‘Captain Marvel’ is failure of imagination

Marvel Studios/Courtesy

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Grade: 1.5/5.0

On-screen representation is necessary, not only for the sake of equality for marginalized identities but also for entertainment. How many more times can one of four white guys named Chris star in a blockbuster? Hollywood has only recently seemed to catch onto this demand for diversity among audiences. The conundrum then is: is it enough of a victory for a woman to anchor a prospective megahit, even if it’s a featureless, innocuous mediocrity?

Perhaps yes, but there’s no shaking the disappointment of a squandered opportunity. 21 films into their ungodly continuum, Marvel Studios has finally decided to let a woman headline one corner of their cinematic universe. Belated and ballyhooed, “Captain Marvel” sells itself on the promise of a game changer for its franchise and proceeds to bend over backward for a brand-maintenance agenda. A failure of imagination, this textureless piece of plastic is so mechanically structured it’s been made uninhabitable to any artistry or panache.

When we first meet Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), she’s a military amnesiac going by the name of Veers. She fights the shape-shifting Skrulls alongside the Kree Starforce under the leadership of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), a dry and jaded mentor to Veers that patronizes her to restrain emotions in combat. After a rescue mission goes wrong, Veers escapes enemy forces and arrives in Clinton-era Los Angeles. Setting out to prevent the Skrull invasion she suspects is underway, Veers teams up with budding agent Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) to save the day and learn about who she was along the way.

After Veers calls her squadron for backup, Yon-Rogg quips to his squadron that the planet is a “shithole.” It’s an obvious punchline, but an accurate one in this case. It’s difficult to recall a time Los Angeles has looked worse on screen, and there are countless wannabe neo-noirs to compare to. Almost every scene on Earth looks like it was shot through murky dishwater, captured in an emaciated color palette where nothing is allowed to pop.

Of course, flat visuals and stone-age screenplays are standard for Marvel. These problems are made up for, in part, by sturdy lead performances. But Larson, an indie darling, makes for a surprisingly bland anchor. Having spent the decade espousing the political import of whatever role she takes on, she’s a fitting poster child for this shallow feminist parable on the vitality of emotions. A climactic scene in which the film cross-cuts between Danvers rising to her feet at various points in her life has all the soul of a commercial declaring “you’re powerful enough to buy our deodorant.”

There’s no resounding longing to this character, no curiosity or sense of loss she holds for her past. Instead, the film gestures toward universality through Larson’s aggravatingly emphatic delivery of any line indicating Danvers’ independence. This blanket empowerment narrative becomes actively troubling when it collides with the film’s championing of the United States Air Force (former members served as consultants during production). In a story featuring diasporas created by war, the gung-ho attitude is in particularly bad taste and directly negates Danvers’ own arc in which she liberates herself from tyrannizing military power.

But such a crippling (and ultimately harmful) contradiction is almost a side note when the surrounding product is so dreary. From the moment Danvers crash-lands into a Blockbuster, “Captain Marvel” leans on the horn of ‘90s antiquity jokes, wasting the audience’s time by playing things like a desktop computer’s buffering for laughs. Marvel’s scripts usually only achieve an approximation of witty banter rather than the genuine article, but these “back in my day” gags mark a new low for their comedy. It’s the kind of witless humor we should expect from lame uncles, not something with a price for admission.

“Captain Marvel” is far from the studio’s worst, but its strict acquiescing to perfunctory formula is a massive letdown considering the representation narrative behind it. At one point, the heroes decide to hide the Tesseract, one of the six shiny rocks Thanos scavenger-hunted in last summer’s abominable “Infinity War” in a “The Fonz” lunchbox. Is there a more emblematic image of the self-referential ouroboros that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe than this MacGuffin from another movie being wrapped up in an ironic pop citation?

Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].