In Captain Marvel, the Struggle (to Embrace ’90s Cheese) Is Real

Story time!

Last spring, I worked the graveyard shift at the Yes Planet Ayalon, home to the two largest movie screens in all of Israel. It was a nightmare– we had a window of just 15-minutes to clean up each screening room rather than the American standard of 45. And the labor shortage in Greater Tel Aviv was so dire that ushers unselfconsciously talked and texted in the theater. I was too close to the industry to tolerate it and quit to focus on writing a new book.

The point of this is that while I had only seen four movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and Black Panther), I ended up seeing the last fifteen minutes of Avengers: Infinity War approximately 140 times. The theater was always full, always waiting for that post-credits scene, and the response to seeing the surprise logo of Captain Marvel would either be totally cold– as was often the case earlier in the day, when American and northern European ex-pats flocked to the lure of darkness and air conditioning– or they’d freak the fuck out. Not just the adult Marvel fans clearly in-the-know, but kids as well. And I certainly heard as many boys shouting out “HaCaptain! HaCaptain!” as girls. Though it must be said that, Mike Pence be damned, there is nothing un-Israeli about a woman in uniform.

This is when I learned that Israelis not only love Captain Marvel, but have loved her for decades, on a level that neither I nor my American viewing partner could fully appreciate, and naturally the premiere audience in Tel Aviv tonight lost their shit to a degree I haven’t experienced in a movie theater since The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King.

Is it deserved? For a nation of the titular superhero’s fans, and as a parting tribute to Jewish national hero Stan Lee, most definitely. But while certainly not the tiresome mediocrity decried by other critics, the bold vision of directors Anna Boden and Bryan Fleck strain mightily against the unofficial strictures of Marvel Studios’ style guide, and the seams show.

The movie opens with Vers (Brie Larson), member of an interstellar warrior nation called the Kree, captured on a routine mission to root out a mysterious race of shapeshifting terrorists known as Skrulls. While probing Vers’ memories, they uncover a forgotten past– one in which Vers was a human test pilot named Carol Danvers, left for dead when she crash-landed an experimental spacecraft with her mentor Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning) and revived by her Kree sensei (Jude Law).

Soon enough, Danvers uses her powers– imagine a cross between Thor and Doctor Strange– to land herself and the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) on Earth in the year 1995, and the chase is on to find a secret power source created by the now-deceased Lawson. In her quest, Danvers teams up with her former co-pilot (Lashana Lynch), a younger, greener, and two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and an adorable orange tabby named Goose, whose occasional dips into the Uncanny Valley manage to pay off in hilarious fashion.

Where Black Panther married Marvel’s thrill-ride adventurism with director Ryan Coogler’s righteous muscularity, Boden and Fleck write and direct Captain Marvel as a love letter to 1990s action, complete with quippy dialogue, a refreshingly matter-of-fact depiction of the US Armed Forces– no valor porn here– and a chase scene straight out of Die Hard with a Vengeance, with such loving details as Blockbuster Video stores and old blue-and-red-striped LA Metro cars.

Alas, such are the limitations set by Marvel that the movie is unable to go full Con Air, lest the audience be allowed to forget this is part of a much bigger, carefully-managed universe. While not devoid of some gorgeous flourishes, the dissonance of dialogue and performances versus editing and cinematography becomes all the more meaningful when a major reveal at the film’s midpoint fails to land as effectively on screen as it does on the page, leaving my friends and I to scratch our heads.

It’s not that much of a problem, as audiences will catch up in a matter of minutes, but it nevertheless casts a mighty shadow over the rest of the film. Make no mistake, Captain Marvel is fun through and through, but one cannot stop imagining the kistchy visual feast that would and should have drawn comparisons to Thor: Ragnarok.


Sam Aronow’s new book, An Armada of Cats: Travels in Israel, comes out this summer.