90’s kids have been waiting for this moment, when the decade of our coming-of-age would finally see the light of day as a “period” in cinema, complete with video stores, arcade scores, and Grunge to spare. Much like Generation X, the 90’s have always been a lost decade, seemingly devoid of personality or visual hallmarks when compared to the swingin’ sixties, disco seventies, and Reagan eighties. Now, on the heels of Mid 90’s and Captain Marvel, we’re far enough removed to look back and feel out what it meant and what it looked like, the time of Blockbuster and Nine Inch Nails. Marvel is enjoyable for more than its period trappings though, with star Brie Larson and Sam Jackson enjoying some classic buddy movie chemistry. With a great cast, cute cat, and visual panache, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Machine is one of the better ones.
Believe it or not, Marvel movies often look better on the small screen, the result of flat photography and gaudy effects appearing less noticeable and more colorful in the comfort of your own living room. This is the case for me when it comes to both Black Panther and Infinity War, big-budget smorgasbords that for some reason looked like TV adaptations when blown up to big IMAX. Not so with Captain Marvel, a nice surprise given Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s inexperience in the realm of science fiction extravaganza. Their images have weight, color, depth, all that good stuff we take for granted in the age of walking, talking aliens (Infinity War) and giant ants (Ant-Man and the Wasp). More than that, their story has weight. This no mere do-gooder v. evil-doer nonsense, with good guys and bad guys clearly outlined per Disney standards. Here, the good guys aren’t what they seem and vice versa. As evil doer Talos, Ben Mendelsohn is a hoot as a Skrull refugee with a hidden agenda, and as Kree idol Yon-Rogg, Jude Law exudes smarmy charisma. Annette Bening is a welcome presence always as an Air Force commander, ditto Clark Gregg reprising his role as the loyal Agent Coulson. Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou provide extended cameos as Kree radicals seen previously in Guardians of the Galaxy, but of course, it’s Larson and Jackson that bring the funny with their old/young and human/alien repartee. Stealing the picture is a wee cat named Goose who’s not what he seems. There’s a lot of that in this film and it pays off immensely. When they want to, Marvel knows how to subvert expectations quite nicely.
It’s ironic, or maybe intentional, that a film about a lost decade features a lost hero. Carol Danvers, former Air Force pilot, fancies herself a Kree warrior, completely oblivious to her former life on Earth. This makes for standard fish-out-of-water territory that somehow still works to this day, even after Thor and Wonder Woman went there already. Marvel excels most when tackling Carol’s amnesia head-on, especially when her former lifelong friend and co-pilot-in-crime Maria (Lashana Lynch) enters the picture. Marvel excels least when tackling silly Kree lore, such as a non-character like the Supreme Intelligence, an omnipotent being of some kind on their home planet Hala. Boden and Fleck give it all they’ve got, but their handle on visual effects is shaky when taken to the skies or the Supreme Leader’s ethereal lair. Naturally, they’re most assured in those quieter scenes set on Maria’s Louisiana acres, able to conjure Southern charm and twilight beauty out of thick air. Larson, for her part, is all smiles as young Carol Danvers and all business as part human, part Kree Vers. She’s a movie star until called upon to deliver monologues, in which case she suddenly turns wooden, like Keanu Reeves of old. It’s a strange contrast and suggests few too many takes for bigger scenes. Jackson’s wily badassery is in top form as a younger Fury not yet rendered totally cynical by the powers that be on Earth and elsewhere. And that de-aging effect is apparently seamless now, so realistic are the makeovers for Fury and Coulson.
All of this is to say that Captain Marvel might’ve been another assembly line superhero picture were it not for the little things. It’s not a brilliant script nor a breathtaking story, with editing choices that range from inspired (one girl power moment is actually moving) to hackneyed (one too many flashbacks), but it’s the little things that count. Good fundamentals can go a long way and Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and their entire cast have brought as much of their A-game as possible under the Marvel banner. Speaking of which, the opening logo here is a touching ode to the comics legend himself, Stan Lee, a fitting send-off as we approach the end of this era of Marvel cinema. Most of all, the advent of a new period piece sets it apart, giving voice to an entire generation who grew up with both pay phones AND smart phones. The eighties have been hott of late, but here come the nineties.