I. Simon’s review published on Letterboxd:
Watched with commentary by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck. While not as great as their HALF NELSON commentary, this one was still very good and gave some fair insight into making the film, especially in regards to how much thought they put into the visualization, their aesthetic choices and how they fit the story, and it’s so refreshing to see directors on an MCU joint who clearly care about this kind of stuff when so many directors on these movies seem to half-ass it. In general, there are many inspired directorial choices here that I had never picked up on before, which further shows that this is a pair of filmmakers who are super inspired creatively and have such a strong attention to detail. One can also tell that Boden & Fleck really enjoyed working with Brie Larson, and I personally really hope that they work with her again on one of their indies.
Moving on, I’m still utterly amazed that this film exists, especially after hearing last year (or maybe even near the end of 2019) from multiple people with ties to the industry that Boden & Fleck supposedly had a VERY rough time working with Marvel on this, which isn’t surprising because Boden & Fleck are adept human artists with a unique voice and Kevin Feige is a corrupt individual who has zero respect for artists and hates creativity. Either way, I can’t stress enough how tremendous this film’s screenplay is (as far as blockbuster screenplays go, it’s an absolute fucking home run), especially in terms of how character, structure, and theme are all beautifully interwoven into one cohesive whole. The first act does such a terrific job setting up the characters (notably the Mindfrak sequence, which cleverly shows us what we need to know about Carol through creative flashbacks, thus avoiding expository traps and allowing more space and time for Carol’s growth in this film as a result), core conflicts, themes, and worldbuilding, which causes Carol to build along with the film to the climax, and then lead into a hugely satisfying third act. And that Boden & Fleck managed to smuggle both a gaslighting/abuse plot-line and a strong anti-imperialist angle into a superhero film that was co-funded by Disney and the US military makes it not only the boldest MCU installment by default, but one of the boldest cases of artistic smuggling in a mainstream IP/tentpole film since Ang Lee’s HULK. On top of that, when looking at the subtextual/thematic content of both HALF NELSON and SUGAR — both of which are films that are very progressive and anti-capitalist — and then looking at what the majority of the MCU is like, there may not be a single person to have ever been involved in making an MCU film who is more aware of the franchise’s deeply cynical, artistically bankrupt, and overall fundamentally flawed nature than Boden & Fleck are (that they seemingly sided with Martin Scorsese in his stance on superhero films only proves this point more).
*SPOILERS BELOW. You’ve been warned.*
Speaking of the anti-imperialist angle, there’s been ongoing discourse regarding Captain Marvel being co-funded by the US military since before the film even came out, and while I certainly don’t deny the US military’s involvement in the production of the film, I think it’s much more critical of the US military than people realize, as:
1) The film draws subtle yet direct parallels between Carol’s time in the USAF and her time in Starforce during the first act through means of specific compositions (i.e., both the first appearance of Starforce and the flashback segment with Carol getting into a plane are shot in slow-mo and somewhat stylized, and while it may seem like glorification at first, it’s actually drawing parallels between the two) and even lines of dialogue (i.e., Carol being told that she’s “too emotional” by Yon-Rogg during their first sparring sequence, and then being told that exact same thing by men in the US military in flashbacks).
2) Every man in the military is depicted as a misogynistic prick.
3) The only authoritative figure in the US military depicted in a positive light is Wendy Lawson/Mar-Vell, who turns out to be an alien (illegally) trying to end two wars.
4) Nick Fury mentions that Project Pegasus was a US military-funded operation that resulted in the alleged death of a pilot (soon revealed to be Carol), which would give the US military such a bad image that the US military covered Project Pegasus up to the point where it’s as if the operation had never existed in the first place.
5) Carol and Maria talk about how neither of them had ever been allowed to actually fly a plane beyond test-piloting due to the Air Force’s sexist regulations.
6) The film’s biggest twist revolves around Carol coming to terms with the fact that she had not only been gaslit, manipulated, and lied to for six years, but also had been brainwashed by imperialistic propaganda and actively participating in oppressive, genocidal acts towards refugees. She even realizes her errors (instead of passing the blame, given that she had been brainwashed), and makes a choice on her own to help the Skrulls.
7) The Supreme Intelligence, who is the main villain in the film (Yon-Rogg is a narcissistic prick no doubt, but the film recognizes that he’s also a pawn and a victim of an imperialistic, heteropatriarcal system) and is in the form of what is essentially a white woman from the boomer generation, wears a jacket with a Project Pegasus logo on it in the third act, and makes a remark about “loving the jacket.”
Yes, it’s maybe not the most radical critique in the world, and discussions could be had about the suit colors scene (which I’ll address next), but I would argue that there’s still very much a reading present, and one that is very much thoughtful. The point is that even though a film is funded/produced by someone — even if it’s a cynical corporation — with disingenuous intentions, I feel to write it off completely because of that, without even at least trying to set aside the production/marketing and instead analyze the themes in the film itself, is very much unfair to those who have actually worked hard on the film with good intentions. Yes, it is unfortunate that Hollywood has been in bed with the military for decades (hell, hardly anyone seems to bring up that the first two Iron Man films and Captain America: The First Avenger, the latter of which I actually do really like quite a bit, glorified the US military), but if we can’t try to give films the benefit of the doubt despite that, how are we supposed to gain enjoyment from anything? Yes, the USAF did use the marketing as a recruiting tool and attempted to do the same with the film itself, but 1) any bits that could be seen as military glorification end up being undermined, and 2) it is damn near impossible to make an anti-military/anti-war film, especially one that is mainstream, without remotely glorifying it to some extent. However, Boden & Fleck are clearly aware of this, as the film goes as far as to acknowledging how truly dangerous government propaganda can be, especially in how it’s used by means of promoting hostility towards refugees.
Which brings me to the suit colors scene. While I can understand why one would be put off by it, I think it can also be interpreted as Carol — and, by extension, the film — having a hopeful and positive outlook on America’s future, even despite America’s insidious foundation. As written by April Wolfe for The Wrap, “It’s something of a spoiler to explain this, but the Kree are an analog to Americans in this story, a war-faring people who deeply believe what they are doing is just, even though they cross the line and others suffer the consequences. Carol’s arc involves aligning herself with who and what is truly just in her fictional world. The metaphor is clear that the U.S. is the bad guys. So in the fictional world when Carol sports red, gold, and blue — inspired directly by a U.S. Air Force t-shirt — there’s a certain cognitive dissonance one must participate in not to think about these implications. But there’s also a more hopeful way to view this scene: Maybe Carol — and “Captain Marvel” — are reclaiming these colors for the purposes of good. “Captain Marvel” is based on the hopeful outlook of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s version of Carol, so I choose hope.” And either way, I’d still argue there’s more than enough that undermines what could potentially be seen as glorification, especially when factoring in that the suit colors scene happens before the final Supreme Intelligence confrontation where Carol rejects indoctrination.
Moving on, I really love these characters; Carol Danvers, Nick Fury, Maria Rambeau, Talos — all three-dimensional characters who are genuinely purposeful and lived-in instead of cardboard cutouts who exist to regurgitate exposition.
In regards to Carol specifically, I think I get why many didn’t resonate with her or Brie Larson’s performance like they have with other MCU protagonists and leading performances. It’s because Carol Danvers and Brie’s performance aren’t really in-line with the other MCU protagonists/performances.
Rather, Carol Danvers and Brie’s performance are both very much in-line with the protagonists and central performances of Boden & Fleck’s other films.
Much like Boden & Fleck’s other works, Captain Marvel is far more interested in Carol’s interiority and how that affects herself and others than her exteriority. So much is conveyed through Brie Larson’s masterful facial acting and how her performance is captured through Boden & Fleck’s signature closeups, which allow us into Carol’s headspace, revealing far more to us about her as a character and the interpersonal trauma she is struggling with than exposition ever could. (On that note, excellent piece by Taylor Breeding on the C-PTSD angle of Captain Marvel here: https://thefandomentals.com/captain-marvel-complex-trauma/). Much like how SUGAR used baseball as a backdrop for an intimate and introspective character study, Captain Marvel does a similar thing but with an intergalactic war as its backdrop.
Which brings me to Brie Larson’s performance. It cannot be overstated how sublime she is in this. Not only is this one of her absolute best performances and very likely will be the best performance she ever gives in this role, but any performer, let alone a highly intuitive and low-key performer, who is able to bring so much humanity and warmth to a character this powerful in a film of this genre made on a $100+ million budget is a special kind of talent.
Onto the filmmaking, I honestly don’t get what people mean when saying Captain Marvel is “blandly directed” when even mere glimpses of the filmmaking here are the best in the entire franchise by a long shot, with Ben Davis’s photography — I can’t stress enough how stellar his work on this is, surprisingly being far more akin to Andrij Parekh’s work on Boden & Fleck’s indies than Marvel’s drab house style — and the editing in particular being not only exceptional (at the very least), but actually benefitting the film greatly. On top of the ingenious uses of closeups, the various compositions and uses of low-lighting are all done wonderfully and help the film feel distinct and grounded; the use of handheld during the beautiful field scene in particular is absolutely ingenious. As for the editing, scenes in this film are actually allowed to breathe whilst the film still maintains a perfect sense of pacing and never once feels overlong nor too short, and there are also some inspired uses of jump cuts (i.e., hidden Skrull transformations). Even the sound design is highly creative and Pinar Toprak’s score is memorable. Sure, some of the CGI is a bit rough, but that applies to every MCU installment at this point, and it doesn’t bother me in this case. At least this film utilized much more practical effects, real sets, and on-location shooting than most MCU installments, and the CGI, while not always polished, is clearly well-visualized.
While I understand that we all have different tastes, I cannot fathom considering this to be a lesser MCU installment, especially since Captain Marvel is one of the only films in the franchise where you can tell that the filmmakers genuinely cared about the film they were making; a film that goes well beyond the bare minimum of being an episodic product, instead opting for something so much more, but in a way that is modest and unpretentious. It also handles its characters with so much care. In most MCU installments, the characters and narrative exist to service the action, but in the case of Captain Marvel, however, it’s the complete opposite: the action services the characters and narrative.
That said, even if Captain Marvel did not work for many people, I’m ecstatic that I can say it worked (and still works) wonders for me, and I can only hope that more people will warm up to it over time.
And I still haven’t gotten to the part where I explain why I adore Captain Marvel. No, I don’t adore Captain Mavel because Brie Larson stars in it (even if I think her performance is one of the key elements to its success); I’ve disliked multiple films she’s been in and have no shame in saying that The Glass Castle is one of the most offensive excuses for a film I have ever seen. No, I’m not some MCU fanboy who feels the need to defend the franchise like it’s some underdog (if I hadn’t already made it clear above, I’m not particularly fond of the MCU). And no, I’m not someone who feels the need to enjoy female-centric studio films out of fear of being written off as sexist.
I adore Captain Marvel because I think it’s not just the prime example what comic book films could be and should be, but even a prime example of what blockbusters could be. It’s a film that succeeds in being 1) an unabashedly campy yet thoughtful work of science fiction (clearly influenced by Paul Verhoeven, the Wachowski sisters, and even Star Trek and Star Wars, with a dash of John Carpenter’s Starman thrown in); 2) a breezy buddy film (basically a significantly better directed and acted version of The Long Kiss Goodnight); 3) an intimate, small-scale human drama; and 4) a joyous portrait of courageous heroism that fully captures the hopeful and optimistic spirit of Richard Donner’s Superman — all simultaneously while being, at its core, a story of self-reclamation in the form of a beautiful and emotionally authentic character piece, with incredible subtext to boot. In addition to being a more than welcome breath of fresh air, Captain Marvel feels far more like something in the same vein as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy than something that is a part of the MCU, which is a huge compliment from me. There’s even a sense of Spielbergian awe and wonderment to be found in watching Carol fly up to space at the film’s conclusion.
The MCU’s most complete, complex, and satisfying offering, and as close as one of these films have come to being a genuine masterpiece. A bold work of artistic smuggling in a franchise that is very anti-art, and we will probably never get another MCU installment that is this subtextually/thematically rich ever again. Ambitious and sincere, a textbook example of what a comic book film should be. Truly one of the greatest tentpoles ever made.
Final tidbit: I love that Boden & Fleck brought Algenis Perez Soto on board for this (even if he didn’t have much screen time). He’s absolutely sublime in SUGAR, which is a criminally underseen masterpiece that more people need to see (and I say this as someone who does not normally care for baseball or sports films).