Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Faux Feminist Superbowl

I finally got to a movie theatre yesterday. I was walking past the theatre and saw Captain Marvel was starting in two minutes so I figured, with commercials and trailers, I had at least fifteen minutes (I think it was more like twenty). I didn't think the trailers for Captain Marvel looked very good but there's been lots of good reviews and the movie was reportedly doing good business in its second week so I was persuaded. Sadly, I was misled. This overlong tease for Avengers: Endgame drags viewers through clumsy political allegory, jokes that are lame and recycled, and just plain bad writing.

There were about five other people in the theatre with me--it was noon on a Monday. Three of them were some loudly drunk teenagers who laughed really hard when Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) plummets to Earth into a Blockbuster video of all places. I guess the Onion articles featuring Blockbuster as a museum or maybe the episode of Better Call Saul featuring the store had prepared these kids to laugh at a subtle indication that this remembered piece of normal life is now part of a bygone era. This laughter had been long prepared for, this joke has been thoroughly tested.

Captain Marvel has been seen as the MCU response to Wonder Woman and one can see quite a few similarities--a lot of the humour depends on the female lead as a "fish out of water", hilariously unfamiliar with normal Earth things we take for granted and the studio, obviously wary of going all in on a female superhero lead, gives her a male companion with more charm--Chris Pine in Wonder Woman, Samuel L. Jackson here. But Jackson has the added bonus of playing an already popular character from other movies, Nick Fury, and he carries the added spectacle of being "de-aged" for the entire film.

They didn't make him look exactly like Pulp Fiction era Samuel L. Jackson--he was a lot skinnier in the 90s--going instead for just a subtly smoother face and more hair. The cgi was perceptible to me throughout the film though I can't say if I'd have noticed it if I hadn't known about it going in. Clark Gregg as a young Agent Coulson doesn't look as good--I'm still trying to decide if he's supposed to look like he has a bad toupee.

In any case, Nick Fury is a surprising misfire, basically relegated to the nutty companion role, endlessly spewing dumb, forgettable wisecracks. We do see how he loses his eye and if you haven't seen the movie I'd advise you to imagine the dumbest explanation you can and just maybe when you see what actually happens the blow will be softened.

The main plot of the film adapts the Kree-Skrull war from early 70s Avengers comics but instead of being a commentary on the senselessness of conflict between two war hungry factions the MCU version definitely picks a side by inserting a poorly conceived allegory for Syrian refugees or Mexican immigrants.

I'm not sure why I'm even going to bother saying what I'm going to say but I'll go ahead anyway--I do agree that it's wrong to demonise refugees based on the acts of a few of their fellows but if you want to sway the opinions of people who are set against them you don't do it by insulting their intelligence. In this film, the idea is that a whole society is apparently organised not to fool a populace but to fool Carol Danvers specifically. Either that, or when she turns against her former companions she just decides to skip the part where she tries to convince them they've been lied to. Apparently assuming no-one else has been duped like her, she goes from seeing one faction as an evil horde to seeing the other faction as an evil horde. The audience gets pumped for it in a climactic fight sequence with No Doubt's "Just a Girl" playing nonsensically in the context.

Among the film's relentless soundtrack of 90s hits are a couple shallow pop feminist tunes--don't expect to hear Ani DiFranco here--appropriately suited to the film's shallow faux feminism. Some nameless asshole guys lob sexist jibes at Carol from the sidelines and we get a mention of how women weren't permitted to fly combat missions in the U.S. Air Force but none of the villains in the film comes off as sexist, Danvers' obstacles not really having anything to do with gender bias or systemic discrimination. I suspect it's because the film's team of writers had no idea how to write about such subject matter, at least not in ways on which the whole committee could agree.

Brie Larson is a little quicker than Gal Gadot and seems to have a better sense of timing but Wonder Woman is easily the better film. When Carol lands in the Blockbuster she takes a shot at a True Lies cardboard stand advertisement, perhaps announcing some solidarity with the DC movie which was criticised by James Cameron as being more regressive than truly feminist. It's weird we live in a time where Carol Danvers and Diana Prince are considered better feminist icons than Vasquez or Sarah Connor. I've heard a "Vasquez" has even become a name for a phoney trope and that the Aliens' character's short hair is seen as giving her a masculine trait, a visual indicator that, as a woman in a man's world, she's at best a defective man. Now, I happen to like long hair on women, but suggesting that women who wear their hair short are in some way giving into the patriarchy is simply idiotic. Carol Danvers' peek-a-boo grunge hairstyle is cute but I think the argument could be made that not having one's hair in one's face may be more conducive to combat effectiveness and this may be a more realistic explanation for Vasquez's short hair. But what do I know?

Ben Mendelsohn gives the best performance in the film and the best scene is a brief one between him and Samuel L. Jackson on an elevator. I liked Carol's Nine Inch Nails shirt though I imagine "Closer" would be the last song in the world she'd be into. Mostly, though, I just wanted the movie to end. At least I got the matinee price.

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