Archive for August 4th, 2019

Aug 04 2019

Captain Marvel Review: 1.5 Stars Out of 5

Published by under Writing Articles

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1. I think the kindest way to interpret Captain Marvel is as a much worse version of Guardians of the Galaxy. But everything that Guardians of the Galaxy relied on (a charismatic lead, excellent support characters, emotional variety, humor, dialog and suspense) is noticeably below average for Captain Marvel. E.g. Rocket is a huge upgrade vs. Maria – Rocket has enough personality to create interesting scenes with virtually anybody in the MCU, whereas Captain Marvel does not get the side support she needs from any of her surrounding characters. (Not that Captain Marvel herself is without fault for this disaster – Groot arguably has more emotional depth and as many memorable lines as she does, and he’s a tree with a 5 word vocabulary).

2. Unless you give Captain Marvel a LOT of points for being the first MCU superheroine movie, it’s not the best MCU movie at anything besides most glowing hair scenes or most useless side-characters. If you are inclined to give Captain Marvel a lot of points for having a female protagonist, I’d recommend checking out Wonder Woman, The Incredibles, Alien(s), Terminator, Hunger Games, Battlestar Galactica, the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. They’re a lot better than this.

2.1. If at any point you feel like your action movie would benefit from a character whose main role in-scene is to hold a cat, get back to rewrite.

3. The opening takes ~10 minutes to establish that the 95% emotionless Carol is expected to take it up to 100% and that there’s a war going on with the Skrulls. First, this is unnecessarily long for this material, and getting through the Hala scenes quickly would probably improve the pacing of the movie. Second, this setup pushes Carol in a noticeably less interesting direction. “There’s nothing more dangerous to a warrior than emotion.” Okay, but there’s almost nothing more dangerous to a protagonist than having no emotion. You can be a very serious combatant and still radiate adventure and excitement and charm – see Wonder Woman, Thor, Gamora, Tony Stark, etc.

3.1. One Kree soldier mentions to Carol that it was disturbing seeing a shapeshifter take his appearance. CAROL: “Maybe if you were more attractive it would be less disturbing.” SOLDIER: “You think you’re funny, but I’m not laughing.” Carol’s one-liner is alright, but there was an opportunity here for a better followup, if the story hadn’t handicapped itself using a “No emotion/humor allowed” planet.

3.2. There’s an early scene with Carol and the Supreme Intelligence, but they’re probably not able to have an interesting scene at this point. They don’t really have anything to talk about besides the backstory with the Skrulls and making Carol completely emotionless, neither one of which is particularly promising. The backstory with the Skrull war is common knowledge in-setting, so we might be able to handle this more smoothly in a news blurb about a Skrull imposter getting arrested or an update in the war on the Skrulls. Alternately, it might be possible to handle this in the briefing scene for the mission to Torfa.

3.3. Some reviewers have referred to the main character’s role as “robotic.” I don’t think that’s fair — most actual robot characters actually get more emotional variety than this (e.g. WALL-E, Rogue One’s K-2SO, Westworld’s Maeve and Teddy, maybe 2001’s HAL, Vision, maybe Star Trek’s Data, Game of Thrones’ Bran, and from video games GLADOS and HK-47).

4. The movie is unusually heavy on unnecessary audience cues. Don’t call out your viewers as idiots, and don’t waste time.

  • “TORFA: KREE BORDER PLANET.” This comes seconds after a scene mentioning that they were going on a mission to this planet.
  • “SUPREME INTELLIGENCE – AI LEADER OF KREE CIVILIZATION” – this could have been handled more smoothly in-scene.
  • It’s immediately obvious that Fury’s boss Keller is a Skrull (e.g. in the strange way he speaks to Fury in their first scene together or referring to Fury as “Nicholas”, which Fury has a visible, hard-to-miss reaction to). There’s no need to have him reveal this to the corpse. (Also, having him caress the corpse with humans in the room makes him look notably incompetent, which reduces the threat level).
  • The heroes see a steaming cup of coffee on a ship they expect to be abandoned. “We’re not alone.” I think that’s obvious to anyone older than 8. Having a character silently alert other characters to the coffee should be enough, and maybe Captain Marvel charges up her photon blaster to cue children in the audience that the threat level is higher than it was a few seconds ago.
  • “That’s no MiG”. What gave it away, the lasers? Or the spaceflight?
  • “It’s firing behind it” – a close-up shot on rear-mounted lasers and Captain Marvel dodging incoming fire would probably cover this more smoothly.
  • “She’s trying to break out.”
  • “Species: Flerken. Threat: High.” Talos panicked after seeing the flerken, so it should be pretty obvious that the cat is dangerous.
  • “I’m Just A Girl” – in case you forgot.

5. After Carol gets captured by the Skrull, there’s a flashback scene. The flashback guts scenes that theoretically could have been interesting. Admittedly, not very interesting. None of the characters that come up in these vignettes feel very promising, and none of them even get a name here. So we’re 15 minutes in and we haven’t actually met a side-character more interesting than the “You have to be emotionless” instructor. Rough.

5.1. The flashback where Carol exchanges pleasantries with Lawson runs like a first-draft. There’s some indication that the writers think that they are introducing Lawson as a noteworthy character, but this is an oddly forgettable way to do so. There’s nothing at stake, no clear direction here, and they repeat lines that weren’t movie-ready the first time around. (If any other MCU lead were sharing a scene with their superscientist, e.g. Peter-Rocket or Black Panther-Shuri or Antman-Pym, there’s no way it could be this bad).

SKRULL TECH: Hang on, I think I’ve got it.
LAWSON: Goose likes you. She typically doesn’t take to people.
CAROL: Early start to your morning?
LAWSON: Late night, actually. I can’t sleep when there’s work to do. Sound familiar?
CAROL: Flying your plane never feels like work.
LAWSON: Wonderful view, isn’t it?
CAROL: I prefer the view from up there.
LAWSON: You’ll get there soon enough, ace.
(scene starts to rewind)
LAWSON: Sound familiar?
TALOS: Wait, wait, wait! That’s her. Get her back.
ASSISTANT: Stand by.
LAWSON: Wonderful view, isn’t it?
CAROL: I prefer the view from up there.
LAWSON: You’ll get there soon enough, ace.
TALOS: What’s that on her shirt? I couldn’t read it.
LAWSON: Wonderful view, isn’t it?
CAROL: I prefer the view from up there.
TALOS, to Carol: Focus.
CAROL: Excuse me?
TALOS: Look down.
TALOS, reading. Pegasus. Dr. Wendy Lawson. That’s her.
CAROL: Do you hear that, too? [this is a notably weak reaction to hearing voices and getting weirded out by conversations repeating themselves).
TALOS: Do we have her location?
SKRULL TECHNICIAN: Got it.
TALOS: Now track Lawson until we find the energy signature.

5.2. There’s about four minutes of Talos navigating his way through her memories. She’s a fighter pilot, she drives a go-kart recklessly, male cadets think she’s too emotional (God, not this again), she plays pool and sings in a bar, and she finds an alien ship. This is a lot of time to spend without making an impact. I’d suggest focusing on 1-2 of these and making them count.

5.3. One concept for this scene that would have created more interesting opportunities for interaction between Marvel and Talos would be an interrogation scene with the two talking as her memories play out on Skrull monitors. Having her react to her memories and/or offer any insight beyond what we’re seeing and/or any sort of conflict with Talos is more promising than having her unconscious.

5.4. If you’d ever want your main character unconscious during a scene focused on her backstory, you probably don’t have the right main character – or the right backstory.

5.5. If you’d ever want your main character unconscious during a scene where he/she could be talking to the main villain (or a character who appears to be), you probably don’t have the right villain either. If the only purpose of this scene is to point Talos and/or Carol in the direction of Earth and establish the engine Macguffin, surely there are more memorable ways to pull this than watching a pilot and alien scientist share the most banal pleasantries imaginable.

5.6. If you are dead-set on Carol having a flashback with the scientist, I’d suggest going a lot more distinctive than what we saw.

6. If you’re creating an alien species, I’d recommend that they either all look human or all look non-human, especially if your plot involves a human adopted by aliens. Yon-Rogg looks 100% human, and we shouldn’t have to guess whether he’s a human or not. (PS: He’s not).
6.1. It feels like the script was originally set up so that Lawson the scientist would be a Skrull. It doesn’t make much sense that the Kree, a warrior species with no shapeshifting capabilities, would have a critical scientist work as a lone infiltrator on a remote world where they have no other presence. It’d be in character for the Skrull, though, and it’d make sense why a shapeshifting Skrull would look exactly like a human.
6.2 Later on, Nick Fury considers whether Carol is a shapeshifter. He doesn’t appear to consider that she looks exactly like a human. Isn’t that pretty strong evidence that she is probably a shapeshifter? (What are the odds that an alien species would just happen to look exactly like a human without shapeshifting powers?)

7. Dialogue was off in a lot of places. For example:

  • “Then dig deeper. Lawson is our link to the light-speed engine. And everything we’re after…” When you’re having two characters talk about what they already know, I’d recommend sounding smoother than “As you know, Bob, this is what we already know.” In this case, I think something like “Then dig deeper. Find me the engine” would have sounded more natural.
  • Talos’ character voice is all over the place. “Young lady”, “Jazz hands”, “bad trip”, “science guy”, etc. This could arguably be justified because he’s a shapeshifter absorbing a lot of memories and speaking styles from people he’s scanned, but if so, it could have been executed more smoothly.
  • “Where’s Pegasus?” “That’s classified. Not unlike the file I’ve started on you.” This response is awkward and disjointed.
  • Talos’ “young lady” line is a contrived way to give Maria something to object to. Talos backs off on this immediately. This is weak conflict, it isn’t consistent with anything else Talos does, doesn’t advance the central plot, etc. In a better series, conflict arises from more substantial character/plot points and should not be immediately abandoned because someone objects. (Secondarily, interesting characters usually embrace conflict and are relatively open to proceeding in the face of an objection).
  • “Name a detail so bizarre a Skrull could never fabricate it.” “I can’t eat toast that’s cut diagonally. But you didn’t need that, did you?” “No, but I enjoyed it.” This is probably the first good exchange in the movie. 40 minutes in.

8. The direction for Talos’ character is weak. He doesn’t feel at all like a man whose species has been nearly eliminated or who’s on a desperate mission to get an engine fast enough that his people can run away more effectively. He has tragic and brutal material to work with. If an Earther threatens to attack him over using the phrase “young lady”, dropping some perspective on her would probably be more interesting than acting like an urbane professional that made a social misstep he immediately backs off of. E.g. MARIA: “If you call me ‘young lady’ again, I will kick your ass.” TALOS: “I’ve had to bury towns of murdered Skrulls. I don’t have time for etiquette lessons, and if you threaten me again, I’ll be burying you too.” Relatedly, if a teammate casually threatens violence against someone they’ve known for 30 minutes, that should not pass without some sort of consequence or reaction (e.g. the other person might take it really badly, particularly if they are an alien general fighting off a genocide… or maybe they mouth off at each other and they both react really well to how fiery the other person is).

8.1. One problem with the original “young lady” exchange is that there’s no actual conflict here. Maria is completely overreacting* to a wholly innocuous statement by an alien that isn’t attempting to offend her nor has the cultural background to understand the cultural nuances between something potentially dismissive like “young lady” and a safer word like “miss” or “ma’am”. In comparison, most quality social conflicts have more substance behind them (e.g. majorly different perspectives both people are committed to, majorly different goals, a willingness to offend, etc).

*Threatening violence against an alien general she’s known for maybe half an hour over “young lady” is probably a more forceful response than any MCU character has in response to any form of banter, even insulting banter. E.g. “trash panda” is one of the most vicious things a MCU character has ever said to another, and even the gun-toting raccoon** in question responds with a relatively tame “You son of a…” rather than attempting to escalate.
**Or a rabbit or a fox or whatever. He’s definitely gun-toting, though.

8.2. Captain Marvel takes place a few years after Desert Storm. If Maria is willing to threaten violence over “young lady”, I’m guessing she’s a civilian now because she got court-martialled the first time she met a Saudi. My head canon is that she caused somebody’s son to draw a weapon to protect the tribal honor based on what he heard third-hand from somebody’s cousin who separately has a blood feud going against Western forces for backing a military commander from a family that stole his great-grandfather’s herd three generations ago. And it’s still a better love story than Twilight.

9. The de-aging effects for Coulsen and secondarily Fury look pretty weak. Coulsen’s forehead animation was distracting enough I’d suggest either giving him a SHIELD cap or possibly recasting with a younger actor.

10. The challenge level is unusually low. When the threats are this weak, that considerably reduces opportunities for suspense and excitement.

  • No lasting consequences to any setbacks. For example, in classic Star Wars, losing a fight might mean a physical injury (losing a hand), the death of a major character (Obi-Wan) or even the destruction of a planet. In Captain Marvel, losing a fight means being involuntarily transported to the next scene, but they don’t even take your equipment. These aren’t even low stakes, they’re no stakes. PS: If you ever have a prisoner who can shoot a laser through your ship, don’t let her keep anything that would let her survive in space.
  • All it takes Carol to win the fight with the Supreme Intelligence is to remember getting back up after falling off a bike, and pulling off her Kree control device. I think this neuters what should be a climactic moment.
  • For most characters, falling out of a plane would be a major setback. No worries, she discovers she can fly. Unless you’re writing a Saturday morning cartoon, this is probably the least interesting option available for overcoming this setback.
  • Having discovered she can fly a few seconds ago, she can fly well enough to catch a salvo of warheads and a fleet of interceptors from wrecking Earth. This is not as bad as Kylo Ren losing to someone holding a lightsaber for the first time* but it’s on the spectrum.
    *I think?
  • She blasts her way into a secure facility rather than let Fury trick their way inside. This is a boldly inept move that obviously should result in negative consequences (e.g. the base might go on alert, Fury might become convinced she’s an unreliable partner, some records they came for might get destroyed, etc). Instead, the photon blaster actually turns out to be just a much faster way of getting through a door than picking the lock. What the hell sort of maximum-security facility is this?
  • She may or may not be able to defeat her ex-boss in melee combat. No worries, she lasers him. This shoots a potentially interesting opportunity for melee combat in the face.
  • She isn’t shown having any unusual technical background (either before or after she gets taken in by aliens), but she’s able to engineer a payphone to make an intergalactic phone call using parts she got from Radio Shack. That seems like a Tony Stark-grade technical problem, something that requires skills amazing enough that they shouldn’t be coming out of nowhere. (Tony Stark might also get a longer scene showing his first attempts and how it gradually gets amazing over time).
  • When they need to run from the military base, there’s a plane fueled and ready to fly. Of course there is. (Very thoughtfully, USAF/NASA armed it as well, just in case we need live rounds in a test plane, I guess).
  • She’s able to build an intergalactic pager. Of course she is.
  • Virtually everybody she interacts with for more than 10 lines regards her as singularly impressive. In particular, Maria’s gushing praise for her is embarrassing and Fury naming the Avengers after somebody that hadn’t been important enough to mention before is odd. In more effective movies, there’s ups and downs (e.g. check out friction between teammates in Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, and Into the Spider-Verse). Protagonists usually have more setbacks and have to work harder to prove themselves. PS: If you absolutely do need to have someone deliver gushing praise to Captain Marvel, it’d probably sound less bad coming from the grade-schooler than a hardened fighter jockey, and preferably after the villain is defeated (less damage to pacing).

11. Nick Fury has a great car chase. After that, the script either should have given him a reason to stay in the movie or written him out when Marvel enters the military base.

  • Talos beats him up, and Captain Marvel saves him.
  • In the final mission, he’s reduced to holding a cat which does a lot more than he does. As far as I can tell, the only reason to have him on this mission is to set up the line “Species: Human male. Threat: Low to none.” Cost: High. Appreciation for Black Panther not having a white character specifically designed to be useless: Increased.
  • He loses his eye to a cat.
  • He does a lot of baby talk with the cat. Re-reading the transcript, I feel so bad for Samuel L. Jackson. This is worse than getting eaten first in Deep Blue Sea.
  • He sings a Marvelettes song.
  • He helps with dishes.
  • He names the Avengers after Captain Marvel’s callsign. This feels like a Poochie moment (trying too hard to introduce a character into an established series with a larger role than their audience credibility warrants), and might seem more natural if they revealed something like this after the character has been in several movies and established himself/herself more. For example, if a team like the Superfriends were retroactively named after Superman, at least he’s been one of DC’s most prominent characters since ~day 1, whereas naming them after a secondary character like Superboy would be very strange. My impression is that Captain Marvel is more Superboy (or maybe even SuperPro) than Superman.

12. Carol’s demeanor and bearing does not feel believable for a fighter pilot. Even before the Kree capture her, she’s unusually restrained in a position that’s iconically daring and bold. She’d probably be more believable as an intelligence analyst or doctor… or an accountant. E.g. if she is supposed to be unusually gutsy (like her go-kart wreck suggests), maybe she might make some bold missteps along the way? As it is the closest she comes to an unusually bold move is blasting a door into a highly secure section of a military base, but the story plays it like she is taking a stealthy approach (no guards are alerted, they’re able to quietly find the records they are looking for, etc). Her boldness never really creates problems for her, which I think is a major missed opportunity. (Similarly, Maria’s threat to kick Talos’ ass is a bold move that creates no problems and is instantly forgotten).

12.1. In her climactic moment, she’s challenged to melee combat (by someone that’s previously bested her in melee combat) and instead blasts him with a laser. Blasting him is entirely reasonable, but she attempts to glorify taking the easier route as “I don’t need to prove myself to you” and it’s miserably pretentious. If someone tries to kill you, you probably don’t need to explain to the audience why you shot them — e.g. you know Han Solo or Indiana Jones wouldn’t have wasted any time on this, and they’d have been helluva more charming, maybe with a self-explanatory smile. PS: What sort of test pilot passes on an opportunity to push themselves to their limits?

12.2. Military scenes: Compare “That’s not a MiG” to this amazing scene where Ms. Incredible pilots a plane under enemy fire. This Incredibles scene is extremely tense and possibly the most judicious and effective use of professional jargon I’ve ever seen. The acting, the dialogue and the fight choreography provide a sense of danger and suspense completely missing from the Captain Marvel equivalent. Secondarily, there are some really cool things going on here like subtly creating a backstory for Ms. Incredible without ever explicitly saying that she was a military pilot. *I’d much rather have 4 minutes of this scene than 4 minutes of Carol being generically rejected as a stockcar racer/cadet/pilot/whatever. It advances a major central conflict, it moves the characters forward in the plot, and it’s balls-to-the-wall exciting.
*She’s unusually familiar with terms related to surface-to-air missile launches, so either military or Kuwaiti Airlines.

12.3. One unusual plus to aerial combat for writers is that it’s one of the only kinds of combat where combatants have good reasons to talk during the fight and can sound natural doing so. If you’ve got an opportunity like that, you can do a lot better than “That’s not a MiG.”

13. Sexism as a theme. Mostly new to Marvel phase 3.5, protagonists are told they can’t do things because of their demographics* (Peter tells himself he can’t be the next Tony Stark in part because he’s too young, and women can’t fly combat missions in Captain Marvel). My thought is that this tends to reduce characters to demographic boxes rather than their choices and reduces their agency over their story. Ironically, X-Men (a series which hinges on persecution) tends to handle this pretty well – e.g. humans and mutants distrust each other in First Class, which is a more flexible and promising setup than “mutants can’t be CIA agents.”

*In contrast, Thor gets cast out of Asgard because he’s irresponsible and disobedient, Ant-Man’s wife leaves him because getting arrested means that he can’t be the stable provider their daughter needs, Captain America’s conflict with his employers is mainly conflicting goals rather than “we hate you because you’re a mutant/trash panda/some other demographic we don’t like”. In the main borderline-demographic restriction that comes up, Steve Rodgers is temporarily turned away from Army for being sickly, but the Army acts very reasonably/professionally, which sets up a more complex conflict than Captain Marvel interacting with military men that are exclusively boorish.

13.1. Comparing Incredibles 1 to Captain Marvel, I believe that Ms. Incredible comes across as much more competent and active than Captain Marvel, even though they come from similar backgrounds. Some potential causes here:

  • Ms. Incredible is treated as an individual in-story (e.g. no overt demographic discrimination), and the conflicts she has with other characters are three-dimensional than anything Captain Marvel gets.
  • The dialogue and acting/directing in Incredibles are much better. (My rule of thumb here is that, when I’m seeing a scene executed by very good actors, I know I could never do that even if I had the script in front of me, and a great actor would make me feel silly for trying. There are very few MCU characters that get scenes that are so leaden that I wonder if one of the stuntmen or light staff on-set could do a better job acting than the actors actually did, and besides Hawkeye and Peter Parker all of them are in Captain Marvel. In particular, Talos’ scenes are so mediocre that I wonder if I could do better. (I am confident that I wouldn’t be much worse, and if any data analyst is feeling bold enough to publicly make a claim like that, the acting/direction is probably not movie-ready).
  • Incredibles’ stakes are real and the adversaries are more competent – in particular, I’d recommend checking out the scene where Rohan and his fleet watch helplessly as they get wrecked by someone that learned how to fly 30 seconds ago. In comparison, Syndrome and his agents learn and adapt quickly to heroic tactics and they’re never a joke.

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