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 tall. It delivers what it needed to, if not exactly pushing the envelope. As Marvel’s first female-led superhero film, it’s certainly taken its place as something with the legs to push through the next phase (or two) of the MCU. I personally cannot wait to see how Danvers ends up fitting in with the rest of the Avengers to (hopefully) deliver a photon-powered ass-whooping to Thanos in a few months. But for now, there’s a new Cap in town, and I’m looking forward to where the future takes her.
YANG: Russian Doll
If you’ve heard nothing else about Netflix’s latest series Russian Doll, it’s probably that it boasts similarities to Ivan Reitman’s beloved classic Groundhog Day. And that’s a fair comparison . . . at least at first glance. The 8-episode narrative chronicles the misadventures of misanthrope Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) as she relives the same night over and over until she reaches a catharsis that eventually breaks her free. So far, sounds like familiar “ground,” right?
But that’s really where the similarities end.
Like its namesake, Russian Doll delves ever further and further into the emotional core of its characters, deconstructing, dissecting, and discovering layers of nuance that even they themselves are wary to confront. The time and care taken to properly invest in each character is remarkable, as is the respect given to the acknowledgement of time loop paradoxes and the nature of reality. Fortunately, you’d don’t need a PhD in either psychology or quantum theory to follow the story, which is laid out in such an endearingly entertaining way as to gently guide its audience through the thematic and metaphysical landscapes.
Every bit of this feels like a personal passion project by its creators—and for Lyonne in particular. Serving as not only star but co-creator, co-writer, and even director of the finale, Lyonne demonstrates a wholehearted investment in the venture. Add to that the inescapable similarities between herself and her character, Nadia: both have a storied history with drugs, alienation, and a wicked wit. The demons that Nadia must exorcise are not dissimilar from Lyonne’s, and confronting them, painful as it may be, is a massive step forward for both performer and creation.
As an actress, Lyonne has perhaps never been better. Nadia’s impressive intelligence and insight make her self-destructive behavior all the more gut-wrenching to watch, as you know she’s smarter than this, but she just can’t help it. Numbing herself with booze, drugs, and random sexual encounters, she’s clearly a woman headed for disaster. And if that sounds dour, it is, to be sure; but the gallows humor and sweet twinkle in Lyonne’s eye keep the tone light even in the darkest parts.
Because to be clear: the show is funny. VERY funny.
There’s no way to really buy into such a ludicrous premise without something of a wink to the audience and a sense that all of this exists in a just-so-slightly askew universe. The biggest achievement of the series may be in the deft care by co-creators Leslye Headland (Sleeping with Other People) and comedic genius Amy Poehler (SNL, Parks and Recreation) to maintain a tone that seems to skate between comedy, tragedy, and pathos with such beautiful ease. Trust me, no easy feat.
But unlike Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, Nadia isn’t in this pickle alone. In a stroke of sheer brilliance, straight-laced Alan Zaveri (Charlie Barnett, Chicago Fire) is also living and dying each day over and over. And when he and Nadia meet, the questions, and the stakes, grow ever higher. What’s so enthralling is the dual dynamic between the two characters—quite literally opposites in just about every way. But just when you think you’ve solved the puzzle, new pieces appear, keeping you guessing til the end.
Barnett compliments Lyonne’s manic, confrontational style with a sweetly naïve calmness. They are a beautiful Yin and Yang and work perfectly together in their sheer dichotomy. But again, no character is never left with mere surface development, and as we get to know more about Alan, Barnett begins to layer his performance with ever more clues as to his fate. And by the end, you really feel that he and Nadia, two complete strangers before all this, truly need each other in ways neither could have ever predicted. The intertwining of their fates is not only exceptional characterization, but astoundingly insightful commentary on modern society as a whole.
And while Nadia and Alan may be the only two who recognize the loop, the rest of the cast is hardly standing around simply repeating lines and hitting the same marks repeatedly. Each finds clever and subtle ways to demonstrate a new reality, particularly the seemingly self-absorbed Maxine (Inside Amy Shumer’s Greta Lee) and go-with-the-flow Lizzie (Westworld’s Rebecca Henderson). Veteran thesp Elizabeth Ashley shines as Nadia’s aunt and surrogate mother, psychologist Ruth. Their relationship really sparks the progression toward revelation, as well as providing some of the most touching and heartfelt moments of the series.
Russian Doll somehow hits every note to pitch perfection, from character to story to goofy sight gag. The love and care is evident, much belying the sex, drugs, and silliness on the surface. It’s a show that makes you laugh as it makes you think. You can’t help but be sucked into this madcap world and its denizens. It’s done so well, and wrapped up so perfectly, I can’t conceive of how they might do a second season. But given the creative minds at the helm, I have no doubt that if it’s possible, these people can find a way. And if not, we will always have this season to happily watch again. Over. And over. And over.