Captain Marvel ★½

Once upon a time, my little brother showed me a card trick. It was a pretty good card trick, too; if the qualitative criteria for such things consist of fooling one’s audience, the trick was an undeniable success. Then, excited by his triumph, he showed it to me again. This time, I got it. It was a simple trick, it turns out, and one that had no chance of withstanding repeated scrutiny. One could still say, however, that I enjoyed it the second time. One could not say I enjoyed it the following five times — because of course, it was the very same card trick, played again and again to identical results. I may have selected first the Nine of Spades, then the Two of Hearts, then the Ace of Clubs, but the punch line never varied. As card tricks go, that one was a one-hit wonder.  

I feel that this anecdote fairly summarizes my relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. True, I really love much of Phases I and II — both The Avengers and Age of Ultron will always act as unabashed personal comfort cinema, and Doctor Strange (Marvel’s last really great film), was immensely refreshing in both its crackling visuals and its philosophical bent — but a little over half of the MCU just completely fails to captivate me on any level. The reason? They’re all the same. Tonally, visually, structurally, musically, they’re all equally mediocre products that circumvent mastery not through reaching and missing it, but through failure to even attempt it. No matter how far the Marvel Canon expands, no matter how many new characters receive introductions and origin stories, no matter how groovy the soundtrack or explosive the color pallette, every Marvel film is united under a frustratingly monotonous banner of homogeneity. 

As such, there’s nothing fresh or new or insightful I can bring to the table to describe my lack of passion for Captain Marvel, the latest dosage of superhero fatigue. It, like too many of its predecessors, floats in an unrewarding no-man’s-land (pun) between style and substance, declining to provide either and making one realize that, for all his faults, at least Zack Snyder commits fully to one side of the spectrum. The opportunity for a thrillingly distinctive musical theme is, as in Black Panther, hinted at then casually discarded. The visual effects violently fluctuate between brief moments of stunning superficial glory and washed out flagrancy. The problem is that criticism of this particular film applies equally well to at least ten of its interconnected sibling pictures, and in the end, discussing the shortcomings of the MCU becomes redundant and pointless. 

Despite my obviously negative overall takeaway, I can’t decline to enforce how great one aspect of Captain Marvel is: the acting. Brie Larson carries this film like the very best of the Avengers, catapulting her Carol Danvers into the top tier of alter-ego performances, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill being most notable. She plays her character with both light-hearted charm and fuming glory, turning on a dime to deliver a quip then blasting away with a savage snarl. Samuel L. Jackson is, of course, wonderful, his remarkably realistic computer-generated de-aging giving us a taste of a younger, two-eyed Nick Fury (someone, it seems, with a soft spot for the feline species). And then there’s Ben Mendelsohn, whose highly humorous turn as shape-shifting alien has you doubting his true villainy before the plot follows suit. 

So, there it is. If Captain Marvel were a playing card, it couldn’t be anything other than a Queen whose suit is super. It’s an undeniably awesome card, but that isn’t the issue. It’s that we’ve seen this trick now twenty-one times — and I’m about ready to reshuffle the deck. 

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