I wonder what it’s like to be ten years old today. A ten-year-old today was born in 2009, the year after Marvel began its now twenty-one film series of films that culminates in this year’s Avengers: Endgame. Today’s ten-year-old has never known a world where the MCU wasn’t the main thing that movies are. I wonder what that’s like. (An aside: this year, adults born after 9/11 can vote.)
I started reviewing movies in 2011. Thor was the first Marvel movie I reviewed. I have found my voice as a critic writing about these movies, among others. They have always been with me, as they have always been with those ten-year-olds I wonder about.
I’ve seen in a theater and written or podcasted about every film in this series except for Guardians of the Galaxy 2. You may not have noticed that I don’t review movies about which I have nothing positive to say. The MCU blossomed concurrently with the widespread adoption of social media. The old adage “all press is good press” seems especially true in the socially mediated milieu, so we either add our voices to the unintelligible sound swirling around a cultural object and help lift it in our feeds or we do not. For any pleasures Guardians of the Galaxy 2 contains, I don’t think it’s worth anyone’s time, because of its careless, gleeful streak of violence. I’m hardly a prude, but I struggle to abide the wanton destruction of life for the sake of entertainment. It undercuts all attempts at genuine, relatable, down-to-earth, not maudlin, human sentiment, a thing I’ve always thought these Marvel movies excelled at along with their friendly sense of humor. The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie had both those things in spades (and only one distressing moment of ultra violence), and that’s what made the sequel so repugnant to me.
I think those two things, genuine sentiment and a friendly sense of humor, are connected. They’re aspects of the same thing – congeniality. For all their world-destroying lava monsters, worm holes, and sociopathic artificial intelligences, that’s what these Marvel movies at their best are – they’re congenial. “Con,”with + “genial,” the people. That was Stan Lee’s genius way back in the 1960s – human-sized problems amongst superhuman people, the mundane and the marvelous in one, the simple and the symbol merge, each dignified by the other. The Marvel Congenial Universe.
In its finest moments, Captain Marvel is congenial as anything Marvel has ever done. It’s so relaxed, it’s almost a hang-out movie. There’s a sense of nonchalance about the whole thing, a givenness, like looking through an old yearbook on a sunny afternoon knowing that freckle-faced, red-head in braces near the top of the page, third-from-the-right ends up okay. Perhaps that’s because of where it arrives in this series of films, after Infinity War but before Endgame. Carol Danvers is going to make it out of this alright and ready to receive Nick Fury’s intergalactic page and come to the rescue. She has to. Otherwise, what are we watching?
And yes, I do mean to imply that the movie is about as urgent as all that too, which is to say it veers toward boring, but it never gets all the way there. Marvel is too good at this thing it created by now. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon.
I’m still not sure what to make of the way Brie Larson plays Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. She’s so professional, she’s almost cold. She’s not though. I kind of feel like I’d like her once I got to know her. There’s an openness there just below the chiseled exterior. She aches to let her hair down. She’s the weather-whipped cowgirl; the softball team’s catcher with skinned-up shins; the sun-bleached, thrice-divorced, tequila-soaked woman of a certain age giving as good as she gets from the bikers who frequent the high desert bar where she goes to escape the heat in the corrugated steal barn where she make art out of scrap metal. Her body remembers what that’s like to dance, but its been a while since she had the opportunity. Maybe Brie Larson is just right for that part. Her Carol/Captain Marvel isn’t like anyone else in the MCU. After twenty-one films, that’s a feat.
It’s a shame it took so many films to get her in the mix, because she’s saddled with a cultural burden she ought not have to bear. Captain Marvel makes good use of the fact that this is the first film in the MCU with a female protagonist, but it’s hardly subtle. At least it’s occasionally funny. It shouldn’t be so thrilling to see a woman be a superhero, because it ought to be something we’ve seen like this more than once before. I wish this movie could just be alt-Star Trek, B-movie fun instead of being capital “I” Important. The best parts of Captain Marvel are goofy fun, like Ben Mendelsohn’s playing the alien “” like something out of Dickens’ rogue gallery or Larson and Samuel L. Jackson’s quick chemistry. But for the sake of all those ten-year-olds who have been watching these movies their whole lives without ever seeing a female protagonist save the day, I’m happy to cheer this movie for all it is. You can’t overestimate the power of representation in an entry in a series that for many is as good as it gets.