I’ve been far more impressed with than moved by Marvel’s 22-movie longform storytelling. Whatever emotional heft the films tighten in me tend to slack with the next board-resetting film. That dusty ending to Infinity War should have sent me crying a river deep enough to flood the theater. Instead, I shook my head in disbelief: of course they were killing off characters that had movies announced; this shit wasn’t going to stick.
But the bigger curiosity for me has been something else: where we will they go from their next movie, Avengers: Endgame? Where will they take the story after they’ve (presumably) defeated the biggest and baddest villain of them all, Thanos himself?
Villains are often poorly done in superhero movies, and it’s not hard to see why. They got to be powerful to challenge a superhero. They gotta do something dramatic. People probably have to die. Cities probably have to be destroyed. Something has to be done that – whether it makes sense for the story or not – allows the superhero to show off ALL their powers in their own chaotic, wonderful, visually appealing ways. This is fine when you make a few superhero movies each decade. But when you make more than a few each year, it leads to an endless ramping up of the stakes, where things get bigger and bigger and bigger until they lose all meaning again. After all, boiling water at 400 degrees is not going to make it any more boiled than it was at 212 degrees. It’s all excess, unnecessary energy.
But Marvel’s villains may be trending in the right direction. Black Panther sported one of the best villains of not only the MCU but the greater movieverse in Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. He didn’t even have to destroy any cities for it! What made him so potent is the duality he shared with Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa. They both wanted the same thing: their people to be taken care of. But they had widely different definitions of what “my people” and community were. And they had wildly different approaches for how to share that wealth with others. That’s what made Killmonger’s end so tragic. He wasn’t wrong. He had good intentions. He just didn’t know how to go about it in a better way.
Captain Marvel’s team of writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half-Nelson, Sugar, Mississippi Grind) seem to have taken exactly these notes with their own villain. Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos appears at first to be another hammy villain role in which an incredible actor is buried beneath 4 hours worth of makeup (see: Idris Elba in Star Trek: Beyond, Oscar Isaac in X:Men: Apocalypse). But as the story goes on, we can see that Talos wants the same thing as Brie Larson’s Vers: freedom. They just have different definitions of it. And yet they both need the same journey to get there.
We’ve all been there. We’ve wanted the same thing as someone else – be it a job, money, or last seats into a soldout concert – and for different reasons. And often, when we want it bad enough, we resort to behavior that is atypical of us. We almost do whatever is necessary. We’re usually not proud of our actions afterward. The end justifies the means.
In Captain Marvel, Talos indeed appears to be one for those nasty, hellbent villains. He shoots people. He impersonates others (a special Skrull skill). He doesn’t seem to yield a gentle bone in his body until he comes face to face with a cat – even as he contends its actually a Flerken (spoiler alert: it’s a glorious Flerken). From that encounter on, we can tell something is different about this guy. He seems very interested in Vers. He seems even more interested in finding this light speed machine that can get him places. It’s just that the place he genuinely wants to go is actually pretty sweet: home. And he wants to help what’s left of his Skrull race achieve the same freedom.
I found it enormously satisfying that Captain Marvel’s most brutal fights take place in wide open spaces or in outer space itself. Whenever I’ve had someone describe my brain, “wide open spaces’ and ‘lost in space’ are two often-used phrases. And it’s true: the mind is a very, very elastic creature capable of expanding for any size of thought and intention. Throughout the movie, Vers’ most important battle is entirely internal. She’s simply trying to figure out her true identity. To make sense of all her flashbacks to some kind of previous life. And when she finally puts all the emotionally drenched pieces together? She’s brighter and stronger than ever. She tears through ships right down the middle. She fights off powerful bombs intent on worldly destruction. And she does it all with such glee. For the first time in the whole movie, she is truly, completely unburdened.
No cities are destroyed in this movie (London, New York, Chicago, and San Fransisco – y’all can take a breather until the next superhero movie). No love interests are forced. The heroine is disarmingly cocky and not full of stereotypical insecurities. The world-building and gap-filling to tie in with the larger Marvel story never feels forced. The cute animal survives. And the hero and “villain” both help each other to get what they want. How rare is that?