Captain Marvel (2019)

CaptainDirectors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, and Lashana Lynch

Ever since that cryptic page sent by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the post-credit scene from Avengers: Infinity War, people have been saying…”Who’s Captain Marvel?” That is an epic question in itself. Those familiar with the Marvel Comics origin of Captain Marvel know it is a strange one. The first Captain Marvel dates back to 1939 as a fictional comic book superhero from the now defunct Whiz Comics. Whiz and Captain Marvel were put on the back burner after DC Comics sued the publisher over Captain Marvel’s similarity to Superman in the 1950s. Marvel Comics eventually developed a trademark on their own character named Captain Marvel in the 1960s with the caveat that in order to retain the trademark, they’d need to publish a Captain Marvel title at least once every two years, leading to DC eventually rename their iteration Shazam, a character that is also getting the cinematic treatment this year. But that’s not all! Marvel’s Captain Marvel went through 6 different versions before finally arriving as the Carol Danvers version that we have now!

Ok, so now that we have that out of the way, who’s Captain Marvel and what is this movie all about? Captain Marvel is centered around Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson), a U.S. Air Force pilot who through a series of events is recruited to an elite team of alien warriors called the Kree on the planet of Hala. Danvers develops superpowers under the tutelage of her mentor and commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). With the Kree, Danvers (known as Vers to her Kree comrades), helps fight in an ongoing war against a group of alien shapeshifters known as the Skrulls. The tricky bit is somewhere along the line, Vers (Danvers) has forgotten any and all of her life on Earth save for some disturbing nightmares featuring a woman (Annete Bening) she recognizes but cannot place. During a botched rescue operation, the Skrull commander, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) capture Vers and tortures her for answers about the Kree as they make way to Earth with the plan to find a scientist who may be the key to helping them develop a quantum drive that would give them the edge in the battle against the Kree. Vers manages to escape only to crash land in Los Angeles. It is here that we discover that it is the 1990s, and Vers’s spectacle of an entrance draws the attention of (much younger) S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Now it’s a race against time as Vers teams up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop the Skrulls from obtaining the quantum drive. Another battle – one of identity – also ensues as Vers’s sudden appearance on Earth begins to uproot some repressed memories of her previous life on Earth, some of which may affect the future of the universe! So the stakes are high.

Captain Marvel is a very fun movie, and much credit for its success goes to Larson, who really carves out a character here that could fall flat with the wrong performer in the role. She is charismatic and all-in on this performance, which is no surprise given she’s an Oscar winner for her work in the intensely gripping film Room. Captain Marvel certainly is a pivot from Room, but Larson’s versatility shows here that she’s a bankable and playful actress who will elevate a film. Her chemistry with Jackson, Mendelsohn, and Danvers’s best friend Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch) is contagious, helping the audience feel much more connected to the film’s events.

In addition to the performances, the action and story are on point as well. I think there were some heightened expectations that this film would provide more clues and explanations associated with the fateful climax of Avengers: Infinity War, but Captain Marvel is an origin story film and it takes place well before Thanos started outfitting that gauntlet with infinity stones. That being said, Captain Marvel is not without some nuance in providing a few answers to some questions within the MCU. Several of which can be attributed to the scene-stealing break-out star of the film, Goose. I’ll say no more. If there’s one other scene-stealer of note worth mentioning, it’s the late, great Stan Lee. 2019 will mark the last year of Stan Lee Marvel film cameos. Captain Marvel, Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home all feature appearances by the comic legend, and this one from Captain Marvel is a real gem.

Finally, for some reason, there’s an unfair amount of pressure on this movie due to its milestone status of being the first MCU film with a woman in the lead. This kind of treatment is the ignorant equivalent of saying, “Wait, women can be superheroes too?” The subversive and powerful impact of Black Panther is not part of the mission with Captain Marvel, nor should it be. Of course art is reflective, and so releasing a giant film like this will be part of a cultural conversation, but it really should only be a positive one. If the movie was not good, it should not be used as some kind of barometer test for a larger gender-based agenda. Fortunately the movie is good, and Captain Marvel is cool, so girls and women will be proud and inspired by that. No need to harp on it or heap tons of pressure on it. Ok, end of moderate politically correct rant.

If there is a flaw in the film, it’s the challenge of balancing the Earth story with the Kree story. Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg is somewhat squandered and lost in the sauce once Vers leaves Hala. There’s an obvious desire to tap into some of that Guardians of the Galaxy space opera cache, but it doesn’t quite work. The movie really soars with its Earth storyline, and when it soars it is a blast! A-

Captain Marvel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 4 minutes.

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Doctor Strange

dr_strangeDirector: Scott Derrickson

Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Benedict Wong

If you’re like me, you watched 12 years a Slave in 2013 and during the scenes between Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Benedict Cumberbatch as plantation owner, William Ford, you thought – man these two guys would be great in a superhero film. Well, rejoice because just 3 years later, Doctor Strange is that film. But don’t rejoice too much because in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film ranks at the bottom of my list. It has also been 3 years since Thor: The Dark World, which is the last time I wrote a sub-par review of a Marvel film, coincidentally. I think it was Jimmy Stewart who said, “Every time a Cumberbatch/Ejiofor film opens, a Marvel film will suck.” Something like that. Well, now two worlds collide, creating a Cumberbatch-paradox the like of which has never been seen since Cumberbatch solved the enigma code!

Doctor Strange answers the question: What if Tony Stark was a surgeon? Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a successful New York surgeon with an ego the size of Stark Tower. When distracted driving turns deadly, Strange is laid up in a hospital with irreparable damage to his hands essentially ending his medical career. Friend and fellow surgeon, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) attempts to comfort him, but she’s about as successful as Pepper Potts was at convincing a dejected Tony Stark to stop making robots. When Strange catches wind that a previously untreatable paralytic patient of his is suddenly miraculously recovered, he investigates leading him on a journey to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu to find The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), in the hopes that he can be healed and resume his surgical supremacy.  The Ancient One sees more in Strange than a surgeon however and agrees to teach him despite his arrogance. Under the teachings of the Ancient One and another sorcerer named Mordo (Ejiofor), Strange learns that the Earth is protected from other dimensions by three mystical sanctums in three separate global locations, and it is the job of the sorcerers to protect these sanctums.  He also learns the ancient spells that allow him to access various panes and dimensions of existence permitting him to bend space and time to open portals of access throughout the planet (and maybe beyond based on the post-credit scenes).

tilda
Opening interdimensional portals with Kate McKinnon as The Ancient One on SNL
A technique also taught by Kate McKinnon as Tilda Swinton on Saturday Night Live during Cumberbatch’s monologue on the November 5th, 2016 episode. Much of this ancient knowledge is under the protection of the Librarian, whose name is Wong (Benedict Wong).

What did the Librarian say when he was asked if it was fun playing Sherlock Holmes on TV?  

-You have the Wong Benedict!
 A previous apprentice named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has recently gone rogue, slaying the previous Librarian and stealing an ancient spell that could destroy the sanctums and unlock the power of the Dark Dimension. Now Strange must battle Kaecilius to protect the Earth from what lies in the Dark Dimension.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Strange? Not everything. I’d like to take a moment in this review to say I still rather enjoyed Doctor Strange. I also did like parts of Thor: The Dark World; I gave it a B-, but Marvel has set the bar so high, that films that sink to the bottom still have merit. Visually, this is the most ambitious and dazzling film in all 14 Marvel films. Clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the sequences of inter-dimensional shifting and battles are breathtaking and outstanding, so kudos director Scott Derrickson who leaves his horror comfort zone behind for sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster territory. Still, like Barack Obama said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Oddly enough, many of the same problems I had with Thor: The Dark World are present in Doctor Strange. The film plays with so many already established archetypes and story devices, for the first time I experienced the feeling that some of this is getting old. I enjoyed Cumberbatch as the title character and I can easily picture some incredible opportunities for his character and powers in other films. Still as far as his stand-alone film, it suffers from too much, “been there, done that.” Another male, egotistical genius battling his arrogance for enlightenment. Another intergalactic time and space mess characteristic of Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which share the bottom ranking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange. Another recycled hero cycle story-line. It remains clear that the most attention was spent on the digital effects this time around, as opposed to punching up the dialogue, plot, and placement in terms of the other films in the franchise. The climax, however was quite clever. Still, I’d be far more excited to see Stephen Strange become a Bruce Banner-type who is an endearing and forceful player in the overall universe, but not in his own films. Of course, here we are going into the film’s second weekend and it’s projected to cross the $400 million mark at the global box office, so Doctor Strange 2 is an inevitability.

So what grade does the #14 out of 14 MCU films get from The People’s Critic? The clever climax and impressive effects are bogged down by the slow-paced second half, recycled content, and flat characters. Therefore, for the first time, I have to dig through the Basement and award a Marvel film a C+

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes. There are two post-film scenes: one mid-way through the credits, and another after the credits, both of which are marginally important enough to endure the 10 minute credits to see.

Captain America: Civil War

CWDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely  

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olson, Paul Bettany, Paul Rudd, and Daniel Brühl

What’s left to say about a movie that within 2 weeks has amassed a $940 million global box office and taken the Marvel Cinematic Universe above the $10 billion mark?  Generally, my goal in writing these reviews is to recommend worthy films for my audience in the hopes of aiding the decision on what to see.  Whenever one of these massively popular films is released, it seems silly to review it.  I mean people that want to see Captain America: Civil War will see it regardless of what any number of critics say.  So then, why write about it?  What’s my motivation? In this case, I think the story is less the film and more to discuss its place in the company of the 12 other films that have been released in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).  Of course, I still find it useful to identify the good and the bad about the film and offer a summative recommendation, but given that most of my readers have probably already seen this film if they are going to, I want to offer something a little extra as well.

So, what are the “12 other films” that accompany Captain America: Civil War? It’s important to make that distinction.  For the purposes of this article, The X-Men films, Spider-Man films, Fantastic Four Films, and Deadpool will not be considered.  The 13 films pertinent to this discussion are those planned out by Marvel studios starting with 2008’s Iron Man and include the following: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and Captain America: Civil War.

So now that we’ve identified the players, I will take a moment to review the latest film in the franchise and discuss its place in the field.

Captain America: Civil War is less a Captain America film and more a third Avengers film.  All of the key players are present in this film except Thor and the Hulk, and the events of the film are an immediate continuation from the action of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The principle conflict revolves around a global agenda to put the Avengers under United Nations supervision. Tolerance for the devastation and civilian casualties that have resulted from Avenger-related battles has been exhausted, and at least one Avenger, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) agrees with the idea of putting the Avengers in check.  Stark’s persuasive and personal reasons cause a stir in the once unified Avenger team, but his words fall on deaf ears when it comes to Captain “America” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans).  Rogers believes that any supervision of the Avengers will only result in corruption and ineffectiveness.  Suddenly an ideological divide is struck that threatens to tear the Avengers apart from within.

The film does a pretty good job of introducing the conflict and representing both sides, although the reasoning for why one Avenger takes this side versus that side is ultimately rather arbitrary.  What is certain is that a line has been drawn (actually quite literally in one scene) and our heroes must navigate some rocky moral terrain.  While the main “villain” of this film is philosophical in nature, there is a human antagonist  named Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) an ex Sakovian Colonel with some dark secrets and control of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

This film is less distinctive from the rest of the pack than its predecessor, Captain America: Winter Soldier.  The thrilling political conspiracy that threaded through the Winter Soldier is replaced by a more standard “Comic Booky” genre story.  Subsequently, the action is a bit shakier this time around, regardless of the fact that Winter Soldier directors Anthony and Joe Russo helmed this film as well.  Nevertheless, the Russo brothers do direct the hell out of this film showing their range with expertly crafted chase sequences as well as some heavy emotional material.

Another plus is that like Winter Soldier, the story remains mostly rooted in reality, and Captain America’s motives continue to be protecting his homeland at all costs.  Additionally, Civil War boasts three outstanding achievements that no Marvel film before it has managed thus far.  First, it introduces two of the best new characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man, both slated to receive upcoming stand-alone films) and does it with panache!  I’ll leave the details about these new characters out so not to spoil anything for the rare reader who has yet to see this film, but both are quite satisfying and Spider-Man especially receives a worthy reboot after some questionable recent attempts by Sony Pictures. Second, the “Civil War” battle is a remarkable scene. This scene replaces the “Battle of New York” from Marvel’s Avengers as the Infinity Stone in the Marvel crown. DC executives responsible for Batman v. Superman should take notes on how Marvel succeeds at fighting internal conflict with external conflict! Third, Captain America: Civil War manages to give all of its cast members room to breathe and make a memorable and worthwhile contribution.  No character is squandered, and as I alluded to earlier, this film explores some emotional depth but uses just the right amount of levity and humor to maintain an even tone.  Captain America: Civil War advances Marvel’s epic storyline yet another step forward and the Russo Brothers prove to be worthy of inheriting the Avengers mantle from Joss Whedon for the upcoming Infinity War films. A-

Captain America: Civil War is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 27 minutes.  As usual, stick around through the credits for two additional scenes….

…and now in keeping with the Marvel cinematic tradition, I have a “post-credits” stinger for you!

The Top 13 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films According to The People’s Critic:

  1. Captain America: The Winter SoldierA
  2. Iron Man 3A
  3. Marvel’s The Avengers – A-
  4. Captain America: Civil WarA-
  5. Iron ManA-
  6. Avengers: Age of UltronA-
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger – B+
  8. Thor – B+
  9. Ant-ManB+
  10. Iron Man 2B
  11. The Incredible Hulk – B
  12. Thor: The Dark WorldB
  13. Guardians of the Galaxy – B-

Average score for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2016) – B+

Feel free to sound off in the comments section about my rankings.  Did I get it right?  Are you a Guardians of the Galaxy fan who wants to give me a piece of your mind?