Is the Captain Marvellous?

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I went to see Captain Marvel today. It’s another MCU film that shifts genres. Just as Thor did sword and sorcery and Winter Soldier did conspiracy thriller, Captain Marvel starts off as a space opera. Now, obviously, this genre itself isn’t new to Marvel films — hello, Guardians of the Galaxy — but there’s a distinct difference this time: Captain Marvel opens as a TV space opera.

Where film space operas typically aim to be either quasi-mythological epics (Star Wars) or over-the-top cartoons (Guardians, Flash Gordon, Valerian) TV space operas tend to have different ambitions, arising from their episodic formats and limited budgets. Intentionally or not, the first act of Captain Marvel does a thorough job of emulating this mode. Carol belongs to an alien army, the other members of which all look like humans (well, a couple have blue skin, but there are no counterparts to Groot or Rocket Raccoon present). Their exploits consist mainly of relatively low-key running-and-gunning, as we’d expect from a TV budget. Even the choice of antagonists — aliens who can shapeshift into doppelgangers — would suit a television series that wants to make the most of a limited cast. The production values are higher, but the underlying aesthetic is straight out of the TV set.

When the action reaches Earth, Captain Marvel changes the channel, sliding from TV space opera to The X-Files as Carol gets caught up in a web of government intrigue, alien autopsies and black-suited agents. At the same time, though, we get all the snappy one-liners and knockabout humour we’ve come to expect from Marvel. The X-Files would have handled the same subject matter very differently: Carol’s repressed memories making Earth is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar) and the wider narrative of aliens taking on human form are perfect for a truly paranoid feel. Paranoia and superheroics don’t tend to mix, however, and the film’s midsection tends to look more like an X-Files parody than the real thing.

Captain Marvel finally settles into Joss Whedon territory, giving us such sights as a menacing green alien casually slurping fizzy pop from a straw. Perhaps the simplest way to sum up the film is as a greatest hits medley of 90s SF/F television: Babylon 5, X-Files and Angel, all with an effects budget that none of those series could have dreamed of. This may well have been intentional, given that the film is set in the 90s and repeatedly trades on nostalgia for the era.

None of my above comments should be taken as criticism. Captain Marvel performs each of its shifting genre duties pretty well. The thing is, though, other films — including other Marvel films — have covered the same genres if not necessarily better, than with fuller commitment. Winter Soldier is a more engaging conspiracy thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy is a wider-ranging space opera. And now we have Captain Marvel squeezing in between them, Jack of all trades but master of none.

Had it been a standalone film, I suspect that Captain Marvel would have eventually ended up in the same corner of the public imagination as Jupiter Ascending and Valerian (both of which I enjoyed, incidentally). But thanks to its franchise ties, the film has an assured afterlife. We know that Carol will be co-starring in the next Avengers, and a Captain Marvel 2 is a distinct possibility. Superhero sequels frequently top their precursors, so perhaps the good Captain will finally happen upon an area where the truly shines.

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