Can ‘Captain Marvel’ Withstand the Marveldämmerung?

Can ‘Captain Marvel’ Withstand the Marveldämmerung?

Can ‘Captain Marvel’ Withstand the Marveldämmerung?

On the comic book universe’s Gesamtkunstwerk and other recent films.


They had Bayreuth. We have the Marvel Universe.

Or so I’ve thought, as we pass the weeks between the release of Captain Marvel, which introduces Brie Larson as the Universe’s latest superhero, and the opening of Avengers: Endgame, which, as all sentient beings know, will require Larson to swoop in and undo the galactic holocaust wreaked last year in Avengers: Infinity War. Notice the urge in the Marvel Universe to unite all things in heaven and on earth into a single grand scheme. Notice the intuition that this immense structure is teetering, with the one-eyed father of plots (not Wotan, but Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury) perhaps unable to hold out against Marveldämmerung. Except, of course, he will. All sentient beings already know that, too, much as they believe (though now I’m just guessing) that Larson, as the Brünnhilde of today’s all-encompassing artwork, very likely has flown in not to perish in the flames but to blow them out.

 I say all this not to mock the Marvel Universe but to praise it.

Think of what Bayreuth meant to the bourgeoisie of 19th-century Europe. After their struggle against hereditary power left them victorious, but also vaguely ashamed, as they compared the coarse, money-driven world they were building to the glories and charms they saw in the past; after they watched an oceanic mob rise to engulf them in 1848, then subside again, temporarily, behind a seawall they knew was leaky; after their homes had been crammed with a miscellany of riches grabbed from the world beyond Europe, and their churches emptied of certainty, these new lords of the planet went on pilgrimage to Bayreuth, where their triumphalism, avidity, guilt, and self-loathing were resolved into the transcendence of a new art. They took their seats in a cavernous theater that seemed like the interior of the skull of Richard Wagner, the genius who, by himself, had transformed the chaos outside into an art of the future within. The sounds and visions of a single great mind surrounded them: unitary, complete, immense, and wholly unsullied by contemporary affairs. At Bayreuth, you thrilled to the ultimate reality of Northern myth and medieval Christendom.

The Marvel Universe, too, is a world unto itself, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been talked at by a true fan. But no pilgrimage is required. If you want to experience it within a group enclosure, the map is conveniently dotted with them, many providing frequent, overlapping start times for the sounds and visions. If you don’t want a group enclosure, the latest fractal of the ensemble will soon come to you, to be enjoyed on your home TV or that little computer you carry in your pocket. There are multiple, perhaps infinite points of entry, as the purveyors of this cosmos recently explained in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

And who are the purveyors? Not a lone genius (however jocularly that idea was suggested, and simultaneously mocked, by the many cameo appearances of Stan Lee, may his memory be a blessing). The Marvel Universe is created and operated by a global corporation. This is art for an era in which not only God, but also the individual, is dead. Old-fashioned filmoids like me may cling to the personalism of the politique des auteurs, but even we understand that’s become a reactionary cause. Witness how easily the Marvel Universe absorbs indie authors, such as Ryan Coogler (two blinks after Fruitvale Station), or the directors of Captain Marvel, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who only a few years ago were making the social-realist Half Nelson on the cheap in Brooklyn. The truly progressive art of our time—progressive in the Wagnerian sense of anticipating where our culture may go—issues from a business organization and is marketed to everyone: not the self-appointed enlighteners of bourgeois imperial Europe, but all of us droplets sploshing about in the sea that had the Bayreuthers so worried.

What totalizing experience do we droplets purchase with our tickets? What anxieties and contradictions does the Universe scheme resolve and transcend in 120-minute increments? Surveying the content of these movies and the point in comic-book history from which they spring, I note that they have a moment of crisis at their origin, as the Ring cycle had in 1848. In the background of them all is the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the Vietnam War. (The movements for black and female liberation, not so much—although of late the enterprise has caught up retroactively with Black Panther and Captain Marvel.) These movies tell us over and over about covert government operations gone wrong, technological advances and medical experiments turned monstrous, fantastically wealthy heads of corporations arrogating to themselves the rights of sovereign powers. And that’s the hopeful stuff. Far from sheltering the audience from contemporary affairs, the Marvel films obsessively remind us of the actually existing systems that swirl above our heads, beyond the control not only of a democratic populace but often of the elites who purport to direct these powers.

To take the present example, Captain Marvel is the dual origin story of an extraterrestrial warrior come to Earth and of Nick Fury, the former soldier turned high-level spymaster of the Avengers series, who receives quite an education by tagging along behind the eponymous superhero. The year is 1995; the place at first is Los Angeles, where Vers (pronounced “veers,” as in changing her direction or mind at high speed) has crash-landed on a mission and drawn the baffled attention of Fury. In addition to discovering that advanced civilizations flourish beyond the solar system and occasionally treat Earth as a pit stop (emphasis on “pit”), Fury eventually learns that the difference between a ruthless terrorist and a desperate freedom-fighter is sometimes one of perspective. Given his years in the CIA, he might have known that already—but he receives fresh instruction from Vers, who grows considerably in strength and self-knowledge through her adventure on a backward planet. Among her biggest lessons: humans are resilient, sisterhood is powerful, and new technologies may be used for peaceful purposes but often aren’t. She also learns that authorities are sometimes less than honest, soldiers may be sent to die in ignorance, and her true purpose is to end war, which she can best do by kicking ass on an interstellar scale. As I said, contradictions.

I enjoyed all this thoroughly and didn’t mind that the main contradiction was heightened, not transcended, by Vers’s coming into the full awesomeness of her abilities. Larson makes something more than formulaic out of Vers’s grit and impetuousness, Jackson takes the trouble this time to play the nuances of his character (since the filmmakers, for a change, have given him some), and Boden and Fleck do an admirable job of touching on humble details and common interactions amid the CGI fight-or-flight extravaganza. (This is a superhero movie in which somebody has to wash the dishes after dinner, and somebody has to dry them.) I look forward to Brünnhilde II.

That said, I can’t pretend that my era’s total work of art is everything I want. Wagner, the rotten asshole, wrote staggeringly novel scores that opened a century’s worth of possibilities for musical composition. The Marvel Universe movies are for the most part amusing, well-made, not without their thoughtful side, and have contributed nothing new to cinematic art.

And yet the field is not moribund. Look at Roma. Look at Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which is now flooding a few scattered US theaters with its daredevil spirit (after provoking near-riots in China among audiences who thought they were going to see a normal movie). Wonders are still being performed, but these are the one-offs of stubborn auteurs. The Marvel Universe series, though worthy of being called the defining artwork of our epoch, nevertheless shrinks from innovation, and so reveals something disheartening about the limits within which we live.

Why we accept them, I don’t really know. But I can tell you that when Wagner’s audiences showed up at Bayreuth, they got a breakthrough artistic experience of historic proportions, despite all the bad faith involved. We get a Gesamtkunstwerk that always stops short—and it’s not as if our own faith is all that good.

Matteo Garrone may never again make a film as strong as Gomorrah—he may never again grab subject matter as wide-ranging in its implications and idiosyncratic in its details as he did with Roberto Saviano’s exposé of organized crime in Naples—but having now chosen a more modest, anecdotal topic, almost an Aesop’s fable, he has turned it into the dark, absorbing, beautifully acted Dogman.

It’s the tale of a small, weak, accommodating man and his alliance—whether imposed, resented, or desired—with another man who is large, strong, and heedlessly violent. As the title implies, it’s about being treated like a dog. But it’s also about the capacity to impose the human will on dangerous beasts, and about the conditions that sometimes make the trick morally suspect.

A beast is the first thing you see: a pit bull snarling into the camera in close-up, eager to maul the lens and anyone behind it, prevented from doing so only by the chain that binds it by the throat to a grimy tiled wall. When Garrone cuts to a wide establishing shot, showing the raw-surfaced, murky room where the action is set, you see that the dog has a more immediate target of attack in a fellow determined to give him a shampoo. This is the proprietor of the dog-grooming salon, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a slim, long-faced, slightly stooped man in early middle age, who has a pleasantly gummy smile and a habit of addressing even enraged pit bulls as “amore.” Within a few more cuts of the initial edit, Marcello has won the beast over with his interspecies love. He’s drying the pit bull with a hot-air hose, and the dog is calmly turning its head to catch the stream.

The thoroughly inoffensive Marcello enjoys both his dogs and the easy companionship of the other shopkeepers along his stretch of a weedy, crumbling, concrete-block housing development somewhere on the outskirts of Naples, just off the water. (It’s the kind of picturesquely grim location that furnished Garrone with so many memorable panoramic shots in Gomorrah.) Marcello also loves getting visits from his red-haired young daughter (Alida Baldari Calabria), who evidently lives with her mother but likes to help with the dogs. The only hints that Marcello is less than pure are his small side business dealing cocaine and his friendship with Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a motorcycle-riding skinhead, whose leather jacket says “Uncle Sam” on the back. Simone has the self-discipline of a 2-year-old, the physique of a professional wrestler, and the manners of a pre-shampoo pit bull. The other shopkeepers seriously entertain the possibility of hiring some guys from out of town to take care of him. The gentle Marcello somehow remains under his sway, with worse and worse consequences.

If Garrone didn’t have two such compelling actors as his leads, Dogman might have collapsed under the prodding of its own metaphor. But Pesce is genuinely frightening as Simone, and Fonte, who won the award for best actor at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, makes up for everything overblown in the premise through his consistently moving, understated performance. He’s capable of big gestures when they’re called for, but twice, at crucial points in Dogman, Garrone has Fonte just sit before you in silence—and while scarcely budging, Fonte shows you every moment of turmoil in Marcello’s thoughts. It’s up to you to imagine why Marcello makes his decisions—Garrone fortunately doesn’t push any interpretations—but when he does, you feel you’re watching a real catastrophe, in a real man, in real time.

In The Brink, a documentary that follows Steve Bannon from autumn 2017 through the 2018 midterm elections, you often hear him say he’ll “convert” 20 percent of a given audience. That’s all he’ll need, according to his calculations, to effect permanent change, and it seems to be why he permitted Alison Klayman such close, ongoing access as a one-woman film crew. In his view, all media exposure is good—Bannon says he learned that from Trump—and so he doesn’t care what the other 80 percent of us might think of the material Klayman has scooped up. Here are scenes of Bannon tapping billionaire donors (the better to rail against elites), spreading his shambling warmth to the Republican base (while his assistant Sean says he wouldn’t live in their tasteless homes for a million dollars), and coordinating strategy with Europe’s leading racist politicians (then insisting straight-faced to Guardian writer Paul Lewis that any appeals to anti-Semitism are entirely in the reporter’s mind). Here, too, is a close-up view of Bannon’s electoral strategy of 2017–18 as it crashes and burns—after which he moves on, with fresh and ample funding. Errol Morris previously fixed Bannon in place for a full-frontal interview in American Dharma. In The Brink, Klayman gives us something even more disturbing: copious on-the-fly glimpses of the man in action.

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