Aug 04 2019

Captain Marvel Review: 1.5 Stars Out of 5

Published by at 10:46 pm under Writing Articles

1. I don’t know where to start with Captain Marvel. So many things went so wildly wrong that we’d need a presidential commission to get to the bottom of it. It’s like the Chernobyl of superhero movies.

2. 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 conflicts are completely toothless. Over the first 10-odd minutes of the movie, the main character conflict is faceless asshats criticizing an unusually robotic protagonist for being too emotional. I would STRONGLY recommend building conflicts that fit your characters and that they can’t easily walk away from. For example, if you want a conflict around a character being too emotional, it would help a lot if they were not the least emotionally engaging superhero ever filmed. Even Groot has more emotional variety than Captain Marvel does, and he’s a tree with a 5 word vocabulary.
Captain Marvel Headshots

In contrast, here’s some stills from Wonder Woman. You can be a serious warrior and still radiate charm and excitement.
Wonder Woman Headshots

Also, Marvel’s SFX teams have done amazing work expressing human emotion in characters that should not be able to support it. I’m particularly fond of the moment where Groot – the character with the softest edges in Guardians – follows up on killing several henchmen in an uncharacteristically brutal way by giving his teammates a childish “aren’t you so proud of me?” smile.
Guardians of the Galaxy Headshots

3.1. The “young lady” exchange. Talos refers to Maria as a “young lady” (which is out of voice/character for him and comes out of nowhere), Maria threatens to kick his ass, and Talos backs off immediately. If you must have this exchange, it’d probably be better to commit to the conflict. Talos, a soldier on a desperate mission to allow what’s left of his people to flee a genocide, has tragic and brutal material to work with. Dropping some perspective on Maria would probably be more interesting than backing down instantly. 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.” If a character backs off of a conflict instantly, it’s probably not worth having. Don’t waste your time firing blanks.

3.2. Relatedly, if a teammate casually threatens violence against someone they’ve known for less than 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 soldier 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).

3.3. I think this exchange makes Maria look unlikable. She’s threatening violence against an alien soldier that isn’t attempting to offend her, and being an alien makes it immediately obvious he might not have the cultural background to understand that he is offending her. This is a more forceful response than I think any Marvel protagonist has given to any insulting banter, particularly from another protagonist, and it doesn’t give Talos anything interesting to respond to. In contrast, when Rocket gets called a “trash panda”, even the gun-toting raccoon in question responds by walking away with a relatively tame “You son of a…”.

3.4. In the first Guardians movie, Rocket gets some truly vicious insults (e.g. “vermin”, “rodent”, being compared to a species that Drax grills on skewers, etc) and eventually nearly breaks down in tears. Losing your cool that much could be dangerous for protagonist likability, but emotional variety saves him. By the point this happens, Rocket’s already established himself as a badass, and he’s been more collected in similar situations (e.g. “not helping!” when insulted while during a critical moment of a jailbreak). In contrast, when Maria snaps over “young lady”, she hasn’t had an opportunity to establish that this is out of character for her, nor has she handled similar situations in a more typically heroic way. I think she comes across looking clownish here.

3.5. Nick Fury reports their location to his boss. This is a major breach of trust and, in a better movie, it’d be a good opportunity for major conflict between the two. There should have been consequences more serious than Marvel taking his communicator away. At the very least, when she sees Agent Coulsen lie to his team rather than give SHIELD their location, she might say something to Coulsen that knocks Fury (e.g. “you’re the only SHIELD agent I’ve met that hasn’t tried betraying me to the Skrulls – are you sure you’re not available for this mission?”).

3.6. The sexist conflict is just awful. 1) It’s extremely hard to respond to demographic bullying (e.g. “You know why they call it a cockpit?”) in a way that’s interesting. I think a best case scenario would be having Carol respond with an offbeat quip like “Because you’re a dick.” This is mildly funny and definitely a better response than nothing but it doesn’t fix the gaping structural problem that a “I hate you because you’re a (demographic)” conflict probably doesn’t have enough depth to it and won’t create as many opportunities for interesting dialogue or interesting choices as a more promising conflict would. In this case, the sexist characters didn’t contribute to any good scenes, they didn’t get any good lines, and they didn’t even have enough depth to get names. 2) It 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. CIA humans and CIA mutants distrust each other in First Class, which is a more flexible and promising setup than “mutants can’t be CIA agents.” Also, the mutual distrust generally has more substance than “I hate you because you’re a mutant.”

3.7. There’s no conflicts between the Maria and Captain Marvel in the now of the story, e.g. no major disagreements about tactical approaches or courses of action or even whether Maria should be on the mission. The closest they come is a brief exchange where Maria complains that Captain Marvel won a race 5 years ago by taking a shortcut. It’s a non-issue and doesn’t contribute to character or plot development. Weak sauce. The conflicts between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury (who briefly betrays her) and Talos (her ex-enemy) are also surprisingly weak. In particular, if ever there were a teammate that shouldn’t be excited to relegate his goals 100% to the main character, Talos is a general facing a genocide while allied to a human that’s notably unexcited about him and at best a newcomer to his struggle. (And, also, until like a week ago she was assisting the extermination campaign).

4. The scene introducing the real Lawson is shockingly boring. Before this scene, we’ve learned that Lawson is the character Carol most respects, setting high expectations for Lawson. Compare to the crazy hype for Tony Stark early in Iron Man, which Tony Stark actually delivers on. When we first see the actual Lawson, she’s incredibly bland and the scene runs like a first draft. Adding insult to injury: repeating lines that were mediocre the first time makes them worse, and there’s no reason in scene to repeat the lines.

SKRULL TECHNICIAN: Hang on, I think I’ve got it.
LAWSON: Goose likes you. She typically doesn’t take to people. (If your character’s first line is about what her cat likes, get back to rewrite).
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.
TECHNICIAN: 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?
TECHNICIAN: Got it.
TALOS: Now track Lawson until we find the energy signature.

4.1. 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 (Christ, 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. One concept for this scene that would have created more interesting opportunities for interaction between Marvel and Talos would be an interrogation scene where the two talk 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.

4.2. 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.

4.3. 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 concept for Talos, 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, you have better opportunities than watching a pilot and alien scientist share unusually banal pleasantries. If it really is the case that Talos and Lawson cannot combine for more interesting scenes than this, I’d recommend overhauling and/or scrapping them.

5. Dialogue was off in a lot of places. Some examples:

  • Every line addressed to or about the cat. E.g. “Who’s a good kitty huh? Huh Goose? Yes, that’s right. Who’s a good kitty Goose? You’re a good kitty.” I cannot imagine what raw footage the editors were looking at that made it look like this was the most promising option.
  • “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.
  • “Where’s Pegasus?” “That’s classified. Not unlike the file I’ve started on you.” This response is awkward and disjointed, and a missed opportunity to bring Fury into the scene in a more interesting way.
  • Maria: “The Air Force still wasn’t letting women fly combat, so testing Lawson’s planes was our only shot at doing something that mattered.” 1) This superiority complex towards support teammates is ironic now that she’s a support teammate that matters much less to Captain Marvel’s mission than support staff do to USAF operations. 2) In a better movie, this would probably be used to establish conflict or that there’s something lacking about the character. E.g. in Cars*, a movie that needs children to quickly recognize that the main character is being an asshole, having the protagonist call out his teammates as beneath him or “your work doesn’t matter” would definitely work. If you’re not trying to establish the character as an asshole, I’d suggest having her see these other careers as not hard enough or not exciting enough rather than they don’t matter enough.
    *This is probably the first time Cars has ever come to mind as a positive example. Cars is terrible, but it’s not this terrible.
  • There are few if any moments where Talos feels believable as a military commander, and his phrasing is all over the place (e.g. “jazz hands”, “bad trip”, “young lady”, “science guy”). First, anyone stiff/formal enough to say “young lady” probably shouldn’t be using “science guy” or “bad trip.” Second, he’s slotted into a Drax-like “can’t get it” role like not knowing what a cat is, but none of this attempted humor lands at all and there’s no reason to have it. He’s a mind-melding shapeshifter, how can he not get it? If your character knows what “jazz hands” are, how does he not know what a cat is? In contrast, Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy is very consistently literal-minded and the character’s dry portrayal makes it effective. E.g. “Nothing goes over my head. (pause) My reflexes are too fast.” This is a lot better than “What’s a cat?”, or any other Talos line, for that matter.
  • The “young lady” exchange.
  • Every line including the word “emotion” or “emotional”.
  • “All life on Earth is carbon-based, not this guy. Whatever he runs on, it’s not on the periodic table.” If you’re going to rip someone off (or “pay homage” or whatever this is), I’d suggest a better movie than Man of Steel. PS: A completely emotionless protagonist with no good dialogue didn’t work there, either.
  • A 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.
  • “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. PS: It’d be cool if the first hour had a well-executed exchange that developed character or plot points more important than toast preference.

6. Side characters are grossly unable to contribute what they need to. None of the side-characters contribute anything useful that Captain Marvel doesn’t already have, e.g. no distinctive capabilities or skill sets (e.g. a shapeshifter that doesn’t shapeshift, a pilot on a team whose main character already is a pilot, and a gunman that spends more time talking to a cat than shooting). If they all stayed home, it’d be hard to notice the difference. It’s not like they’re contributing to interesting dialogue or charming moments, either.

6.1. Lawson the superscientist makes her scenes worse. She has no good lines at any point and her entire first scene is low-stakes chatting with no bearing on the plot. She doesn’t contribute anything besides a superpowered engine. In contrast, most logistical support characters (particularly Marvel super-scientists) create interesting conversations with their leads. E.g. Iron Man and Rocket are in a league of their own, and I’d also recommend checking out Beast in First Class, Shuri in Black Panther, Pym in the Ant-Man series, and Edna in Incredibles. It’s hard to imagine any of these characters ever having a scene as boring as what we got from Lawson.

6.2. Nick Fury has a great car chase. After that, he gets a lot of screentime but doesn’t actually contribute anything. I think Incredibles’ approach to Frozone and Black Panther’s approach to the CIA pilot was more effective here – their screentime is brief and impactful. They’re never useless. Nick Fury should either have been written out after Marvel enters the military base or been given a reason to stay around. As it is, he gets beat up by Talos, he’s reduced to holding a cat in the final mission, he loses an eye to a cat, he sings a Marvelettes song, and he helps with dishes. I don’t think I can point to any moment post-car-chase where Fury makes a scene more interesting, and he bends over backwards to make them worse. In particular, the baby talk between him and the cat is just embarrassing. Rereading the transcript, I feel so bad for Samuel L. Jackson. This is worse than getting eaten first in Deep Blue Sea.

6.3. Maria and secondarily Monica. First, Maria doesn’t have any capabilities Captain Marvel doesn’t, which makes her mostly useless in a movie where Captain Marvel is doing 99%+ of the work. If you need her around, I’d suggest giving her some unique ability to contribute (e.g. better at piloting a particular plane or a better scientist or whatever). Splitting the team up for some missions would also help — for example, a secondary objective might involve handling explosives, taking down a shield generator, creating a diversion, adding air support, providing an escape route, etc). As it is, the only thing Maria adds that Captain Marvel doesn’t already have is the ability to gush about how amazing Captain Marvel is, and God does she use it. “You are Carol Danvers. You are the woman on that black box risking her life to do the right thing. My best friend… who supported me as a mother, and a pilot when no one else did. You’re smart and funny, and a huge pain in the ass. And you are the most powerful person I knew, way before you could shoot fire from your fist. You hear me? You hear me?” Across the board, 20% of her lines (14 out of 70) cover how impressive Carol is or how much Carol means to her. In more effective movies, there’s ups and downs in team cooperation (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 pilot, and preferably after the villain is defeated (less damage to pacing).
PS: I would guess that this movie had more lines praising the main character than Lincoln or Gandhi. It’s a distinctive approach for an action movie, particularly one with a main character this meh. I think it makes more sense in the opening of Iron Man because a character whose signature flaw is massive ego problems and/or overconfidence NEEDS to be highly competent to avoid massive likability issues. Also, Iron Man is extraordinarily charming from minute 1.

6.4. Neither Captain Marvel nor her side characters have any charm or chemistry together. An effective side-cast could have helped somewhat. I think the two biggest issues here are the lack of conflict within the team and Carol’s lack of personality. (E.g. the side-antagonists she shared with Guardians of the Galaxy had much better scenes with Quill in GOTG than with Captain Marvel, and let’s not even talk about the huge downgrade she gave Nick Fury).

7. 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.
  • There’s no need to have Fury’s boss Keller reveal himself to the audience as a Skrull by caressing the corpse. First, doing this with humans in the room makes him look careless/incompetent, which reduces the threat level. Second, the later scene in the elevator covers this better, and I don’t think there’s any plot need to reveal this before then.
  • “That’s no MiG”. What gave it away, the lasers? Or the spaceflight?
  • “She’s trying to break out.”
  • 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 kid viewers that the threat level is higher than it was a few seconds ago.
  • “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.
  • “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” – If you’re going for 1990s songs that are uncreatively on-the-nose for Captain Marvel, I’d suggest Wannabe, I Don’t Have the Heart, and Frozen.

8. Scene timing: 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.

9. 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 taken in 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).

9.1. Having Lawson as a Kree rather than a Skrull creates some plot holes. 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. This feels like they were originally planning for Lawson as a Skrull but switched her to a Kree without thinking it through.

10. 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 personal 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.

11. The challenge level is unusually low. When the threats are this weak, it 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 major injury like losing a hand, a major character death like 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. I’d recommend checking out each confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader for a classically effective progression of a hero gradually overcoming a threatening villain. More recently, I love how Dr. Strange handled a protagonist taking on a far superior foe (cleverly forcing a draw).
  • 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 reckless move that obviously should create some problems (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 would probably 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)*.
  • *In case we need to shoot down space MiGs.

  • She’s able to build an intergalactic pager.
  • 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.

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. If your character has a personality that’s at odds with her life goals, there might be some quality opportunities there for conflict and/or personality development. At it is, 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 give her 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). PS: if you have a main character that plays it this safe, I’d suggest against naming any characters (particularly a cat) after a Top Gun character.

12.1. In her climactic moment, she’s challenged to melee combat (by someone that’s previously bested her in melee combat) and she 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 don’t need to explain why you shot them — e.g. you know Han Solo or Indiana Jones wouldn’t have wasted any time there, 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 one of the most judicious and effective uses of professional jargon I’ve ever seen. The acting, the dialogue and the fight choreography create 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.
PS: The Incredibles scene uses anti-missile chaff without saying what it does. Having the plane barrel engage in evasive maneuvers as it’s firing the chaff makes it easier to see that the chaff is protection against the missiles. (Also, having the chaff angle towards the missiles is a good call – this gives viewers more information about what the chaff’s purpose is than a more passive drop would have). If a rated-G audience can figure out chaff, PG-13 filmmakers should have had more confidence in their audience’s ability to figure out what steaming coffee on an abandoned ship means, and in their own ability to provide context clues to help them.

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. 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 more three-dimensional than anything Captain Marvel gets. E.g. contrast her conflict with Bob over how his desire to be a superhero causes them to have to relocate their family vs. Maria’s conflict between being a single parent and wanting to accompany Captain Marvel on a suicide mission. Maria almost instantly ditches her kid for a very high-risk mission because her kid tells her it’d be setting a bad example otherwise. First, caving like this is probably out of character for Maria (too soft, too squishy). 2) There are no consequences to this decision, it’s pretty gutless. One possible consequence would be that the person/people she needs to ask as potential parental surrogates are not 100% cooperative (e.g. an ex-husband that already thinks she’s not the most responsible parent). Another possible consequence would be that Maria might handle the mission a bit differently than a non-parent would, e.g. backing out on a particularly dangerous phase of the mission that she wouldn’t have as a younger pilot. (Bob not making this adjustment 100% is one of the main conflicts of the first half of Incredibles).
  • The dialogue and acting/directing in Incredibles are much better. 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 Marvel superheroes that get scenes that are so leaden that I wonder if one of the stuntmen or lighting 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).
    *It’s not like the movie needed them for lighting. Look at how oppressively dark and washed-out the first 20-30 minutes are.
  • 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.

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Captain Marvel Review: 1.5 Stars Out of 5”

  1. Milan Dareon 13 Aug 2019 at 3:42 am

    I struggled to be the right audience for this movie. I enjoyed the costumes, the Skrulls, the big space battle. I felt it was a good prequel to Endgame (in the order I saw it) but it took so long to get there with so few real challenges. I agree completely with you about that, and the toast.

    I sort of agree with your point about demographics. When common opinions are accepted as rules that’s understandably frustrating. If you’re seeing a pattern then it has become a repetitive plot point. Rules are also more about the setting than the characters. If the characters were richer in other ways, if conflict led to change (for individuals if not of the rules) then perhaps the stereotypical elements would be less overt.

    I’m intrigued that you never called Captain Marvel a “Mary Sue”. Perhaps I should try to apply one of those tests to her.

    I accepted the movie as an informative backstory for Endgame. However my wife found it incredibly boring and gave up. I won’t be introducing her to Silmarillion.

  2. B. McKenzieon 13 Aug 2019 at 7:00 pm

    “I’m intrigued that you never called Captain Marvel a ‘Mary Sue’.” I’m not sure how useful the concept of Mary Sues is to writing better. General principles that might be useful: keep your characters challenged, maintain some degree of social tension rather than having other characters fawn over how impressive they are*, and hold them accountable for their decisions, especially decisions that should blow up in their face (e.g. if your character is bold enough to blast the door on a secure facility you need some sort of followup there or the character’s boldness will feel very empty). In this case there was virtually no challenge, no villainous counterplay worth noting, no major negative consequences to any decision, etc. The movie feels like a first draft, and not a good one.

    I’m guessing other reviewers have already beaten me by a year or two to anything I might say about Mary Sue, so I’ll just leave it at this: the mechanic that the Supreme Intelligence appears as the person the speaker most adores/respects is ENTIRELY a bust. 1) It declares that Lawson is supposed to be a notable character, creating expectations she is too bland to deliver on. 2) They’ll probably use this mechanic to have ANOTHER character declare how impressive/inspiring they find Marvel. Ick. (In general, if you want to impress audiences with a character, I’d recommend having that character do amazing things and/or struggle amazingly rather than having other characters say how amazing he/she is). Secondarily, it requires some silliness with the Kree refusing to talk about who they saw. I’d guess that this restriction is only in place to hide that Yogg respects and adores Carol more than anyone else in the galaxy, like everyone else in Captain Marvel, even her antagonists.



    Separately, I was underwhelmed by the character’s lack of emotions*, but it probably wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker if anything else had worked. E.g. The Matrix made great use of a very tense, high-vulnerability setting and masterpiece action scenes and the first movie is extremely strong even though Neo’s emotional depth and charm are mediocre. In particular, The Matrix gets unusually strong value out of characters being outgunned by their adversaries, and for most of the movie the protagonists need to run desperately against enemies that are pretty much unstoppable killing machines. Over the course of Captain Marvel, I don’t think she has a more pressing setback than crashing a go-kart. It’s hard to think of a comparison to the Matrix that doesn’t make Captain Marvel sound silly. “Oh, you remember that scene where Morpheus’ main job was holding a cat? Me neither, that would suck.”

    *Bafflingly it kept coming up in conversation that other characters thought she was too emotional**. It seems like the writers do not have a great grasp of how the character comes across. (Also, to any viewers that found this character relatively emotional, I’d love to hear your perspective, lemme know).

    **Suggestion: any exchange which uses the word “emotional” is probably awful. You can do a hell of a lot more with emotional conflict than “You’re being too emotional/not emotional enough”. E.g. in Game of Thrones I’d recommend checking out Robb Stark’s decision to break a marriage engagement with a powerful ally in favor of a woman that he falls in love with that can’t give him an army. Bonus points: he understands that the woman he falls in love with is lying about her background, but he doesn’t follow this clue to any outcome that might avert the impending disaster (she’s probably an enemy agent sent to sabotage his previous marriage alliance). Captain Marvel would have handled a conversation about his choice of bride like “Quit being so emotional, Robb!”, whereas in Game of Thrones, Robb’s mother tries to impress upon him that the good of the realm depends on oaths and alliances, and breaking his marriage oath will cause major problems down the road. In Game of Marvel, this “major problem down the road” would probably last 3 seconds of blaster fire — Captain Marvel doesn’t NEED allies, she certainly doesn’t need romance, and it’s probably in her contract that she can’t suffer even the slightest setback. In Game of Thrones, it’s the Red Wedding, which gets 100+ people murdered, including several main characters (Robb most of all).

  3. Kenon 14 Aug 2019 at 5:43 pm

    I did not find Captain Marvel to be as emotionless as most people say she is. Although this is probably because I have Autism, so I’m not really the best at seeing these types of things. There are some moments where I saw her show emotion, such as when she was on Earth and cracking jokes.

    How do you spot when characters lack emotions?

  4. B. McKenzieon 15 Aug 2019 at 4:50 am

    Hi, Ken! “How do you spot when characters lack emotions?” I think it’s easiest to spot emotion in scenes where the character is doing/saying things that few other characters would do in the same place.

    For example, when Guardians of the Galaxy introduces us to adult Peter Quill, he’s walking through a foreboding, wrecked city and he’s searching for something. For the first two minutes of this scene, the character acts seriously, like we’d expect from someone exploring an unknown and dangerous location. Two minutes in, he does acting very unusually, turning on “Come and Get Your Love” and dancing through a scene that is still grim and dangerous. Introducing a character like this is a bold choice (e.g. a character acting much less serious than the audience expects could come across as a joke), but the actor makes this work with tremendous charm. Great camera work as well.

    Now let’s look at the first scene of Captain Marvel, up to the fight.


    First, she’s in a wreck and she starts out dazed without much of a visible reaction beyond that. This is a very passive introduction, especially compared to Peter Quill marching/dancing into an obviously dangerous ruined city. Then she gets shot with no reaction (very passive).



    Now she wakes up, it was just a flashback. Nothing’s actually happening in scene, and the character not having any visible emotions makes it feel even more sedate/comatose. PS: If most characters snapped out of a flashback, they’d snap into actually doing something (like they were having a daydream while engaged in a distinctive activity) so that they have more to do when they wake out of it. Having her wake into a scene where nothing is happening is unusual, and not very effective.




    She’s looking out at the city. I’m reading this expression as either “Bored” or “Not impressed.” Incidentally, I had a similar expression for most of this movie.


    Then we cut to her waking up her instructor/boss Yogg in the middle of the night. I’m reading this expression as “exasperated”/”why are you waking me up in the middle of the night”. Note that he’s not even human and he’s made more of an attempt to convey human emotion in the first two seconds on-screen than the lead has in the first 60. And this is a character that repeatedly claims she’s too emotional!



    The protagonist makes her first distinctive move, asking her instructor to fight. In any other movie, with any other actor, this would be a great moment for the actor to put some expression into this unusual moment. Here, nothing.


    This is a pretty good encapsulation of the first 1.5 minutes: all the wind is knocked out of it.

    In contrast, GOTG’s opening is quite engaging. Screenshots don’t do it justice (e.g. no music or movement), so keeping in mind that you should see the scene in real time to appreciate it, here are some observations.

    The first we see of adult Peter, he’s landing on an alien world. The movie doesn’t spell this out, but he’s clearly searching for something (based on the way he uses a device which is clearly a location tool). This is generally a smoother approach to providing information than what we saw from Captain Marvel (e.g. heavy-handed exposition/narration/dialogue).


    He sees several scenes unfold of everyday life in what was once a city. He pauses on a girl playing with her dog. This is a little bit spooky and charming, and it subtly shows us that this guy isn’t as soulless as his helmet makes him look.

    He enters the ruins, takes off his helmet, and puts on headphones.

    The music comes on and he goes all-out on dancing.

    This title drop is a BOLD declaration that this is not a vanilla superhero story. He’s going to do cool things and have fun doing them. (Also, showing someone dancing at a great distance is an unexpectedly cool way to show off the setting, and his movements are so exaggerated that they’re discernible at a great distance).

    Space lizards are tearing into each other.

    He semi-playfully kicks away a space lizard.

    He sees a space lizard up close. I love this shocked/grossed out expression.

    He’s got some major swagger on him, even when there’s no one around to impress. I found this really charming. (By the way, this would have looked goofy and off-putting if there had been another character in-scene — it’s more authentic when he’s alone than trying to show off to someone).

    He marches up to the vault door. The scenery does a good job establishing that this next room is more important, which is helpful because there’s no words to set viewer expectations. In context, it’s pretty clear that he’s here searching for an artifact of some sort — there’s no other reason someone would come to this ruin — and the filmmakers are confident that you’ll be able to follow along easily. (In contrast, Captain Marvel’s filmmakers probably would have included dialogue covering where Quill was going, what he was looking for, some forgettable chatter about what he’s seeing in-scene, and something like “There’s the vault” or on-screen exposition like “THESSALONIAN VAULT — RESTING PLACE OF THE INFINITY STONE” or whatever, either because they think the viewers are very dumb or because they couldn’t come up with anything better).

  5. B. McKenzieon 15 Aug 2019 at 5:17 pm

    Editing Captain Marvel: if you are dead-set on opening with a flashback, I’d cut immediately from the flashback to the judo fight. 1) This avoids some oddly lame moments completely devoid of fun, interest, plot relevance, or anything else you might want from your scenes. 2) It might make the judo fight feel more impactful. 3) It gives the instructor something more substantive to criticize (that she’s distracted) than supposedly being too emotional, which is a completely ridiculous criticism for Carol. 4) You might be able to do something with a juxtaposition of a flashback to her getting shot (by Sogg, we later find out) to her having a mostly good-natured spar with him. 5) Given his familiarity with her real backstory, he might give us some development suggesting that he has some idea what she’s daydreaming about. Maybe he claims that he understands her because warriors are alike, while in actuality he knows that she’s preoccupied about almost getting murdered because he was the one that almost murdered her.

    Alternately, perhaps we cut from the flashback to the military briefing in advance of their mission. In the original version of this scene, Carol had pretty much no role and listened as others explained what was happening. In this case, Yogg might challenge her explain what she understands of the mission because he’s annoyed that she was daydreaming during the briefing.

    If you HAD to use the flashback, I think either of these approaches would be more promising. However, I don’t think the flashback is the best introduction to the character, because she doesn’t remember herself doing anything interesting. So, the flashback mostly isn’t accurate, right? Maybe she remembers it being a lot more interesting than it actually was? Maybe she remembers desperately fighting off a Skrull after getting shot to make an escape where she meets Yogg and has a touching interaction with him?

  6. Cat-Vacuumer Supremeon 26 Aug 2019 at 4:01 am

    It really confused me that at the end she was flying in space without her helmet on, since every other time she was in a situation where humans can’t breathe she put on her helmet or it went up automatically.

  7. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2019 at 11:26 pm

    “It really confused me that at the end she was flying in space without her helmet on, since every other time she was in a situation where humans can’t breathe she put on her helmet or it went up automatically.” Hollywood hates helmets — they make it harder for actors to convey emotion. In this case, the helmet also looks goofy as hell (almost as bad as Peter Quill’s), so I’m not opposed to the Quill approach where his helmet gets introduced briefly and then pretty much forgotten, even in fight scenes where a helmet would be desirable. The flip side of this: if the director/writer are willing to compromise suspension of disbelief to allow the actor to go with no helmet, the actor should try acting with facial expressions.

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