactic fight sequence feels rather unearned as a result.

I think what ails Captain Marvel is simply weak source material and a lack of vision of how to bring that source material to the screen.  Marvel has spun gold out of second rate comic book characters in the past but when they’ve done it they’ve had people like James Gunn or Edgar Wright via Peyton Reed to find interesting ways to make it happen.  Captain Marvel was made by the directorial duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are good filmmakers but their previous work like Half Nelson and Sugar were realist dramas and there isn’t much in their background to suggest an interest in this kind of comic book action movie.  In the past when Marvel has gotten unexpected talent like that to make these kind of movies they’ve done it by bringing in comedic directors like Jon Favreau or Taika Waititi to inject the movies with levity, and I’m not really sure what Boden and Fleck are bringing to the table.  The film they’ve made kind of feels like the other Marvel movies but without really much of its own twist on the form.  It’s funny at times, but never as funny as something like Thor: Ragnarok, it’s got some nice 90s needle drops, but nothing as impactful as anything in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.  And as a straightforward action movie it also comes in a little short, partly because its hero has kind of boring powers and partly just because they’re not particularly well edited.  None of this is to say the movie isn’t enjoyable though.  Looked at outside of the high standards that Marvel has set for itself lately the movie does have enough things going for it to be worth a watch.  It’s probably Marvel’s worst movie since… the first Ant-Man, or maybe Avengers: Age of Ultron, but even a second rate MCU movie is still going to mostly be decent.

*** out of Five

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The Incredibles 2(7/1/2018)

[Editor’s Note: It has recently come to my attention that, for reasons unknown, this review was never posted on the blog back in the summer of 2018 when it was written.  It is being posted now for posterity.]

The Incredibles is certainly not the best Pixar movie but it’s almost certainly one of their most important ones.  It’s the first movie where the studio was willing to work with human characters in earnest and it was also the movie where they started to expand their scope and aim their sights on slightly older audiences.  That movie still resonates but it was released way back in 2004, which in the world of animated movies is kind of an eternity.  That’s fourteen years, meaning that a kid who saw it in its original release at ten years old would be twenty four now, and yet in this whole timespan Pixar never saw fit to make a sequel, which is odd given that it seemed more suited for one than a lot of the other movies they seemed to have no qualms about mining for additional installments.  After all, the first film ended on something of a teaser for future installments and given the film’s debt to comic books, which are an inherently serialized medium made The Incredibles seem like perfect franchise material.  Part of the delay might simply be the aversion that Pixar once had to unnecessary sequels, but that certainly hasn’t been part of their philosophy in a good ten years.  It also might have simply been a matter of working around director Brad Bird’s schedule as he branched out into live action filmmaking with varying degrees of success.  Really though I think a big part of why there was a delay is that the first movie benefited greatly from coming out before Hollywood was regularly making high quality superhero movies and they were waiting in vain for the superhero genre to die down a bit in Hollywood, but that clearly wasn’t happening anytime soon so they decided to finally give it ago with this year’s The Incredibles 2.

This sequel picks up almost instantly from where the original film left off, with the moleman-like supervillain The Underminer (John Ratzenberger) emerging from the ground and trying to rob a bank, leading The Incredibles along with Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) to launch an attack despite the laws against masked vigilantism still being on the books.  While they do stop the attack the fight does leave a lot of the same collateral damage that got “supers” banned in the first place.  However, one person is not outraged by this and that’s a billionaire named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who has been a superhero enthusiast since the death of his father years ago.  He calls Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and offers to let them stay in one of his mansions if they work with him on a lobbying campaign to bring back costumed heroes.  The catch, he wants this campaign to start slow and just have Elastigirl do the crime fighting at first given that he has less of a history of destructive fighting.  That means Mr. Incredible is the one tasked with staying home and watching Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) whose powers are just starting to come into full bloom.  Mr. Incredible says he’s game to do this, but in reality he kind of resents this turn of events and doesn’t really know how to cope with the domestic life.  Of course he is self-aware enough not to complain about this to Elastigirl, who finds she has her hands full when a mysterious villain called The Screenslaver emerges and begins wrecking-havoc.

Ever since the release of the original The Incredibles people have been debating whether the message as its center about what society owes to the exceptional people among them ultimately boils down to a sort of junior version of Randian Objectivism.  This sequel doesn’t exactly continue down that path but it doesn’t exactly shy away from material that could be viewed as political.  For instance there’s a story the Bob Odenkirk character tells at one point about someone who’s killed by an intruder as he calls for a superhero instead of dealing with the problem himself, which is disturbingly similar to the NRA propaganda about the dangers of relying on police instead of personal gun ownership.  On the other side of the spectrum there’s some talk about the “supers” in the family having to hide their true selves, which could be seen as something of an allegory for gay or trans identity.  But the plotline that most overtly and extensively deals with ongoing modern debates is the Mr. Incredible’s ennui at the process of being a sort of stay at home dad while his wife wears the pants… I mean costume… and Elastigirl’s own anxiety about trying to “have it all” instead of maintaining more of a work/life balance.  This is a storyline that I suspect will annoy people who sit on both sides of the feminist divide.  On one hand the movie certainly ultimately falls on the side of Elastigirl being perfectly capable of pursuing a career on her own and of not guilting her for her decision to do so, but on the other hand it feels kind of lame and regressive that we’re still doing the whole Mr. Mom thing in 2018 and the fact that Mr. Incredible proves to be this incompetent at keeping a house in order without the help of a woman does kind of reinforce the gender norm at play.

Messaging aside, the way the film splits into a separate A story with Elastigirl tracking down the Screen Slaver and a B story with Mr. Incredible holding things down at home does lead to a bit of a clumsy and slightly TVish story structure for a lot of its runtime before things merge later on.  What’s more each of these stories have their weakness.  The Elastigirl story doesn’t have anything jarringly poor in it but it also feels a bit routine as far as these things go.  The mystery about who the screenslaver is isn’t terribly compelling and the film doesn’t really do as much with the idea of a superhero going on a PR campaign as it could.  The Mr. Incredible story by contrast feels a lot more unique in that you don’t exactly see every day but it did draw attention to one of the series bigger weaknesses: the Incredibles kids are not very well drawn out.  Violet is a pretty cliché over-dramatic teenage girl and Dash is even more thinly drawn and doesn’t do much in the film besides get overly excited about stuff.  He’s frankly kind of annoying.  The movie also has slightly more clumsy animation than I was expecting from a new Pixar movie, possibly because the art style they devised back in 2004 was designed to work around the limitations of the technology of the time but which may be more of a stifling force today.

I’ve complained a lot but the movie is actually a lot better than I’ve probably let on.  In fact I enjoyed it quite a bit while I was actually watching it and it’s more when I look back on it that if feels a bit more flawed and insubstantial.  What probably saves it are its action set-pieces and its sense of humor.  It’s no secret that in terms of powers and to some extent the overall concept The Incredibles are basically a ripoff of The Fantastic Four and it uses this set of powers a lot more creatively than any of the real adaptations of that property ever have and the animation medium makes all the fights seem a lot more loose and fun than a lot of the action scenes in “real” super hero movies do even if they don’t have quite the same sense of spectacle that you get from seeing these powers in more realistic settings.  The film also has a generally amusing tone and some of the comic elements like Edna Mode remain strong.  Watched with tempered expectations the film is quite fun but the fact that it’s a movie fourteen years in the making kind of makes you expect a bit more than the film is really able to deliver on.  It certainly isn’t going to have the impact of the original movie but I suspect it will leave most audiences satisfied enough.

*** out of Five

Year End Content 2018 & Announcement

With the Oscars behind us the time has finally come to close the book on 2018 as a year in film.  As such I have at long last posted the 2018 Golden Stake Awards and I’ve updated the Yearly Top Ten page with my 2018 choices.  Those can be accessed at the following links:

The 2018 Golden Stakes

2018 Top Ten

I’m also taking the change in years to announce some changes coming to the blog going forward.  Up to now my goal has been to write a full-length review for every movie I saw in theaters and reserve the capsule review format exclusively to movies from that year which I caught up with on home video and the occasional documentary.  I’ve been pretty rigorous in making this happen and have only missed a couple of reviews as a result but in the last couple of years this has begun to a feel a bit limiting.  There have been more than a few situations where I’ve had some interest in seeing a movie in theaters but have skipped out on it simply to avoid burdening myself with adding it to the review backlog.  Back when I was on a somewhat limited budget that instinct mixed well with my wallet, but now that programs like Stubs A-List exist this is less of an issue and in many ways I just want to see more and more at the theaters.  As such, in 2019 I’m going to begin expanding the capsule review format to select movies I see theatrically.  I still plan to do plenty of my customary full-length longwinded analysis for the premier movies, possibly just as many as ever, but I’m going to reserve the right to do shorter and more to-the-point reviews of other movies which may well be quality films but films I simply have less to say about.  I’m not sure how exactly I’ll be presenting these shorter reviews on the blog, they might be in sets of five like my Home Video Round-Ups, but I may experiment with other layouts.  Hopefully this will simply lead to more and more film discussion around here and more breathing room to work on the longer reviews as well.