Marvel Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Captain Marvel

Before Wonder Woman, female-led superhero movies were a joke. It’s true – Supergirl is awful, Elektra (itself a spin-off of the dreadful noughties Daredevil) is awful, Catwoman is more cultural joke than movie, and Batgirl’s fleshing out (I mean that both storywise and literally) in both Batman and Robin (“thanks for the nipples Uncle Alfred, and when did you have time to take my measurements?”) and The Killing Joke further weakening the character before she was paralyzed, possibly raped, and wheelchair-bound until the next retcon. What’s the common denominator of these releases? Clue: it’s not the female leads. The common denominator of these movies is that they are made by people who clearly haven’t seen a superhero movie, in their entire life.

These female superheroes – again, until Wonder Woman – were palmed off on directors like Rob Bowman (though he directed many a great X-Files episode and the solid first movie), Pitof (that is genuinely the name on Catwoman), and The Santa Clause director Jeannot Szwarc who helmed Faye Dunaway and Peter O’toole in the career-low of Supergirl. There is a famous story about how Orson Welles came to make his classic noir Touch of Evil (if you can find it, go for the two-hour version). Legend has it that he looked for the worst script he could find to challenge himself to make a great movie out of it. Well, the exact opposite has happened with female superheros. Great stories to work from, but the outcome was almost universally dire.

Back to Wonder Woman, because there is no avoiding the huge cultural impact this DCEU movie had –  by not only being a great movie, but also beating the MCU by two years and about 20 previous MCU movies by finally having a female-led superhero film in their roster. DC and Warner Bros chose Patty Jenkins, who at that point had only made the critically acclaimed Oscar-winner Monster, to direct this huge risk of a movie. While it didn’t make Aquaman money (I can’t fucking believe I’m writing that), Wonder Woman proved that female superheros were a hit, and, in the right hands, stories surrounding them could be extraordinarily popular.

This put the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a position that it certainly wasn’t used to, playing catch-up in the game that they created. It’s true that most of the slate of movies are planned out years ahead of schedule, but I would argue that from a story-telling point of view, Captain Marvel was worth the wait, and even worth the DCEU getting there first. The fact is, the DCEU affects pop culture, while the MCU is pop culture. We have bought into eleven years worth of movies and TV shows that all lead up to the release of Endgame. Introducing Captain Marvel earlier than they did may have blunted her impact a little, given her inherent vitality to the Endgame storyline.

Okay, that’s enough of the cultural analysis for now – lets talk about the movie. I’m going to do the sub-sections first because they inform the rest of the article rather than just being a good platform for snark at the end.

Ticking the Romance Box

This question may have a really obvious answer, but did Captain Marvel tick this box? I can already hear people (my co-editor being one of them) shouting that of course it did, Carol and Maria are obviously in love and were raising Maria’s daughter together before Carol’s disappearance. I’m not so sure, but not because I don’t want this to be the case- it’s a sad state of affairs that the only superhero LGBTQ couple is in fucking Deadpool 2, so I’m all for diversity and portraying different types of relationships, but I feel like Captain Marvel pulled its punch here.

Try to think about this from a cynical producers point of view. I get that Captain Marvel is a good movie with a lot of really good messages, but the main point of something like this is not our enjoyment, it’s to make money. I believe that Kevin Feige and the MCU brass allowed the directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck to encode some slight hints of romance so they could maybe pick up on them in a later movie if this one is successful. This is the MCU’s first female-led superhero movie, and I think it had to play it safe with potentially controversial (sigh) aspects like this. This wasn’t a left-field risk like Guardians, this is the prequel to Endgame, arguably their biggest movie to date.

The Wasted Villain Corner

You’ve got to hand it to Captain Marvel – this was a twist that was staring me right in the damn face. This isn’t so much the wasted villain corner as it is the surprise villain corner. The beauty of this is that the movie’s real antagonists were hiding in plain sight.

The Kree don’t have the best reputation in the MCU or the television spin-offs, but despite Djimon Hounsou’s Korath being part of Carol’s team, and his future boss Ronan the Accuser popping up, I still believed that the Skrulls were the real villains. There are two really clever reasons for this. The first is that the movie itself presents them as such, but not in an obvious bait-and-switch way – the Skrulls are famous comic book villains, and there have been thousands of theories that nearly every Avenger has been replaced by one since it was announced that they would appear in Captain Marvel. The groundwork has been long-since laid for their arch-villainy to unfold on the big screen right here.

The second reason is the casting of Ben Mendehlson. While the Australian actor puts in a brilliant normal performance every once in a while (like in Boden and Fleck’s previous film, Mississippi Grind), he is mostly known as the current go-to blockbuster villain. The fact that Talos is just trying to save his people from extinction doesn’t excuse his own crimes, a complex idea that allows for some impressive moral ambiguity and for Mendehlson to flex his impressive acting talent, even through layers of make-up. As he says himself, in one of the best lines in the movie: “my hands are just as dirty as yours.” The Skrulls have gone from villains to blockbuster intergalactic refugees. That’s bold, and I’m sure some people are very angry about this change. I’m not one of them.

While Captain Marvel is not a classic – more Nick Fury buddy-cop action would have helped in that regard –  it’s a solid introduction to a character who will hopefully be key figure in the MCU’s future – beyond her kicking Thanos’ ass.

If you enjoyed this article, please check out the rest of our MCU retrospective, as well as our ongoing look at the Batman cinematic universe, and consider supporting us on Patreon!

By Kevin Boyle

(Header Image via MovieposterHD)

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