THE RELEASE of “Captain Marvel”, the 21st film in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, has been good for Marvel’s owners Disney, who made $550m from it over its first week, for fans of Brie Larson, the Oscar-winning actress who gives a wonderful performance as the film’s titular hero, for people nostalgic for 1980s and 90s pop culture, and for old actors who wish to appear young on screen. But has it been good for women?
“Wonder Woman”, a film from Marvel’s rival comic-book pantheon, DC, was rapturously received in 2017 not just because of the pent-up longing for a superhero film with a strong female lead, but because the director, Patty Jenkins, and her star, Gal Gadot, imbued their Diana with the classic characteristics of heroism: nobility, martial skill, trustworthiness, compassion and courage. That is not an unheard of set of characteristics for the female lead in a Hollywood film—Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” had the full set, too—but it is rare. “Wonder Woman” also showed Diana (like Furiosa) to be the product of a matriarchy—an Amazon trying to rid the world of oppressive patriarchal violence, mortal or divine. It wasn’t deep, and some of it was rather silly, but chunks of it were satisfying at a level that went beyond spectacle and charm.
The success of “Wonder Woman” both raised the bar for “Captain Marvel” and reduced the stakes. The first Marvel film built around a female lead no longer had to be an iconic piece of popular feminism, because that had been done. But it risked being a bit of an also-ran, which to an extent it was. It is remarkable that Marvel has been able to make such a prodigious number of films with consistent commercial success, fairly high average quality and no true stinkers, but it makes it increasingly hard to stand out all that much, and “Captain Marvel” doesn’t.
Set mostly on the Earth of the 1990s, with some interludes in generic spaceships and on utterly uninteresting alien planets, it has no scope for the world-building that contributed so much to last year’s “Black Panther”, set in the beautifully imagined African kingdom of Wakanda. Carol Danvers, the character played by Ms Larson, exists in a mainly male world the audience already knows—specifically, that of 1980s and 1990s American popular film. There are nods to the Terminator films, to “Speed”, to “Independence Day”, to “The Right Stuff”, even to “Midnight Run”. Some flashbacks are very reminiscent of the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, another piece of popular culture with a female lead who was a true hero.
These references have their compensations. Among the things the film borrows from Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” is its homoeroticism. The friendship between Captain Danvers, call sign Avenger, and her wingwoman Maria Rambeau, call sign Photon, played by Lashana Lynch, is not specifically portrayed as a sexual one. But in a few short scenes it develops a depth that feels truly romantic—something few if any straight Marvel pairings have managed.
The relationship which gets the most screen time, though, is that between Captain Danvers and Nick Fury, an agent of the mysterious organisation SHIELD, played by Samuel L. Jackson. This is the ninth film in which Mr Jackson has played Agent Fury (though his part has sometimes been little more than a cameo) and he will appear again in at least one of the two that are coming out later this year. His performances never fail to entertain. But there is an issue. When he first appeared in “Iron Man”—which was both released and apparently set in 2008—it seemed reasonable to assume that Mr Fury was the same age as Mr Jackson, who was 59 at the time. Mr Jackson is now a fit and vibrant 70-year-old. But during the events of “Captain Marvel” Mr Fury is in his mid 40s.
Marvel has faced such problems before, using the talents of Lola, a visual-effects company, to make Robert Downey Jr a teenager in “Captain America: Civil War” and to restore Michael Douglas to the prime of middle age in “Ant Man”. Like them—and Michelle Pfeiffer, subjected to similar digital cosmetics in “Ant Man and the Wasp”—Mr Jackson does the special-effects wizards the favour of coming equipped with a film career that provides lots of reference for what he looked like when younger. Even so, the effects, on display through much more of “Captain Marvel” than in previous outings, are remarkably well done.
This is good news for septuagenarian actors in big-budget movies. Later this year Netflix will release Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”, in which his long-time collaborators Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, all in the second halves of their 70s, will play thugs in their 50s; digital de-ageing will be crucial. How far the technique has already been stretched into unacknowledged territory—keeping the images on the silver screen younger for longer with no razzamatazz—is not clear, but it is obviously a possibility.
Freeing performers from their chronological age need not be purely a matter of vanity, career prolongation or story continuity in franchises beset with both prequels and time travel. It offers interesting artistic possibilities. But it does take yet further the penetration of computer-based visual effects into the heart of movie making. “Captain Marvel” introduces to the cinematic universe the Skrulls, aliens who, in Marvel comics, have been shifting into the form of anyone they choose, of any age or gender, since the early 1960s. It was a strange, creepy and fantastic idea then. As the Marvel movies enter their second decade, skrullishness is just part of the way things get done.