Shazam! review

SHAZAM!

Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast : Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Jovan Armand, Ian Chen
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 h 12 mins
Opens : 4 April 2019
Rating : PG

Created in 1939 by Artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, Captain Marvel, later known as Shazam, was the first superhero to make it to the big screen with 1941’s Republic Serial named Adventures of Captain Marvel. The character returns to cinemas 78 years later in Shazam!

            Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old orphan whom the ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) endows with his powers. Billy now can transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he shouts the magic word “Shazam!”. Billy’s foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a superhero aficionado who helps Billy gain mastery over his powers and develop his superhero identity.

In the meantime, physicist Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) hunts down Shazam, wielding the power of the Seven Deadly Sins. Sivana believes he was the wizard’s rightful champion. Billy must adjust to both his existence as Shazam and life in the group home alongside Freddy and his other foster siblings, Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Darla (Faithe Herman).

Let’s get the naming thing out of the way: Captain Marvel was originally published by Fawcett Comics and was a top-selling superhero comic, even outselling Superman. DC Comics sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, alleging the character was a copy of Superman. Fawcett stopped publishing Captain Marvel comics in 1953, then in 1972, DC licensed Captain Marvel and related characters from Fawcett, fully integrating the characters into the DC universe by 1991. The named “Captain Marvel” had been copyrighted by Marvel Comics, who introduced their version of Captain Marvel in 1967. When DC relaunched with the New 52 in 2011, the character was renamed Shazam. Long story short, the rivalry between the Captain Marvel movie and the Shazam! movie is completely pointless and doesn’t need to exist.

A Shazam! movie has been in development since the early 2000s, with the production of other DC Comics movies throwing various spanners in the works. In this final form, directed by David F. Sandberg from a screenplay by Henry Gayden, Shazam! is a movie that remembers superheroes were originally created for children. This doesn’t mean that the film is an overly cuddly, toothless affair, and there still are scenes that might frighten younger viewers, but Shazam! takes the concept that its titular hero is a kid in an adult superhero’s body and runs with it.

It’s no secret that the DC Extended Universe had stumbled multiple times, and Shazam! marks the franchise’s firmest rejection of the tone it exhibited in its earlier entries. This reviewer still enjoys Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad to varying degrees despite the overall criticism those films received, but it became clear that what general audiences perceived as an enforced grimness had become an albatross around the franchise’s neck. Justice League adopted the Avengers formula but came off as hastily reassembled and half-baked. Shazam! is light-hearted, affably goofy and zany without coming off as manic. It’s not exactly a superhero epic and is often more amiable than awe-inspiring, but the approach works well for the character.

Shazam is a character who’s been nicknamed “the Big Red Cheese”, and Zachary Levi embodies a kid’s sense of wonderment and being overwhelmed, having an enormous amount of fun in the role. Levi is a champion of geek culture, having created the Nerd Machine lifestyle brand and starred in the TV series Chuck. He also played Fandral in two Thor films, though it’s easy to forget that. As Shazam, Levi has eagerness to spare and lights up the screen whenever he’s on it.

Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer share plenty of chemistry as bickering foster brothers. As Billy Batson, there’s a sadness that Angel carries around, a sadness Billy sheds when he transforms into Shazam. Grazer plays a fanboy, and in an age when fanboys can be annoying and often actively toxic, such that ‘fanboy’ is often a pejorative, it’s nice to see an endearing fanboy portrayed in a superhero movie.

Mark Strong’s Sinestro was one of the best parts of 2011’s Green Lantern movie, and he plays another DC villain here. He plays it completely straight – Sivana is ruthless and powerful and commands the terrifying and grotesque demons who personify the Seven Deadly Sins. The character is strictly one-dimensional even when given bits of back-story, but an archetypical superhero needs an archetypical supervillain and Strong is the best man for the job.

Shazam! is very much a movie about family, and there’s a warmth to the scenes of a foster family that carries on DC’s lineage of superheroes being adopted as children. This element of the story is taken straight from the New 52 Shazam! run. The movie’s feel-good moments might come off as a bit too pat, but there’s enough sincerity to paper over that. Grace Fulton and Faithe Herman are the standouts as the big sister of the bunch and the slightly hyper little sister respectively.

Shazam! is much more modest in scale than Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the two DCEU films generally considered good (the former more so than the latter), are. It is pretty much Big as a superhero movie – there’s even an homage to the classic floor piano scene. Shazam! fully embraces the outre elements of the comics, going all in on the magic and never straining to make things ‘grounded’ or ‘realistic’. It remains to be seen just how cohesive the DCEU will be or even needs to be going forward, but it’s good to know that while the darker stories have their place, there’s room for movies like Shazam! too.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Dumbo (2019) review

DUMBO

Director: Tim Burton
Cast : Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei
Genre : Adventure/Family/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 52 mins
Opens : 28 March 2019
Rating : PG

           This year, we’ll be getting several live-action remakes of Disney animated features – or, to be pedantic, a photo-realistic CGI remake with The Lion King. The House of Mouse kicks off the 2019 slate of remakes with Dumbo.

It is 1919 and Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War I, having lost his left arm in the battle. Holt and his late wife Annie were trick riders in the circus. Holt returns to the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), to find they have run into hard times. An elephant acquired by Medici gives birth to a baby elephant with abnormally large ears. The baby, named Jumbo Jr. and nicknamed Dumbo, is forcefully separated from his mother. Holt’s young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) discover Dumbo can fly.

The story of the amazing flying elephant attracts the attention of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who buys out Medici’s circus. The circus performers, including Dumbo, relocate to Vandevere’s sprawling theme park Dreamland. Vandevere has Dumbo perform alongside trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). While Medici is initially swayed by Vandevere, he and the other circus performers eventually discover that Vandevere is exploiting them and is exploiting Dumbo in particular. Holt, Milly and Joe hatch a plan to free Dumbo and reunite him with his mother.

Disney’s live-action remakes have sometimes been criticised for being too literal – 2017’s Beauty and the Beast comes to mind. A remake should put enough of a spin on the original such that it doesn’t lose its spirit, but still feels transformative enough to be worthwhile. Dumbo largely achieves this with its story focusing on new human characters, while keeping the titular baby elephant as its emotional centre. Thankfully, elements from the original such as the racist crows are jettisoned, and this film’s message of inclusivity feels more genuine than that espoused by fellow circus movie The Greatest Showman.

Tim Burton’s sensibilities might not seem like the best fit for a family-friendly Disney film, and his attempts at family-aimed movies do tend to be inadvertently horrifying. However, Dumbo benefits from the distinct visual stylisation that Burton brings to it, and is also very much a story about outsiders, which is familiar territory for the director. Dumbo’s big ears, the thing for which he is mocked, are also the source of his special abilities. It’s not quite Edward Scissorhands, but one can see the connection there. There are times when it feels like this isn’t exactly a passion project for Burton and that he’s very much a hired gun, but then again, it’s easy to overdose on Burton-ness and for him to lapse into self-parody, which he stays a safe distance from here.

A lot rides on the shoulders of the titular pachyderm – if audiences believe the wholly computer-generated creation as a living, breathing character, then it’s easy to empathise with him and to feel sad when bad things befall him. The visual effects are supervised by Richard Stammers, and while Dumbo might look a bit unnatural in stills and posters, the result is successful. The human characters do a lot of interacting with Dumbo, which is mostly seamless. This is a movie in which the title character is only added into the film in post-production, and there isn’t an actor performing motion capture on set like with the Planet of the Apes reboot series or Alita: Battle Angel.

In addition to the synthetic main character, the human cast is a big part of what makes Dumbo work. There was a period in Colin Farrell’s career when Hollywood was pushing him as an action hero, and he’s much better as characters like Holt – quiet, tortured characters who are still noble, they’re just not spouting one-liners. Farrell brings a pensive sadness to Holt, who is handicapped after fighting in the war and is struggling to raise his two children after the death of his wife.

Michael Keaton is having heaps of fun as the slimy P.T. Barnum analogue. His villainous character is never truly terrifying and isn’t half as terrifying as Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There’s also the irony of a slick huckster who swallows up a smaller business being the villain in a Disney movie, given that Disney regularly swallows up slightly smaller businesses.

DeVito brings humour and heart to the role of Medici, someone who cares for his employees but who is struggling to make ends meet. The film hints that the circus performers have lives and personalities beyond their gimmick – Roshan Seth’s snake charmer character Pramesh Singh cares deeply for the elephants, while DeObia Oparei’s strong man character Rongo is also Medici’s accountant and general right-hand man.

Eva Green has become something of a muse of Burton’s, this being her third film with him. She brings elegance and mystique to the role of Colette, whom Vandevere keeps firmly under his thumb.

Nico Parker gives an assured performance as Milly, who has her heart set on becoming a scientist. She’s a girl ahead of her time, aspiring to something more than being a circus performer. Milly’s brother Joe is a bit less defined as a character, but Finley Hobbins is still quite endearing.

While Dumbo sometimes feels just a bit too conventional, it is a moving, often enchanting take on the classic animated film. The film benefits from just enough of Burton’s signature weirdness and darkness while still being something for the whole family.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Us review

US

Director: Jordan Peele
Cast : Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1 h 57 mins
Opens : 21 March 2019
Rating : NC16

            It took many a while to wrap their heads around the fact that Jordan Peele, best known as one half of the comedy duo Key and Peele, has become a modern-day master of horror. His feature film directorial debut Get Out was hailed as a game-changer and won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. Now, Peele is back to frighten us with Us.

The film centres on Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family: husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). They’re on vacation at their Santa Cruz beach house, meeting their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) Tyler, who have twin daughters Gwen (Cali Sheldon) and Maggie (Noelle Sheldon). On their first night at the beach house, Adelaide and Gabe discover strangers standing in their driveway. These strangers, known as ‘the Tethered’, look exactly like them. Their arrival unleashes a string of eerie, chaotic occurrences, with the family fighting for their lives to defeat their evil duplicates.

There’s something inherently unsettling in the concept of a doppelgänger: nobody knows us better than we know ourselves, so coming face to face with someone who is physically identical to oneself but otherwise a complete stranger does inspire paranoia. Writer-director Peele, who is presenting the new Twilight Zone reboot, was inspired by the episode “Mirror Image” from the original Twilight Zone series.

While Get Out was a horror comedy which was heavy on the social commentary, Peele set out to make what is tonally a more traditional horror movie. There are still several well-placed jokes, but Us is primarily a masterclass in mood setting. The atmospherics are full-on creepy and there are many tense, disturbing moments which Peele plays to the hilt. The score by Michael Abels packs in the Bernard Hermann-esque shrieking strings but is a safe distance away from a cliched horror movie soundtrack.

There’s still a deeper underlying message, one that is deliberately vague and open to interpretation. The Tethered could represent the oppressed lower castes of society, with their counterparts oblivious to their existence and their plight until a violent uprising occurs. Peele has stated that the movie is not specifically about race, so perhaps it’s mainly about class. There’s a lot of symbolism which you can bet will be eagerly dissected by casual viewers and film students alike.

Peele displays a keen awareness of iconography. Enduring horror movie villains can often be tied to specific props, costumes or physical attributes, be it Jason Voorhees’ machete and ski mask or Leatherface’s human skin mask and chainsaw. In Us, the Tethered have those red jumpsuits and very pointy gold scissors – this is destined to be a popular Halloween costume. The actors enjoy playing up the creepiness of the Tethered, but not so much that the characters become caricatures.

Nyong’o does a lot of heavy lifting and is excellent in her dual roles as Adelaide and her Tethered counterpart Red. Adelaide struggles with deep-seated trauma from an incident in her childhood, and when the attack happens, is frightened but ultimately capable. As Red, Nyong’o essays an off-kilter physicality, walking about swiftly and with her back ramrod straight. As either character, she remains focused and determined and is a big part of why Us works.

Winston Duke, who like Nyong’o also co-starred in Black Panther, plays a character who’s prone to dad jokes and is a little silly, but who’s also always ready to step up and protect his family.

It’s always a little tricky putting kids in horror movies, because placing children in peril for the sake of a few scares can feel manipulative. That, and kids in horror movies tend to be annoying. Shahadi Wright Joseph’s Zora is the teenager prone who’s on her phone all the time and prone to an eye roll or two, while Evan Alex’s Jason very much lives in his own world. Wright Joseph has perfected the creepy smile as Zora’s double Umbrae, while Jason’s double is a pyromaniac feral child.

Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss provide some laughs, but the film’s focus is trained squarely on the Wilsons. A sequence set in the Tyler’s luxurious house is one of the film’s more intense and viscerally scary moments.

Us is a film that is deliberately frustrating in parts, with somewhat-obtuse symbolism scattered about. However, even without subjecting the movie to rigorous meta-analysis, it works as a horror film and it’s clear that it’s meticulously crafted. Peele is a filmmaker with something to say and enough style to say it engagingly, so we’re looking forward to his upcoming Candyman reboot and whatever else he has up his sleeve.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Soldiers of Fortune: Triple Frontier cast and producer in Singapore

SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE: TRIPLE FRONTIER CAST AND PRODUCER IN SINGAPORE

Stars Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund and producer Chuck Roven talk Netflix’s paramilitary action thriller

Jedd Jong

Netflix is bringing a rumble in the jungle into audiences’ living rooms with Triple Frontier, and the film’s stars and producer trekked from the deepest forests of South America to Singapore to promote the film. Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and producer Chuck Roven met fans at Marina Bay Sands and fielded questions from the press the next day.

The film centres on five men, Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck), Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac), William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), his brother Ben Miller (Garrett Hedlund) and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal). The ex-top tier military operatives, feeling frustrated that they have reaped nothing from their service, reunite for a mission. This time, they’re doing it for themselves. The men embark on a daring heist in the remote tri-border zone along the border of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil (hence the title), planning to rob a drug kingpin and keep the spoils for themselves. Despite the years of combat experience between them, unforeseen circumstances endanger the risky undertaking, leaving the men battling for their lives in unforgiving climes.

Triple Frontier is directed by J.C. Chandor and co-written by Chandor and Mark Boal. Chandor’s credits include All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year, and Boal is a former journalist who also wrote The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the two latter films, was originally attached to Triple Frontier. Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp were initially announced as being in talks to join the film, with Channing Tatum, Tom Hardy and Mahershala Ali later attached. The film was originally set up at Paramount, before moving to Netflix. “It was quite a trek of its own getting it made,” Roven quipped.

From the get-go, Triple Frontier was gruelling for those both in front of and behind the camera. The film was shot on location in Oahu, Hawaii, Mammoth Mountain, California, and Bogota, Colombia. “So much of the movie was done very real, not on a soundstage, not with a lot of visual effects,” Roven said. Roven has produced films including the Dark Knight trilogy, Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman and American Hustle. “In addition, the elements were not always very kind to us,” Roven added, citing “historic rain” during the shoot in Hawaii. “We were sloshing around in mud and mudslides, and a lot of times it took us a long time to get to work. Once we were at work, we were in flood conditions and things like that,” he recalled, remarking “The movie is exciting to watch, but it was also exciting to make.”

The actors spoke about the preparation they undertook for the film, which included training with three former Navy SEALs and a former Delta Force operative in California’s Simi Valley. Charlie Hunnam spoke about how the actors were flung into the thick of things, saying “We didn’t know each other, I hadn’t met Ben before, or Pedro or Oscar, and within 30 minutes of meeting each other we were standing doing live fire exercises.”

Hunnam said that using live rounds helped the actors focus on their task and reminded them that it wasn’t a game. “The thing you hear time and time again from these soldiers is that at a moment’s notice, they’re willing to lay down their life for their brother and vice versa,” Hunnam shared.

Hunnam and Hedlund have been friends for 15 years, and because the actors have a passing physical resemblance, it was written into the script that their characters are brothers. Hedlund’s character Ben becomes an MMA fighter after retiring from active duty. Hunnam helped Hedlund prepare for the role by taking Hedlund to a gym called The Academy in Beverly Hills, which is run by Rigan Machado, known as one of the top competitors in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu history. Machado’s other
celebrity students include Vin Diesel, Ashton Kutcher and Chuck Norris. “I choked [Hedlund] out a little bit and showed him what it was about,” Hunnam quipped.

Hedlund is no stranger to the military, having played a soldier in six of his last eight films and having relatives who served. “My grandfather was stationed in the Philippines as an MP and never spoke of the war when he came back. My other grandfather was stationed in Germany with Elvis,” Hedlund revealed. “When I was a kid growing up on a farm, my father would walk me down the gravel road marching in cadence, because that’s what he was used to,” Hedlund continued.

He took the responsibility of playing a soldier seriously, saying “You always…give the utmost respect to the men you’re playing and never disrespect the uniform.” Hedlund stressed that the actors were careful in not rendering their ex-military characters as caricatures, saying “Everybody was very legit; we wanted the realism to stand out.”

Affleck said that meeting and working with the film’s military advisors dispelled him of some preconceived notions. “One of the misconceptions I had going into it was that they were going to be these real superhero military guys, they were going to be very aggressive and hierarchical and kind of drill sergeant bullies or something,” Affleck remarked. “Instead, they were the kindest, most open, humble [people] who taught us about…inter-reliance among each other as the most important thing.”

While it can seem that on a movie packed with stars one might want to jostle the other out of the spotlight, teamwork was key in accurately reflecting how a real-life Special Forces unit operates. “The thing they felt was most important to get across was that we would all move as one unit, one team together, rather than being about one person standing out and being the hero,” Affleck said. “I thought it was beautiful, we definitely took that to heart, and we tried to come together and make it work the way they trained us to do it.”

Affleck was conscious of the “vast delta” between his own lived experiences and those of military combat veterans. “It was a profoundly humbling experience to be around these men and understand the true nature of sacrifice and commitment and duty really was,” Affleck shared. While the film is testosterone-fuelled, making the movie was not about men trying to out-posture each other. “There really wasn’t a tremendous emphasis on hierarchy and being ‘alpha’ and being tougher than the other people,” Affleck said, adding that the film’s military advisors “educated me to understand that true strength came in compassion, in empathy and in teamwork, and I found that to be the lesson I took away from this movie.”

The actors’ preparation for the film was not just physical, but psychological as well. Hunnam’s research included reading the books War and Tribe by journalist Sebastian Junger, who was embedded with troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Junger continued to follow the soldiers after they returned from the war, observing how they adapted back to civilian life. Hunnam also watched Junger’s documentary films Restrepo and Korengal, which were made with photojournalist Tim Hetherington.  “He does a really incredible analysis of not only the psychological interplay of soldiers in war, but also the difficulty of coming home and reintegrating into civilian society, and the enormous loss that they generally feel,” Hunnam said of Junger.

Hunnam spoke of a specific example when one of the film’s military advisors stepped in to lend their expertise. “There’s a moment when I sustain an injury and of course in true Hollywood dynamic, was over-acting the moment,” Hunnam admitted. He said the military advisor “came over and gave me a couple of experiences where he himself had sustained massive injuries, and said ‘this is just a reality, you need to hold it together.’ It was amazing to get those kinds of insights in real time and make sure we were handling the situations correctly.”

On the surface, Triple Frontier might look like a typical action movie, but Roven assured the crowd that the film has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. “It is a genre that certainly others have done before, but in this particular situation and this particular script, where you think the movie is going, it doesn’t go there. It takes that genre and, in many ways, turns it on its head,” he declared.

Triple Frontier begins streaming on Netflix on March 13.

Captain Marvel review

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast : Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Algenis Pérez Soto, Rune Temte, Akira Akbar
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2 h 4 mins
Opens : 7 March 2019
Rating : PG13

            The Marvel Cinematic Universe is mostly set in the present day, but has taken detours to the past: Captain America: The First Avenger was set during World War II, Agent Carter was set just after World War II, flashbacks in the Ant-Man films were set in the 60s and the prologue of Guardians of the Galaxy was set in the 80s. Captain Marvel now takes us to the 90s to meet a hero who’ll be a key player in the MCU going forward.

Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is a former US Air Force fighter pilot who has been imbued with superpowers and is a part of Starforce, an elite Kree military unit. Serving under the leadership of Yonn-Rog (Jude Law), Carol, known by the Kree as “Vers”, fends off the threat of the shape-shifting Skrulls. When Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of the Skrulls, sets his sights on earth, Carol finds herself defending the planet she once called home, and confronts the former existence she has forgotten.

On earth, Carol meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.). Fury’s worldview is upended by the knowledge of an impending alien invasion. In attempting to trace her past, Carol reconnects with her Air Force colleague and best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), whose daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) was especially close to Carol. A series of events leads Carol to re-evaluate where her allegiances as she realises the full potential of her cosmic powers.

Captain Marvel is the last MCU film before Avengers: Endgame arrives in a month and a half. In the post-credits stinger of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, Nick Fury pages Captain Marvel just before he disintegrates, alongside half of all life on earth. This film builds hype for Endgame and adds to the speculation of what role Captain Marvel will play in the fight against Thanos but setting it in the 90s also gives it enough distance from the other MCU films, such that it can also be its own thing.

The directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who helmed Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, is the latest example of how the MCU has shepherded filmmakers known for making smaller films, such that they acquit themselves well given the large canvas of the MCU. The Russo Brothers, James Gunn, Jon Watts and Taika Waititi achieved similar success with their MCU films.

             Captain Marvel is part space opera, part fish-out-of-water comedy, all hero’s journey. The MCU films can feel samey-samey and while this sticks to the formula in parts, there are still surprises to be had, and the film’s status as a prequel doesn’t mean that audiences are entirely ahead of the plot.

There’s a variety to the action sequences, with the space opera stuff contrasted with a car chase and a fight on an LA Metro Rail train. There are also mid-air chases and space dogfights. While the cosmic action in Captain Marvel isn’t quite as exciting or inventive as in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, it’s still executed with enough flair. The 90s nostalgia is not as pandering as some audiences might have feared, and manifests in some very sly ways. The Stan Lee cameo, one of the last ones the late Marvel Comics writer filmed, is particularly clever.

While the movie is a big piece of positive PR for the U.S. Air Force, it doesn’t come off as propagandistic. Captain Marvel handles the themes of militarism and war with admirable nuance: the Kree have been locked in a protracted conflict with the Skrulls, and it turns out things are not as black and white as they first appear. It’s not the most insightful message, but it fits the story that’s being told here.

The film is character-driven, and Carol is always at its centre. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who served as a consultant on this film and makes a cameo appearance, said “Carol falls down all the time, but she always gets back up. We say that about Captain America as well, but Captain America gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol gets back up because ‘F*** you.’” Brie Larson captures this defiance, but also lends the character a sense of humour and great vulnerability. Sure, Captain Marvel eventually ends up as one of the most powerful characters in the MCU, but this movie is about her journey to that point, and she falls and gets back up again plenty of times throughout said journey.

The film has been pre-emptively smeared as a screeching screed pushing a scary agenda. It’s much ado about nothing. The sexism that Carol faces in the film is common in the real world: she gets told she’s too emotional and that she needs to smile more. The character isn’t going around bashing men in the head because men are inherently evil. There’s a roundedness to the character and the film also emphasises her friendship with Lynch’s Monica.

Goose the cat, known as Chewie in the comics, is a scene-stealer who’s allocated just enough screen time such that its presence never feels gimmicky.

We meet Nick Fury when he’s less experienced and more naïve than how we know him. This reviewer thinks Samuel L. Jackson is always more interesting to watch when he isn’t playing into the myth of him being an untouchable badass. He gets to bring a good deal of humanity and heart to Fury.

The de-aging visual effects used on Jackson work seamlessly. They’re perhaps a little more noticeable on Clark Gregg as a younger Phil Coulson, but it is good to see that character back in an MCU movie regardless.

Ben Mendelsohn has great fun with the role of Talos, a character who seems at first like yet another generic MCU villain, but who winds up being a lot more than that. Mendelsohn brings a surprising depth to the character.

Jude Law is fine as the tough mentor character Yon-Rogg, but the movie seems aware that he’s not as compelling as some of the other characters. Gemma Chan gives Minn-Erva a dangerously sexy edge, making a bit part interesting. As the corporeal manifestation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, Annette Bening gets to play wise, funny and maybe even a bit menacing.

While Captain Marvel doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it has enough surprises up its sleeve and is built upon a solid, engaging character arc. Its combination of space opera and 90s action-comedy works. Larson says that Carol “doesn’t have anything to prove,” but Captain Marvel has proven that the titular character more than deserves a prime spot in the MCU pantheon. Stick around for two post-credits scene, one that sets up things to come, and another that’s purely comedic.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong