Last week the trailer for Captain Marvel, the next entry in the venerable Marvel Cinematic Universe, arrived. For those who don’t know, Captain Marvel is a female superhero with tremendous energy manipulation powers, whose presence was teased in the last scene of Avengers: Infinity War (I will refrain from discussing any details for those who have managed to avoid spoilers thus far). She is being touted as the headliner for the next ‘phase’ of the MCU.
So far, reactions to the trailer have been…rather mixed. My own reaction is that, much as I love the MCU, I’m not getting a good vibe off of this.
In the first place, I really don’t get much of a sense of excitement from this trailer: there are only a handful of very brief scenes actually showing the heroine in action, none of which were especially impressive. Most of the trailer just showed footage of Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel’s real name)’s life; things like her as a girl falling over blended with her falling as an adult, or her in training in the military, or her just wandering about with a glazed expression.
On that subject, a lot of criticism has been leveled at Brie Larson’s performance as seen in this trailer and…yeah, I can’t say it isn’t warranted. She spends just about the whole thing with the most bored, disinterested expression on her face. I think they were trying to make her look serious and competent, but from what we’ve seen, she just looks half asleep most of the time.
Contrast Miss Larson’s expression with Miss Johanson’s in the trailer for The Avengers back in 2012:
See, Black Widow looks tough, determined, and ready for battle; her eyes are focused, but fully open, her brow is lowered, her jaw clenched. Meanwhile, Captain Marvel just looks vague: her eyes are unfocused, the eyelids appear to be drooping, and her brow and jawlines appear to be relaxed. She looks like she just got out of bed and hasn’t had her morning cup of Joe.
Dishearteningly, this even extends to her Entertainment Weekly cover, which you’d think would try to present the best possible face on the upcoming film.
Just to drive the point home, some fans subsequently photoshopped still images from the trailer and promotional materials to give her a smile. It’s kind of startling the difference it makes: she immediately appears so much more likable and, well, human. She suddenly has a real sense of personality. For my part, I at once found myself thinking, “yeah, I’d like to go on an adventure with this character.”
Predictably, certain corners of the internet labeled this ‘sexist’, since apparently asking a woman to smile is sexist and demeaning. This neatly sidesteps the fact that the issue is less that she doesn’t smile than that she doesn’t emote. Also that no one felt the need to give similar treatment to, say, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman or Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp. Or that fans have made similar complaints about male characters ranging from Superman to Freddy Krueger. Also, they apparently haven’t learned from Lucasfilm that insulting your audience for criticizing your product is not a good idea.
Perhaps this is all misleading, and her actual performance will be better. I hope it is, since I don’t like disliking Marvel films (well, Black Panther is kinda fun to take apart, but I’d much rather it had been a good movie), especially one that is, apparently, so vital to the conclusion of Infinity War.
There is also the rather cringe inducing tagline, “Discover what makes a hero,” with a very deliberate emphasis on the ‘her’ part. I don’t know if that was meant to be “what makes her a hero” or “what makes a her-o,” but it’s ill-judged either way. For one thing, could that tagline be any more generic? And for another, emphasizing the femaleness of your heroine is not going to work as a selling point: there is nothing novel about a female-led action movie, and normal audience members don’t care either way. All they want is a good story with likable characters; that’s why Wonder Woman was a smash hit and the Ghostbusters remake wasn’t.
That’s right, I said there was nothing novel about a female-led action film. Salt, Lucy, Ghost in the Shell, The Hunger Games films, Wonder Woman, Colombiana, the Tomb Raider films, the new Star Wars films, the Ghostbusters remake, and on and on, not to mention superhero films Elektra and Catwoman. You might be saying “But most of those films bombed and/or were really, really terrible!” Yes, but we’re not talking about quality, only novelty, and my claim is that there is no novelty in a female-led action film. For goodness sakes, Aliens was headed by Sigourney Weaver and that’s one of the most popular and influential sci-fi action films ever made.
The point is that you cannot use a female superhero as a selling point; it’s been done, and thanks to Wonder Woman it’s even been done very well. You need to give us something more, and thus far I’m not really seeing anything. Heck, I thought the Aquaman trailer had more of fun and novelty in it than this; it looks stupid as hell, but at least it was energetic and showed off major points of interest, like sea monsters, submarines being lifted out of the water, and so on. What we see here is all either extremely generic (firing lasers from her fists: haven’t seen that before) or just ordinary. The trailer doesn’t even establish the Skrulls, the shape-shifting aliens who serve as the film’s antagonists (meaning audience members who don’t know about the plot from other sources will simply have a shot of the supposed heroine punching an old woman with no context. There’s a selling point: wooden-faced heroine beats up old people).
Now, if I were doing this film, I’d make it an action-packed, high-concept space adventure; something akin to Aliens with a super powered Ripley. Maybe they’re doing that, but I just don’t get a sense of it from the trailer, or really of any kind of fun adventure. That would be the way to sell this film; courageous and good-looking astronaut girl fights evil alien monsters with her cosmic superpowers. Lots of people would be happy to pay to see that. Very few people are going to want to see a film marketed as, “It’s a Marvel film, but this time with a female lead! No, it’s not that character you all like. Or that one. Not that one either.”
But even apart from the shortcomings of the trailer itself, there’s another problem lurking in background; it’s the aforementioned fact that Marvel is already saying that Captain Marvel is going to replace Iron Man and Captain America as the new ‘face’ of the MCU. This is a big mistake.
You see, the Marvel films are by now a venerable, established series, headlined by characters who have become fixtures of the popular imagination. Millions of people have accompanied Iron Man and Cap through a decade’s worth of adventures, experiencing their hardships, struggles, joys, and triumphs. So, telling that audience that these characters are now going to be replaced or are going to take a back seat to this other character whom they haven’t had any kind of experience with yet (and, to be frank, one whom most in the audience haven’t even heard of) is not going to inspire much good will. If you told your son that you were going to take away his favorite toy and replace it with another toy, his reaction wouldn’t be excitement; it would be at best deep skepticism and a predisposition to hate the new toy. Not to mention that it sets the bar incredibly high for this new film: it not only has to be good, it has to be on par with the original Iron Man and Captain Marvel has to be as vivid and inspiring a character as Captain America. To put it bluntly, this is not going to happen. The film may be good, and we hope it is, but you are not going to make audiences care about Captain Marvel the same way they care about Captain frickin’ America. So please do not set that as the goal you are trying to achieve; you will only hurt you own film.
I’m fine with replacing the old characters (provided they’re given a respectful and fitting send off), but you need to do that organically; you can’t just present the audience with a completely new character and tell them that they are going to admire and be inspired by her now before the film is even released. That needs to happen organically, by building the new character into the universe and most of all by making her engaging and likable.
All things considered, so far this is the first MCU film that I’m looking forward to with more trepidation than excitement (I wasn’t super excited for Black Panther, but I was looking forward to it). But then again, I wasn’t looking forward to Wonder Woman either and they blew that one out of the water.
On the other hand, the DCEU was already a slow-motion disaster when Wonder Woman came along. There was nothing at stake if that movie had failed because it would only have been another entry in a series of missteps.
The MCU, however, has been a towering success and is coming off of its crowning achievement in Infinity War. Now they have essentially gambled the future of the series on this one film: a film that honestly does not look very promising at this point.
That’s why I’m uneasy about this movie; not just that I fear it will be bad in itself, but that I’m worried it will irretrievably break one of the few healthy film franchises we have left. Time alone will tell, but I’m not optimistic.