By Drs. Craig and Silvia Reid.
Of all the superhero movies I’ve seen as a film critic/fan, through a martial artist and fight choreographer’s eye, what started off as a poorly shot, jumbled, non-linear perfunctory directorial method approach to the first 40-minutes, with fight scenes akin to a local martial arts school putting them together over a weekend using a VHS cam, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel (CM; titular character played by Brie Larson) is the most surprising Marvel/DC film of the 3rd millennium.
Out of nowhere and soaked in Black Panther (2018) and Wonder Woman (2017) sensibilities, CM goes from schlock and droll to a flamingly funny rock and roll photon-blast.
Set in the 1990s, a Blockbuster time, former officer and Air Force test pilot, Carol Danvers (aka Vers), who’s constantly examining her patchwork memories, ascends, descends and transcends into becoming the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is flung into the middle of a galactic war between two Special K serial alien enemies, the Kree and the green, fiendish, Spock-eared, shape-shifting Skrull.
When Planet C-53 (Earth) is marked with final invasion battlefield designation, as part of the intergalactic elite Kree military vanguard Starforce, mentored by the imposing Kree hero and group commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers must team up with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), before he became alienated and patched things up, to avert Universe doomsday by preventing the Skrull leader Talos from getting his grubby green hands on the blue-glowing Tesseract energy core of Avengers saga sagacity.
While Rogg scolds Vers for her inability to control her emotions, when she finds her true self and the path to harness her fantastic powers, the flashbacks make sense as Captain Marvel paraphrases another Marvel hero, “It’s Photon Blast clobbering time.”
In comicbooks, though Captain Marvel (Mar-vell) was originally a Kree superhero in 1967, a decade later, as Marvel’s energy merged with Davers’ DNA during an explosion, Marvel’s female counterpart Ms. Marvel was born. A handful of iterations later, Kelly Sue Deconnick’s 2012 version of CM became the inspiration for Larson’s character.
Part of what made Marvel filmmakers excited about CM was how Black Panther took on serious themes and issues about being black. Similarly, CM addressed and dealt directly with feminism, female empowerment and equality.
Producer Kevin Feige additionally shares, “Our films have always had powerful female heroes and characters. Having CM as the first female title character is long overdue. The great thing with Captain Marvel is that she’s very human, thus she’s vulnerable and has multiple dimensions beyond someone who can fly and shoot photon blasts.”
The Fights of Captain Marvel
Since Matrix (1999), when Hong Kong action director Yuen Woo Ping agreed to choreograph and shoot the martial arts (MA) action only if Keanu Reeves and the other stars learned martial arts from his fight team, it has become standard practice for actors to undergo training in preparation for movie so they can do their own fights.
After three months of MA training that also focused on getting ready to perform the exhausting intricate MA choreography, Reeves and company’s fights blew me away. As it were, I was one of only five reporters worldwide invited onto the set in 1998 for five days to observe them shooting the Neo v. Mr. Smith fight in the train tunnel.
Larson trained for nine months prior to shooting CM, here’s her regimen: 1-3 months, foundational training before Avengers: Endgame; 3-6 months, training continues during Avengers: Endgame, back and forth between Atlanta and L.A, while shooting 14-16 hours/day; and 6-9 months, focused on CM training, with two months of technical work for stunts and fights, which included five days a week, two to three hours a day learning combinations of boxing, kickboxing, judo, a bit of wrestling and some jujitsu.
Rule of thumb for watching fight scenes. If you can’t see the actors face, then it’s a double, thus shooting from behind the actor is a dead give away.
As shared earlier, CM‘s start was wobbly as were the fights. Vers’ first fight is a training exercise duel against Rogg. Each actor begins with 1-2 movements per shot in low light, using quick camera pans and amid incredibly loud sound effects…dialogue…1-2 movements per shot, etc. You can’t see what they’re doing. Then the fight snaps to a wide angle side shot where the camera tracks them for three seconds. It’s akin to the side angle fight shot between Finn and Captain Phasma in The Last Jedi (2017) except in CM there’s hesitation and doubt in their movements thus it looks slow and unsmooth.
I heard someone in the audience say, “Nine months of training?” If the filmmakers or even the fight director is reading this, all you needed to do is shoot the sequence at 22 fps. So this means either the actors weren’t schooled well on how to fight, the directors don’t know how to shoot a fight and the editor doesn’t know how to edit a fight? If it’s all three? Problem.
Larson’s next physical fight challenge is the escape from the Kree interrogation room and subsequent chase-bash-run sequence through the ship’s decks. Again just a few movements per shot (this could be due to poor editing), loud sound effects, low light and the worst idea, using medium shot, snap pans from behind the actor where it looks like the camera is trying to catch up with the actors movement yet it purposefully can’t…a delayed momentum if you will. It’s like watching a ping-pong match when the camera is focused on following the ball and the camera can’t keep up with the ball being hit back and forth.
So in the hallway, when the fight is shot from behind Larson, as she moves from side to side, her body is about to leave frame so they quick pan to catch up, then just as it looks like they’ll catch up, she moves in the opposing direction. It’s a sequence of delayed response panning side to side as she moves side to side across and down the hallway hitting someone on either side of the hallway. A while later the same technique is used when Fury fights Talos in a library aisle, difference being that as the camera snap pans, the body isn’t always shifting.
Keep in mind all these fight are happening within the same wobbly opening 40-minutes.
As Vars is becoming more intense with the situation so does her use of photon blasts and her other current powers. Then as we reach that magical, I didn’t see this coming moment of the film, in screenwriting lingo, the point of no return, and Larson becomes the full on, official Captain Marvel…move over Superman, Captain Marvel has officially arrived with smash-bash-blast intensity and the requisite ultra colorful CGI spectacle that come with the uber-powers seen in every superhero flicks these days. It’s a full on mountain of fun to watch, filled with cliffhanger anticipation as with each smashing power duel, we can forgive that the physical fights are just the misty part of a waterfall that doesn’t embrace the full energy of the waterfall’s force.
And this is the main difference between Wonder Woman and CM…Wonder Woman‘s physical fights embrace the full power of the waterfall during every one of her action fights. Why? The film had more imaginative choreography, the moves were beautifully shot and the editing was tactically superior.
Brie on Larson
Yet the demure actress, who had never done much strength training in her life, speaks about the training process that resulted in a complete physical transformation of strength and balance, to the point where the slight of frame lass could do 225-pound deadlifts, 400-pound hip thrusts and push a jeep down the road.
“Most of the training arose from the fact that I was going to do stunts,” says Larson. “I didn’t know what that was, but I knew this movie would feel like a triathlon and I wanted be prepared so I wasn’t fighting while being fatigued or my body hurting. The character is so strong, so I knew that if I could go through that experience I would get closer to her and even just standing I could feel really strong rather than trying to act strong.”
She adds, “Honestly, I didn’t know what strength was, because I was truly an introvert with asthma before this film. But as I started training I fell in love with it and the way my body was changing and transforming. It was the first time where I felt like I was making my body work for me. I think in the past I was more interested in my body never being part of a conversation because it felt like objectification. I just wanted to be a brain, so I’ve only cared about like reading books and like understanding words, but this was an opportunity for me to take it back and make my body mine. It was really empowering, and I do want to say that I have two amazing stunt doubles in this, Renae Moneymaker and Joanna Bennett, who are both super talented and helped me so much. I put in nine months of intense work that included twelve weeks of four and a half hours of training a day. It seemed as if I was training for a marathon, but it means so much more to me knowing the type of dedication I put into it and that it’s not just CGI.”
Based on her comments and subsequent understanding of the process, the discipline of training, the acknowledgement of body and mind transformation, and empowerment, these are important virtues and life lessons, which are great tools one can learn from martial arts. When I hear about an actors dedication to improve oneself, even if it’s just for a role, it’s still worthy of admiration and even if the fights aren’t dynamic, she applied herself to the max. In my martial arts book…respect.