YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Captain Marvel / Russian Doll

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

By Derek May:

YIN: Captain Marvel

Marvel continues its tradition of exploring the lesser-known heroes of its pantheon and bringing them to life in the grandest of ways. Much like my experience when Guardians of the Galaxy first got its greenlight, I had little to no idea who Captain Marvel was other than confusing her with DC’s identical title (itself soon to be released cinematically under the name Shazam!). Leading up to Marvel’s release, however, I did a little digging into its past, enough to realize that not only does this Captain have a long and storied history, but has taken quite the winding road to this point.

But for most audiences, all you need to know is that while this new film offers a few nods back to those nascent origins, it mostly embraces the most modern take from the comics . . . despite being set in 1995.

The quick and non-spoilery setup has Carol Danvers (Oscar winner Brie Larson) waking up on the distant homeworld of the alien Kree Empire—foe to the shapeshifting Skrulls—with no memories of her former life . . . and sporting a nifty set of new, mysterious powers. Over the course of her adventure, she must learn who she is, what she’s fighting for, and embrace her role as one of the most powerful beings in the cosmos.

It’s a majestic stage for an epic tale, and yet, the film itself is relatively standard fare. Certainly not a dud by any stretch, but given the ever-rising bar of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain Marvel is a solid, fun romp, but offers a mostly straightforward experience akin to some of the studio’s earlier entries.

Perhaps part of that feeling stems from the dual nature of the film. With one foot in photon-blasting cosmic adventure and one foot in intimate, character-driven quiet, the film has a certain ebb and flow that mirrors more of a boat swaying at sea than a white-knuckle roller-coaster. That’s not a dig, as the narrative certainly has a steady and progressive pace, as well as a couple interesting twists and turns. But now and again some of the humor misses the beat, and some of the more audacious choices are controversial at best, flat-out misguided at worst (more on that later). In addition, there’s the matter of subtraction: there’s obviously a wealth of story points left on the cutting room floor that might have been better served back in, as more than one plot point required just a few more lines of clarification.

But its greatest achievement is its characterizations. From the top down, each person is given a rich and honest exploration. Which I have to say was a welcomed relief. Based on the trailers, I was more than a little concerned at how Larson was going to portray Danvers. The little I knew of the character showed her as a typical sort of adrenaline junkie ace pilot with a wicked sense of humor. With so much emphasis on action and the amnesia storyline, I was worried she might come across too alien (at least at the start). But my fears were immediately allayed within the first few minutes. Larson clearly knows this character, and within the mire of mental confusion still manages to hit each of those integral character notes. Like Robert Downey, Jr. with Tony Stark or Chris Hemsworth with Thor, the filmmakers have allowed a lot of Larson’s own personality to seep through Danvers. She’s a total badass with superpowers, and yet easily recognizable as someone you might simply hang out with, or better yet, befriend and know she’d have your back in a bar scrap. Larson balances the many aspects of such a powerful being, grounding Danvers in her humanity, not her abilities.

Her partner in crime is no slouch either. With Samuel L. Jackson having played Nick Fury for over a decade now, you’d think he’d just about mined all there is to the man. But with Captain Marvel’s mid-90’s setting, we get to see a younger, less-self-assured Fury. Digitally de-aged with such precision that you completely forget it’s happened, Jackson gets to explore a somewhat lighter side to the future one-eyed hero, a man who had yet to encounter such powerful alien forces. Thus his journey here is revelatory, leading Fury from a man leading a relatively mundane life (for a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent) to someone who truly understands the larger implications of Earth’s, and humanity’s, place in the universe. All the while, Jackson is able to keep a certain light-heartedness to the situation, and while obviously dealing with things out of his experience, never becomes completely overwhelmed.

One note that I simply must address is the ultimate revelation of what happened to Fury’s eye. I won’t give it away here, but I will say that most people seem to hate the choice that was made, and I can’t say I disagree. I get why the decision was made, and sure there’s a certain poetic humor to it, but much like with Thor: Ragnarok, you can only change the nature of the character so much before it just doesn’t jive with what’s been previously established. I think this will go down as one of Marvel’s biggest regrets.

The rest of the troupe are all wonderfully dynamic in their respective roles. I wasn’t familiar with Lashana Lynch before this, but her turn here as Danvers’s very human sister-in-arms, Maria Rambeau, is impressive. Being the truest outsider of the band, Rambeau grounds the film in the human perspective, and Lynch delivers as friend, mother, warrior, and confidant. She manages to help and support Danvers through her perils with compassion and understanding, and you feel the bond between them almost immediately.

Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) has become the new go-to British bad guy, but I think his relaxed, less-stuffy approach across his recent films has distinguished himself as a more relatable and human antagonist—dare I say, akin to a modern-day Alan Rickman. As the Skrull leader Talos, he gets a chance to bring far more to the role than might seem at first glance, and the direction they take with the character is refreshing and surprising. That being said, Mendelsohn’s relaxed take has a downside, as the alien seems to have far too comfortable a grasp on human speech and attitude to really FEEL alien. Sure, there are some potentially plausible reasons for this, but they are never addressed, and are sometimes contradicted, and therefore the character loses a certain otherness in the over-translation.

Annette Bening takes a break from her more arthouse fare of late to tackle a vital role in this blockbuster. I truly don’t want to say too much, other than Bening shines in whatever capacity she exists on screen. And though her overall appearances are relatively brief, she has a major impact on both the story and the characters, enough that I truly wish there was more (and suspect there may be somewhere).

Likewise, Jude Law finally joins his Sherlock Holmes partner Downey in the MCU as Danvers’s commander and mentor, Yon-Rogg. Law uses that suave, disarming charm to endear himself to those around him while still believably kicking ass as necessary. Rounding out the rest are returning thesps Clark Gregg as a rookie Agent Coulson and duo Djimon Hounsou as Korath and Lee Pace as Ronan reprising their respective roles from the first Guardian’s film, and who may have yet larger roles to come.

In fact, while this is certainly crafted as a complete film, the stage for sequels existing between this and the first Iron Man is well set. And perhaps, that’s also somewhat of the issue. Captain Marvel has a clear beginning, middle, and end, but there are plenty of questions left unanswered and issues left unresolved. As such, the film as a whole feels somewhat threadbare in certain regards, surprising for a film with five credited writers. But again, taking what we have, the directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have done an admirable job introducing Danvers and her universe. Spectacle aside, the most important question is how much you care about the characters and their plight, and I think audiences will appreciate and understand this new hero.

With such a massive and successful repertoire, there are bound to be fans who will quibble and rank these films to no end. And, hell, that’s part of the fun! Captain Marvel isn’t likely to make too many’s top few in the series, but it has the right to stand t