On Captain Marvel

Given their dominant presence on the movie making stage, it seems startling to remind ourselves that it was only ten years ago that Marvel, fed up with iffy movies based on their successful characters, decided to take a wild leap into the void and actually make them themselves. Twenty movies on, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe a box office powerhouse that every other studio out there has tried to copy, with largely negative results, they show absolutely no sign of slowing down.

With Phase 3 of their masterplan drawing to a close and various lengthy contracts coming to an end, likely marking the final appearances of those characters in the MCU as their actors move on, Marvel are keen to get new players onto the board, giving them potential to carry on into Phase 4 and beyond, and also, one suspects, having faced some pretty justified criticism, improve their diversity a bit. Possibly starting with less actors named Chris.

With the character already acknowledged to be at the forefront of future plans, Captain Marvel is arguably one of their more important movies and, fortunately for them, they’ve pretty much nailed it.

Unlike most origin stories, where the lead gains their powers over the course of the film, Captain Marvel opens with “Vers”, the name she initially goes by, already in possession of her abilities and a member of an elite Kree strikeforce fighting a lengthy war against the Skrulls, a race of alien shapeshifters. And an unhealthy case of amnesia regarding her past, with some recurring nightmares that she can’t explain. The main body of the film deals with her struggle to figure out who she really is and how she got there. While not exactly ground-breaking, it does make for a pleasant switch from the usual approach.

The script is a good one. The first act comes across as a bit disjointed, which reflects the mental state of the protagonist, then solidifies as Vers crashlands on Earth (in 1995) and begins to discover her past life as human pilot Carol Danvers. The second act properly gets underway once Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, at this point in his history mostly a desk agent, shows up and the film settles into a buddy cop roadtrip for a while. From there it builds up to an entertaining finale that sets things up for a promising future for the character.

With the prospect of being the face of the MCU for the foreseeable future ahead of her, it’s good to know that Brie Larson, at least on the strength of this movie, appears to be up to the challenge. She does an excellent job of marking the character’s journey from the troubled-but-confident Vers, through a period of uncertainty as she begins to put together the truth, before gaining a newfound inner strength as she confronts her past and reclaims her true identity as Carol Danvers. Samuel L Jackson is his usual dependably reliable self as the younger Fury and the interplay between the two is enjoyably snarky throughout. Ben Mendelsohn is excellent as Talos, the commander of a Skrull infiltration team on Earth and Jude Law gets in some impressive scenery chewing as the leader of the Kree strikeforce. Lashana Lynch makes a strong bid for being the movie’s MVP as Carol’s old pilot best friend, with a mostly understated performance that provides some valuable grounding, both for the lead character and the movie as a whole, and Annette Bening gives an interestingly unsettling performance in a small but very key role. Stealing every scene he’s in, however, is Goose, Carol’s former mentor’s cat, who not only provides some excellent comic relief moments (seriously, who’d have pegged Nick Fury as a cat person), but also proves unexpectedly key at certain moments.

As I’ve commented before, with the work effects teams are capable of these days, it’s almost superfluous to comment on the quality of the special effects, and Captain Marvel is no exception. It would, however, be somewhat remiss not to comment on the de-aging work done on Samuel L Jackson to allow him to portray a Nick Fury fifteen or so years younger than we’ve seen him previously. Marvel have done de-aging work before for flashbacks, generally with considerable success, but this is the first time they’ve done it across an entire movie and it’s pretty much flawless throughout, to the point that you very quickly forget it’s happening. Slightly less successful is the work done on Clark Gregg, returning to the MCU films as Phil Coulson for the first time since the original Avengers. While generally fine in his brief appearances, there are a few moments where his appearance slips a bit into the uncanny valley, with a sense that something’s not quite right. But with Fury as the second lead on the film, it’s understandable that they’d put their focus there, and, with him, it totally works.

The period setting (and, yeah, it does feel a bit odd to refer to the 1990’s as “period”) is pretty impeccable. Sensibly the film doesn’t spend too much time trying to show this off, but does get at least one fairly decent gag out of it with what is, by modern standards, a painfully slow computer. The setting does allow them to throw in a pretty well-selected set of songs from the era, which complement a decent, if somewhat unmemorable soundtrack.

In a nutshell, Captain Marvel probably isn’t quite up there with the very best of the Marvel movies to date, but it does come close, and makes up for the rest by being flat-out entertaining for the whole runtime. A strong script is delivered well by a solid cast and the directors have a good eye, both during the action sequences and the quieter character moments. With less than two months until the character returns in Avengers: Endgame, it definitely feels like things are off to a good start.

Oh, and, for the record, if the alterations they’ve made to the Marvel Studios logo sequence for this film doesn’t make you choke up a little, you have no soul. So there…

On Thor: Ragnarok

Thor Odinson, Prince of Asgard and God of Thunder, has, from his first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, been one of my favourite Avengers.    Probably the driving force behind that has been Chris Hemsworth’s ability to take on what could be a very one-note character with, on occasion, some pretty bizarre lines, and sell it with a surprising level of sincerity.    Thor was a well-constructed origin story with a decent character arc that launched the character well – that it also got to launch Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, easily the best villain/anti-hero (delete as appropriate) in the MCU to date, was very much the icing on the cake.    Thor: The Dark World was somewhat less successful; somewhat ironically, it was hampered by Loki’s breakout success as a character, leading the filmmakers to add additional scenes with the character at the expense of the movie’s actual villain, who suffered badly by comparison.    Thor: Ragnarok aims to get things back on track and they have a secret weapon, Hemsworth’s excellent comic timing.

After his scene-stealing performance as Kevin, the spectacularly dim receptionist in Ghostbusters, it was quite obvious that Hemsworth knows how to sell a joke, and that’s something that director Taika Waititi mines for all it’s worth in what’s pretty much the flat-out funniest entry in the MCU to date.

Since we last saw him, Thor’s been roaming the universe, looking for clues relating to the Infinity Stones, with pretty much no success.    What he has picked up on, however, is that things are not going as they might back in Asgard and so he heads home to find that Odin is acting spectacularly out of character.    It’s pretty obvious what’s going on, so, unmasking Loki and dragging him along for the ride, Thor heads back to Earth to locate his father.    Unfortunately, with Odin out of the picture, certain entities that he was able to keep locked away are breaking out of their confinement and the very worst, Hela, the Goddess of Death, is coming back, armed with an epic-sized, and, as it happens, entirely justified grudge against Odin and, by extension, those who follow him.    When their initial encounter with Hela goes horribly wrong, Thor finds himself stranded halfway across the universe, fighting in a gladiatorial arena for the amusement of the crowd without his hammer, without allies and without a clue what Hela might be doing to his home.

A story that deals with such issues as gladiatorial combat, attempted genocide and the actual end of the world seems like an unlikely choice for an action-comedy, but Waititi fires up the humour from the first scene and gives it every chance to shine with a script that moves along fearlessly, never afraid to throw in some snark to lighten the tone.

The cast, for their part, are clearly having a blast.   Hemsworth and Hiddleston settle back into their characters with a relaxed ease, their easy chemistry making any scene with the two of them a highlight.     Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, now sporting quite the vocabulary (if not the grammatical skills) after two years solid Hulking, has an entertaining odd couple type dynamic with Thor, as does Bruce Banner, understandably confused after spending two years locked deep within the Hulk before emerging to find that not only is he on another planet, but, worse, the only available trousers are Tony Stark’s ridiculously tight ones.

The newcomers to the franchise don’t let the side down either.   The ever-excellent Cate Blanchett chews every bit of scenery she can get her hands on as Hela.   She’s a force of nature and eminently watchable, whether carving her way through her opponents with ease, or practically purring how much she missed it afterwards.    Jeff Goldblum is a surreal joy as the Grandmaster, sitting high above the fights in the arena that he arranges.    Waititi wisely gives him free rein with an extremely eccentric character and Goldblum runs wild with it, hitting hitherto unseen heights of Goldblumliness as he happily riffs on whatever situation presents itself.   Reportedly, something like eighty percent of the movie’s dialogue was improvised and you’d have to think that all of Goldblum’s stuff was, making it entirely plausible that the occasional confused looks on other characters when the Grandmaster is speaking are, in fact, completely real.    Giving both a run for their money, however, is the movie’s primary scene stealer, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie.   Or former Valkyrie, anyway, as the last surviving member of that proud group is now a hard-drinking bounty hunter working for the Grandmaster who wants nothing to do with Asgard any more.   By turns aggressive and sarcastic, she throws herself into any battle, physical or verbal, with a real “don’t care” attitude, but ultimately agrees to help out.

Visually, the movie is a real treat.   Asgard has always looked gorgeous on screen anyway, but Sakaar, the gladiatorial world where Thor and Loki end up, is no slouch either, albeit in a very different way.    It almost feels redundant to say that the effects work is top notch, but it’s fair to say that the effects teams really pulled out the stops on this one.   The Hulk has far more screen time than in any previous movie and he’s not the only major character in the movie to be fully CGI.    The environments of Sakaar are also astonishingly complex, as much of the planet is, effectively, a trash pile, picking up items from all over the universe, and I suspect that the eventual home media releases will prove to be a mine of Easter eggs spotting odd items that the effects wizards have thrown in there.

The movie does have one flaw, I think, and, ironically, given how much fun the humour is, it’s that sometimes it goes for the gag too quickly.    While the movie often feels like a rather light-hearted action piece, there are dark dramatic moments here that have a major effect on the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, changes that will have certain repercussions in later movies.    There’s a strong argument that such moments should be allowed a certain amount of time to sink in, to make their impact apparent, but the movie tends to almost immediately go for a joke, leading to multiple instances of mood whiplash and a sense that the story is less consequential than it actually is.   Still, too much humour is a pretty low level complaint in a movie that’s just good fun all through.

In the end, I loved Thor: Ragnarok.   It’s easily the best of the Thor movies and has a strong case to be among the best of Marvel’s releases to date.    Thor, along with several of his supporting cast, will be returning in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War, but it remains to be seen whether the character will get to headline another movie.    If not, at least he’s gone out on a major high.

On Spider-Man: Homecoming

It’s probably been a bit annoying to Marvel for some years that the movie rights to arguably their most prominent single character, Spider-Man, have been tied up at Sony for years.    Fortunately for both them and us, Sony’s own Spider-Man movies haven’t really been setting the box office alight lately and so, after what were no doubt some very complicated behind-the-scenes discussions, the two companies are teaming up to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When we first saw this particular incarnation of Spider-Man, he was being brought in by Tony Stark to help fight Captain America and his recruits during the events of Captain America: Civil War.    After a brief prologue set shortly after the Battle of New York (as seen in The Avengers) and an entertaining and offbeat recap of the events of Civil War, courtesy of Peter’s video diary, Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up after Peter’s return home from his first taste of large-scale superheroics and follows him as he tries to figure out what he’s supposed to do now.

Peter’s main problem, as the movie opens, is basically boredom, going back to the smaller scale crime-fighting after going into battle with the Avengers.   He phones up Stark on a daily basis wanting to know when his next big assignment’s coming – unfortunately for him, Tony, who’s clearly less than comfortable with the whole mentor thing, has passed him off onto the long-suffering Happy Hogan, who tends to either cut things short, or just ignore his calls altogether.    Neglecting his school activities to focus on crime-fighting, he runs into a group of crooks using highly advanced weaponry.   Eager to prove himself, he sets out to track down the source of the weapons and, inevitably, gets in way over his head.

With this being the third iteration of Spider-Man to hit our screens in the last fifteen years, Marvel and Sony had to make this a good one and, fortunately, that’s exactly what they’ve done.    Introducing the character in Civil War was something of a masterstroke, giving us a look at him early to boost excitement for what is, when it comes down to it, a reboot, something that audiences are prone to shying away from these days.

Their other best move was casting Tom Holland, who’s genuinely pitch perfect in the lead role, in a way that previous portrayers Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield never quite managed to reach.   It helps that he’s by some distance the closest in age to the character of the three, but he absolutely nails both aspects of the character, the would-be hero and the enthusiastically geeky young man behind it all.

Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark was, somewhat understandably, extremely prominent in the advertising campaign for the film, leading to a degree of concern that he might rather overshadow proceedings, but, fortunately, he’s only in the actual movie for maybe ten to fifteen minutes.   He gets some meat to play with, as Stark wrestles with the self-created problem of what to do with Peter, whether to encourage him or not, and Downey Jr handles it well.    Michael Keaton takes on villainous duties as Adrian “The Vulture” Toomes, who starts out in the prologue as an honest man running a salvage company who get the contract to clean up the mess after the Chitauri assault on New York, investing heavily in new equipment to do so.   When the contract is snatched away from him by the newly-formed Department of Damage Control, a collaboration between the government and, inevitably, Tony Stark, leaving him in financial ruin, he and his workers start to use the salvaged Chitauri technology to build advanced weapons to sell for profit.   While unquestionably a villain, Toomes is portrayed throughout as a man whose main goal is to provide for his family, which gives him an unusually sympathetic air which is quite welcome.

Quite a bit of the movie focuses on Peter’s interactions with his schoolmates, to the extent that the movie occasionally feels like an homage to John Hughes.   Most prominent is Ned, Peter’s best friend and confidante, played winningly by Jacob Batalon in only his second movie role.    He and Holland have terrific chemistry, making their scenes something of a highlight.    The rest of the school ensemble are strong as well, working well to make their scenes an integral part of the movie, rather than a distraction from the main events.

What the movie doesn’t focus on, quite sensibly, is any attempt to retell the character’s origin story.   Vague hints are dropped here and there without ever feeling blatant, but the filmmakers are clearly well aware that most of their target audience likely have a reasonable awareness of his origin and that, for the purposes of this movie, it doesn’t really matter, to say nothing of the fact that including it would badly disrupt the film’s well-judged pacing.

It almost goes without saying at this point that the effects work is terrific and the action sequences well thought out.   Some helpful realism also creeps in occasionally – while previous Spider-Men never seemed to have any difficulty finding something to swing from when needing to travel, there are moments here which acknowledge that not everywhere has a conveniently high building around, leading to Peter occasionally having to run through parks to get to where he needs to be.   It’s a nice touch, and rest assured that there’s plenty of webslinging the rest of the time.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is another in a long line of solid, fun movies coming out of Marvel.   There really aren’t any major flaws that I felt the movie has, making for a very entertaining viewing experience.    After his brief but highly effective introduction in Civil War, the new Spider-Man has really hit the ground running, and hopefully there’s lots more to come from him.