(Warning: Minor "Captain Marvel" spoilers below.)
For most who saw "Captain Marvel" this weekend, the biggest question on their minds walking into the theater was simply whether the movie would take flight.
Would Marvel Studios, 21 movies into its portfolio, manage yet another critically appreciated blockbuster? Would the Academy Award-winning Brie Larson anchor the studio's first woman-led superhero movie? Would indie filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck ("Half Nelson," "Mississippi Grind") successfully make the jump to the biggest franchise in the industry?
The answers are "yes," "very much yes," and "yes." "Captain Marvel" is a decidedly good, if not great movie. It hews tightly to the Marvel Studios formula, sure, but that formula has been printing money for 11 years for several reasons. What generates hit after hit for the studio is a combination of genuine chemistry among its actors, stories that honor and occasionally subvert Marvel Comics canon, serviceable action and, maybe most definitively, a lot of humor. "Captain Marvel" has all of them, and all of them make the movie work frictionlessly well.
But "Captain Marvel" has two things separating the movie from the rest of Marvel Studios' resume. The first, obviously, is a female hero. As a man, though, I'm not in any position to say how meaningful women will find the sight of Carol Danvers soaring through the atmosphere and socking bad guys. Many women have written insightfully on the subject, and I suggest you read their thoughts instead.
The second unique thing about "Captain Marvel," however, speaks to me more directly: The movie is set in 1995.
And for this '90s kid, that made the biggest question on my mind walking into the theater Thursday whether "Captain Marvel" would do my formative decade justice.
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The answer is "not really." Let's start with the soundtrack, which makes the Marvel Studios formula look like outsider art in comparison. From TLC's "Waterfalls" and Garbage's "Only Happy When it Rains" to No Doubt's "Just a Girl" during Carol Danvers' empowering final beatdown of her enemies, almost every musical selection in the movie is the most mainstream of alternative, edgy for its time but safe among focus groups 25 years later. The most left-field pull is Elastica's "Connection," but even if most don't know the song by name, they surely recognize the robotic crank of its guitars.
But where are the weird, dangerous fringes that helped define '90s music? The obscure Buzz Bin one-and-dones? The gangster rap that ruled the conversation? The nightmare fuel industrial of Bjork's "Army of Me," which would have been perfect for the movie based on its title alone? Meanwhile, where are the hits that were safe even in 1995? The Boyz II Men, the Hootie and the Blowfish? (This all is to say nothing of the movie's use of Hole's "Celebrity Skin," which was released in 1998 and therefore puts almost the whole decade, from Michael Jackson to Backstreet Boys, into play.)
The movie's surface-level treatment of the decade extends past the soundtrack, though. It includes a lot of the proper nouns, sure — Blockbuster Video, Troll Dolls, Windows '95 — but they feel like cheap signifiers, gimmickry even, like Larson et al. are seconds away from breaking the fourth wall and yelling, "Hey! Guess which decade this movie takes place in?"
Perhaps the best way to pinpoint where "Captain Marvel" goes wrong with its treatment of its setting is to compare it to the other period Marvel movie: "Captain America: The First Avenger." There, the 1940s simply felt like the 1940s. No musical selection was too obvious, no name drop too conspicuous. Unlike "Captain Marvel," it was transportive in a way that felt effortless.
There are a few explanations for that. First, given the recency of the '90s, it seems mainstream storytelling has yet to develop the vocabulary for depicting the decade the way it has the '40s, or even the '80s.
"Captain America," for instance, has the clothes, the speak and the austere color key we've come to associate with its time. "Captain Marvel," however, lacks the equivalents: Carol Danvers may don a shirt with the iconic Nine Inch Nails logo, but why aren't SHIELD Agents Fury and Coulson wearing the billowing suits and garishly patterned ties of the day? It's also strange that those agents didn't encounter the government paranoia fed by everything from "The X-Files" to Waco. In fact, I don't recall any '90s vernacular in the script, and in 1995, it was pretty damn hard to get through a conversation without at least one catchphrase from "Beavis and Butthead" or Hartman-era "Saturday Night Live." And when it comes to cinematography, maybe Boden and Fleck could have sampled the color saturation in the music videos of Hype Williams and Floria Sigismondi? Or the dirty textures of the latter and early David Fincher?
The other explanation for "Captain Marvel's" struggle to evoke the '90s for me is, well, me. It's the first full decade I lived. So for me and audiences my age, faithfully representing that decade and encompassing all its idiosyncrasies — musical, sartorial and otherwise — may just be impossible. Maybe it's unfair of me to expect a movie to stuff all the cultural diversity of 10 years into two hours.
Maybe we '90s kids, we implacable early millennials, really are products of our time.