Movie Review: Captain Marvel (2019)
I hope this gets more people to watch “The Right Stuff.” Then they’ll get the Pancho’s reference. Real heroes, kids, not the super kind. But still the super kind.
I have to admit, when I collected (1973-79), I was never a fan of Captain Marvel—either version. The character started out male, wearing a green suit and fighting in outer space, or the astral plane or some shit, and none of it resonated with me. Give me New York. Give me terra firma. Then he went red and blue and shared the Negative Zone with Rick Jones or something. Clang! Oh, and about the time the Equal Rights Amendment seemed on the verge of becoming a constitutional amendment (in a better America), we got a female version, Ms. Marvel, sporting a blonde bob and not much else: bare legs, bare midriff. Created by dudes, of course—Gerry Conway (my Spidey buddy) and Sal Buscema (my Captain America buddy)—but as part of that legit effort to diversify the ’70s Marvel lineup. I remember little about her origin, so I don’t have much skin in this game. That probably helps.
It also helps that I went in with low expectations. The buzz was OK but only that. It felt like a shrug of a movie. I thought Brie Larson all wrong for the role, too. A puny human. Hardly Gal Gadot, who, besides being an actual Israeli soldier, seems like a foot taller. (IMDb lists a mere three-inch difference: 5’7” vs. 5’10”.) Or maybe Jennifer Lawrence? She seems solid. Brie is a wisp. She’s your babysitter not an intergalactic superhero. But I was wrong; she’s good.
And the movie? I liked it. Enough. Again, I went in with low expectations so I don’t want to raise yours.
It starts slowly, disjointedly, and ends by hooking up with the most recent MCU developments. It takes us full circle: from the intro of the Avengers Initiative (working title: Protectors Imitative) to its most recent incarnation, with half the universe gone. Question: Why did Carol Danvers need a Nick Fury SOS to warn her of that? Surely wherever she was it was the same. Poof. Bye bye. Whatever else he is, Thanos is EOE.
Our hero, called Vers, I guess, is a Starforce member living on the planet Hala in the middle of the Kree Empire (yawn), and she begins the movie with bad dreams: a plane crash, Annette Bening nearby, a Skrull approaching with weapon drawn. Fun fact: I still own the issue—one of the few comics I still own—where the Skrulls (“from Outer Space!”) were introduced: Fantastic Four #2. I bought it for $10 at a Minneapolis comic convention circa 1974. I bargained down from $15. And no, it’s not worth much today. It was dog-eared then and it’s so dog-eared now dogs look at it and go “That’s some dog-eared shit.” But it’s fun to own.
Vers’ commander, Yan-Rogg (Jude Law, with arms like oaks), just wants her to train. We see them going at it, martial arts style, exchanging banter (and sexual chemistry?). She’s insouciant, a taunter, while he’s superserious, which makes her taunt him all the more. He has to admonish her over and over not to use her powers. Which is so like the patriarchy.
Initially, Vers doesn’t impress. There’s a Starforce mission—I didn’t get the gist of it—but it turns out to be a Skrull ambush, which everyone figures out except her. She’s captured, hung upside down, her memories, such as they are, sifted through. Then she breaks free, kicks ass, and winds up on Planet C-54 or something. It’s Earth, circa 1994, and this is when the fun begins. She lands in a Blockbuster Video, where she obliterates the Arnold Schwarzenegger half of a “True Lies” display, then picks up a copy of “The Right Stuff.” Which, seriously, everyone should see. Real heroes, kids.
You know what bugged me? The laughs at the expense of the age that brought us to this one. Our hero asks after tech equipment and is pointed toward a Radio Shack. Laughter. The characters are waiting on a download in 1994 time. Laughter. It wasn’t knowing or sympathetic laughter, either, but superior, as if our age were better. Reveled over by people who moved the needle not a whit.
Anyway that’s the set-up: a few shapeshifting Skrulls are on Earth, and Vers chases them as the cops, or S.H.I.E.L.D.—a CGI-youthenized Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)—chase her. Eventually Fury teams up with her and we get our two big reveals.
She’s not Kree; she’s Carol Danvers, Air Force pilot, who disappeared six years earlier. Seems there was a top secret project led by Dr. Wendy Lawson (Bening) to break the light barrier—just as, in the 1940s, over the Mojave Desert, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, then celebrated at Pancho’s—run by Pancho Barnes, a pioneering female aviator. Oh, and Lawson isn’t human; she’s Kree. BTW: Why bring this technology to us? Because of our long history of peace and good will toward everyone?
The other reveal—shocking to me as a former collector—is that the Skrulls aren’t really the bad guys. They’re refugees searching for a homeland. They’re basically Palestinians. The Kree are the bad guys, led by oak-armed Yan-Rogg, who, in a black-box flashback, is the one who shot down Lawson’s/Danver’s plane and killed Lawson. He also wanted the speed-of-light engine; but Danvers, foiling him, blows it up, and whoops, absorbs its powers.
How powerful is she? More powerful than she knows. It’s similar to the new X-Men trailer we saw before the film, where Prof. X tries to hide Jean Grey’s powers from her, because she’s more powerful than any of them. It’s a theme. It’s Marvel’s #MeToo.
Here, all of it comes to a head at Lawson’s old cloaked space station, where Skrull families, including Talos’ (Ben Mendelsohn, getting to play good), are hiding with the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube. After Yan-Rogg and his team board and capture everyone, Danvers confronts the Kree AI or something (also Bening), then finally realizes her power, or wills herself to that power. She crushes the Kree implant that kept her in check and goes, girl.
Trust me, true believer
A few added thoughts.
Did we need the Kree overlord, or something, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), shooting ballistic missiles at Earth? One, why is he doing it? And two, isn’t it a little 11th-hour? Jude Law should’ve stayed the main villain. Yeah, we get to see Captain Marvel repelling them, which gives us an idea of her true power. Even so.
I also didn’t get much out of her friendship with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). She actually had more chemistry with Yan-Rogg.
Speaking of: Yan-Rogg’s team seems way too much like the Asgardian warriors in the Thor movies:
- Black leader (Djimon Hounsou/Idris Elba)
- Power chick (Gemma Chan/Jaimie Alexander)
- Red beard (Rune Temte/Ray Stevenson)
These characters add a dash of something but just a dash, and sometimes it’s unwelcome. Chan’s character, for example, reveals herself as the mean office rival to Larson’s temp. Cf., “Isn’t It Romantic.”
Could they have done more with 1994? “Pulp Fiction” with Samuel L. Jackson on a movie marquee somewhere? How about this: The great gap between then and now may not be in download speed—most of the world wasn’t even online then—but in superhero movies. You get a sense of this when, in the well-done train sequence, we get one of Stan “The Man” Lee’s last cameos. He’s playing himself, running lines for his upcoming appearance as himself in Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats.” That’s the type of movie he was in back then. Because you know what superhero movies were out in ’94? “The Shadow” starring Alec Baldwin, and Roger Corman’s “The Fantastic Four”—so infamously awful it was never “out”; it was never released. That’s where the Marvel Comics world was in ’94: So peripheral it barely existed.
Now look. Look on its works, ye mighty, and despair.
Tweet of the Day
Today, Trump retweeted:— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) March 18, 2019
1. A Pizzagate conspiracy theorist
2. A Qanon conspiracy theorist
3. A conspiracy theorist who believes the New Zealand massacre was a plot to limit gun rights
He's elevating the most unhinged, deranged voices
By tomorrow we'll forget it even happened
Trow on Elvis '56
Re-reading George W.S. Trow. Always worthwhile. In the beginning of “Pilgrim's Progress/Media Studies,” he's ragging on a $3.1 millon study on violence that doesn't take proper context into account. It also ignores what Trow calls “sequence” and what I tend to call “chronology.” He gives a great example of why it matters:
My next note says: “No sense of sequence.” In analyzing violence on television, it was all treated as though it had been ever with us, like sugar use, as if, naturally we‘ve always had sugar in coffee and tea, and how much are we using now, and what does it do to our energy level, and should we cut down on sugar?—like that. No sense of when sugar was invented, no sense of the sequence of it. And the note I made at this point is, “Like analyzing rock-and-roll on TV—a big subject—without looking at Elvis Presley’s appearance on the Dorsey Stage Show in 1956.”
Well, in 1956, in January, Elvis began to appear on television, and his first appearance was on a program called Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who'd been a hit with teenagers twenty years before, were now fifty years old, and the show was corny, and it was corny precisely because we'd been through the experience of the Second World War, which was a very puritanical experience, a military experience, an experience of privation and seriousness. ... The Dorseys presented themselves as something from the hall of fame of popular culture. They had jugglers, they had tap dancers, it was just the standard stuff that adults had grown up on, and Elvis came into that, and anyone who wants to see the moment, and nearly everyone should see the moment, can watch a documentary called Elvis ‘56. Elvis came into it, and you know—I hope you know what Elvis was like when he was twenty-one years old, and he was twenty-one—and he wasn’t dressed like Liberace, he was dressed to kill, and he did kill. He killed Stage Show, and everything it represented, in a moment. This has to do with the quality of unexampled people in life, it has to do with the quality of talent, it has to do with the history of Dionysian energy. Of course, there would have been no point in counting everything that was happening in television in December 1955, because in January of 1956 a human avatar of unparalleled power named Elvis Presley was going to change the whole thing forever, and to leave that kind of truth out of a media discussion is simply to have a discussion—well, worthless is the word that comes to mind.
I‘ve been sick for the past few weeks, and today was sunny, so I walked over to Seattle University and read this in the sun by the fountain where dogs play. Made me want to watch “Elvis ’56” again. Also made me think that Elvis' much-praised comeback special in ‘68 was just a ’68 version of Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. It was the show for '50s kids who were confused by civil rights, anti-war protesters and hippies.
Anyway pay attention to chronology. I think of this every time the news brings up the U.S.-Chinese trade war without mentioning its obvious Trumpian origins.
Box Office: ‘Captain Marvel’ Keeps Soaring
Last weekend, “Captain Marvel” had the seventh-biggest opening among Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, $152 mil, and this weekend it only fell 54.8% to gross another $69 mil (including my ticket), which brings its 10-day total to $266. Among 10-day grosses, that’s the 19th-best ever.
Where does it stop? One assumes north of $400. Will be interesting to see how it does next weekend when the other Captain Marvel, “Shazam!,” opens. Early projections have “Shazam!” not opening well, so once again I’m at odds with the zeitgeist.
Overall, there have been 21 MCU movies since “Iron Man” was released in 2008. The lowest grossing is “The Incredible Hulk” with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner: $134. It’s the only MCU movie that never grossed $150.
Let's just do the rundown:
- < $200 million: “Hulk” ($134), “Captain America: The First Avenger” ($176), “Ant-Man” ($180) and “Thor” ($181)
- > $200 million: “Thor: The Dark World ($206), “Ant-Man and the Wasp” ($216), “Dr. Strange” ($232), and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” ($259)
- > $300: “Iron Man 2,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Iron Man,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”
- > $400: “Captain America: Civil War,” “Iron Man 3,” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
- > $500: n/a
- > $600: “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “Avengers: Infinity War”
- > $700: “Black Panther”
I’ve seen them all. Good god.
My initial guess, for what it’s worth (nothing), is “Captain Marvel” finishes in fifth place in the current MCU: ahead of “Iron Man 3,” behind “Ultron.” We’ll see.
The rest of the weekend was poorly-reviewed movies doing not-great business. The animated movie “Wonder Park” (30% RT) finished in second place with $16 million from 3,838 theaters, while the latest sick-teens-in-love romance, “Five Feet Apart,” grossed $13 mil in 2,803 theaters.
The near-future, sci-fi flick “Captive State,” about aliens taking over, finished seventh, grossing an abysmal $3 million. It actually finished behind the Mexican comedy “No Manches Frida 2,” despite debuting in 2,548 theaters as opposed to “Manches”’ 472.
Has anyone seen “The Mustang” starring Matthias Schoenaerts? Four theaters, $76k. I’m interested. Redemption songs and horses.
Greatest Banksy Ever
OK, maybe a close second to the one at the end of this 2010 review.
Amid Shrugs, Captain Marvel Blasts Box Office
This past weekend, “Captain Marvel,” the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe flick, opened to $153 million domestic and $455 worldwide.
Domestically and unadjusted, that's the 18th-biggest opening ever, and seventh biggest of the MCU—after the three “Avengers” movies, “Black Panther,” “Iron Man 3” and “Captain America: Civil War” (which is really an Avengers movie). Worldwide, that's the sixth-largest debut ever, and second-biggest of the MCU—after “Infinity War,” which is the all-time record-holder at $640 million.
Worldwide, “Captain Marvel” is already the second-biggest movie of the year, trailing only China's sci-fi flick, “The Wandering Earth,” which made almost all of its money in China. Domestically, it's already the biggest movie of the year.
The big question is what kind of legs it will have. I have yet to see the movie, a kind of prequel set in the 1980s/90s, but friends who have mostly shrug when I ask how it is. They say it's OK. It's got an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes but also an audience score of 58%. For the latter number, one wonders how many misogynistic trolls are involved; for the former, how many thumbs ups are accompanied by hapless shrugs.
Me, I'm old enough to remember when Capt. Marvel meant either Shazam! or the blonde-haired astral figure who shared Neutral Zone time with Rick Jones. I also remember the 1977 debut of Ms. Marvel, with her bare legs and midriff and mid-70s coif. I'm pretty sure I bought the issue. I remembering thinking the promise of the cover—“in the senses-stunning tradition of Spider-Man!”—sounded a bit odd. Senses-stunning? Would you want that? How could you even read the comic?
I also don't remember being too impressed with the storyline, or something, but by then I had one foot out the comic-collecting door. Others seemed to feel the same. Ms. Marvel only lasted 23 issues.
That was 40 years ago. One wonders what failed enterprise aimed at kids/teens today will become a billion-dollar blockbuster in 40 years.
Movie Review: Phantom of Chinatown (1940)
“Phantom of Chinatown,” a wholly unremarkable film, is remarkable for casting a Chinese-American actor, Seattle's own Keye Luke, as its Chinese-American detective. At the time, that may have been unprecedented.
Most such roles, of course, went to white actors who put on yellowface: Warner Oland for 16 “Charlie Chan” movies, Sidney Toler for 22 more, and Roland Winters for six more after that. Peter Lorre starred in eight “Mr. Moto” movies in the late 1930s while Boris Karloff played U.S. Treasury detective James Lee Wong for five movies during the same time. Prestige pictures engaged in this practice as well: Paul Muni and Luise Rainier in “The Good Earth,” Katherine Hepburn in “Dragon Seed,” Marlon Brando in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” and up to the present day—if you want to call “Aloha” or “Dr. Strange” prestige pictures.
“Phantom” is another James Lee Wong flick—the last one. Apparently Karloff’s contract was up and apparently someone at “poverty row” Monogram Pictures decided to save on makeup by hiring Luke, who had already appeared as Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son, Lee Chan, in maybe a dozen Charlie Chan movies, as well as originating Kato in the “Green Hornet” movie serial that same year. Since he’s younger than Karloff, and since we see him introduced to Capt. Street, his nominal partner in the other movies, this one is essentially a prequel.
George Washington was disinterred here
Luke isn’t just the lead in the movie but the lead detective in a murder case—despite not being a detective himself and spending most of his screen time with a real detective, Capt. Street (Grant Withers), who, despite the title, is almost comic relief here. He grouses his way through the entire movie and seems to have zero ideas how to solve the crime. I enjoyed him immensely.
The movie opens, inauspiciously, with a lecture. Dr. John Benton, an archeologist, has recently returned from the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, where he and his team uncovered the tomb of ... wait for it ... a Ming Dynasty Emperor! What was the tomb of an emperor of the Ming Dynasty, which was based in Beijing and Nanjing, doing in Mongolia? Yeah.
Dr. Benton quickly introduces us to several of our supporting players and future suspects:
- his pretty daughter, Louise Benton (Virginia Carpenter), who winds up mattering not at all
- her fiancee, the handsome pilot, Tommy Dean (Robert Kellard), who ... ditto
- Benton's camerman, Charles Frasier (John Dilson)
- his secretary, Win Len (Lotus Long, alliteratively ready to be Superman’s girlfriend)
In the excavation, Dr. Benton found a scroll in the tomb but hid it in his jacket. Did he also unearth a curse? Fierce winds came up, and one of his party, the co-pilot, Mason (John Holland), went missing and was presumed dead.
At this point in the lecture, to quote a little e.e. cummings, “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.” Then, extending beyond cummings, he clutched his throat and died.
That’s when Jimmy Wong shows up, along with Capt. Street, forever griping. A day later, Jimmy figures out the water was poisoned, and there may be clues on the film Frasier was showing. Frasier is attacked in his home; Win Len, tied up in the closet, seems to be playing her own game, and the bad guys, rather than making a clean getaway, keep lurking in the shadows.
There’s not much of a phantom—not even the “Scooby Doo” kind. The title character is Mason, who never died, despite the best efforts of the two-timing Frasier, and who’s holed up in Chinatown until he gets his revenge and the scroll. As for the scroll’s secret? Coordinates to “an eternal flame,” which Wong realizes means a giant oil deposit. As for Win Len's secret? She’s working for the Chinese government to make sure the scroll, and the oil, remain China’s. As to which Chinese government she’s working for—Mao’s or Chiang’s—that goes unasked.
But she gets it. In the end, Wong delivers the ancient scroll to Win Len. “This is part of China,” he says. “I think we can trust you to see that it remains so.”
Most of the movie is a big nothing, but one scene is so ahead of its time it makes the movie worth writing about. Halfway through, Wong and Street show up at the Benton house, where they are greeted by the snooty French butler, Jonas (Willy Castello), and a few workers moving a coffin.
Street: What's all this?
Jonas: The sarcophagus from the Chinese tomb, sir, that once contained the body of a Ming emperor.
Wong: They tell me a Chinese archaeological expedition is digging up the body of George Washington in exchange.
Jonas (affronted): Sir?
Wong (offhand): Well, it gives you a rough idea. Is Win Len home?
Luke’s line reading on “rough idea” is perfect. Makes you wonder what might’ve been in a more enlightened movie industry.
China about to get its oil back. Its Ming emperor? Probably not.
Little mentioned but maybe long remembered?
How did Monogram get enlightened enough in 1940 to cast a Chinese-American in a Chinese-American role? Who knows? Maybe if you were a “poverty row” studio, you were allowed a more enlightened racial viewpoint than the majors. What did you have to lose? Cf., Philip Ahn, “Great Guy,” Grand National. Others?
A film noir website does say that the Wong series—based on 20 short stories by Hugh Wiley that appeared in Colliers magazine between 1934 and 1940—ended with this one because of Luke: “Rather depressingly, the substitution of Luke for Karloff persuaded many cinema managers, especially in the South, to ditch the series.” Their source on this? Unmentioned.
The unprecedented casting and breakthrough role goes unmentioned in Keye Luke’s New York Times obit as well. In an interview Luke did with Heidi Chang as part of a Seattle Chinese oral history project just before his death, he's asked about high points in his early career and mentions “Oil for the Lamps of China,” a 1935 Warner Bros. picture starring Pat O’Brien, in which he plays a Chinese communist officer who helps drive Standard Oil out of China. He also mentions playing the patriach in “Flower Drum Song” for three years on Broadway in 1950s. Of “Phantom”? 没有了. Gone like a ghost.
Some leftover images from last year—or 110 years ago.
One of the first movies I watched on FilmStruck when I joined in September (two months before its demise) was a short thing from something like ... 1909? I forget and I can't find it now. Anyone know the title?
Anyway, I believe there was a warning about watching it. Contained offensive material, etc.
The focus is an artist, who writes the word “COON” on a big blank piece of paper:
Then he draws this image around that word.
Next, he writes COHEN.
And as you can imagine:
One hundred years ago, this was considered entertainment. It was a laugh. It was clever. I post it as a history lesson. It's less to condemn the past than to remind us of the debt we owe the people who constantly pushed for empathy and reform so we could reach our present moment. Also to remind us that this present moment isn't secure, and never will be. There are still people who would see the above as clever entertainment. Some of them hold high office.