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Brie Larson as Captain Marvel
Marvel Studios


Superficial superhero

Captain Marvel can do almost anything except keep an audience interested

There’s a moment in Captain Marvel where the girl-power pandering is so over the top it makes the rest of the movie pointless.

Carol Danvers, aka “Vers,” finally discovers the full range of her superpowers and, to the never-so-subtle strains of Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl,” proceeds to pummel a battalion of alien bad guys single-handedly. Her abilities prove so dominant that she can seemingly do anything, be it fly to farthest reaches of space without protective gear or destroy intergalactic warheads with a single blow. Thus does the cause of female empowerment lay waste to old-fashioned storytelling notions like tension and surprise, otherwise known as ... reasons for the audience to stay interested in what’s happening on the screen. 

You almost wonder why Nick Fury bothered assembling all those other Avengers over the years. Why not just keep paging the one-woman wrecking crew?

Clumsily draped around this one-note moralizing is a backstory that’s equally sanctimonious and dull. Played by a wooden Brie Larson, our heroine starts out as a strong, valiant Kree warrior who keeps having flashbacks to another life on another planet. When the Kree’s ancient enemies, the Skrulls, take Vers captive and start digging around in her memories, Vers begins to realize she once had a different identity. It turns out, before becoming a tough-as-nails fighter pilot in outer space, she was a tough-as-nails fighter pilot on Earth. Thankfully, the experience teaches her the importance of being a woman who’s tough as nails.  

Beyond Carol Danvers’ lack of even elementary-level depth or growth, Captain Marvel (rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language) fails on basic plotting as well. Anyone who saw Guardians of the Galaxy is going to see the major twist coming in the first few scenes. There is a bit of fun to be had once we enter Earth’s atmosphere, but this is in spite of the movie’s titular character, not because of her. We get a thrill seeing the early days of S.H.I.E.L.D., we get some laughs from seeing how Nick Fury lost that eye, and a Blockbuster Video cameo coupled with a few 1990s songs provides some pleasant nostalgia. Beyond that, the story is almost solely a hectoring reminder to hear women roar. Which would be a lot easier to do if not for the fact that every character in the film is able to upstage Carol on the personality meter, including the cat.

To be blunt, it’s insulting that Marvel felt simply making its first leading woman “one tough chick” would be enough to placate female fans. All the male Avengers' origin stories feature character flaws, physical weaknesses, and romantic interests who complicate their missions. Captain Marvel has none of these things. It’s impossible not to compare her to DC’s leading lady, Wonder Woman, who proved so winsome, warm, and witty she alone breathed life into the flailing Justice League franchise.

Diana Prince’s Amazonian strength and agility, combined with her traditionally idealized feminine traits like innocence and beauty, create a nicely complex mix. Her chaste romance with self-sacrificing soldier Steve Trevor only compliments her loveliness. Over the course of the story, Steve helps her learn some hard lessons about her own naiveté that ultimately make both of their heroics more meaningful.

Captain Marvel, in contrast, has nothing to learn beyond discovering that even those supposed flaws some man-mentor kept yammering at her to restrain are really strengths. Every challenge she faces is because someone with an XY chromosome is trying to box her in. She overcomes them by throwing off her male-forged shackles. 

So Wonder Woman willingly leaves the Eden-like perfection of Themyscira to grapple with humanity’s capacity for evil and weigh whether their fallenness still makes them worthy of her sacrifices. Captain Marvel returns to Earth on a journey of self-actualization to struggle with the idea that she’s even more awesome than she thinks she is. Which one sounds like a real role model for girls?

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Ilze Kitshoff/Netflix

Maxwell Simba and Chiwetel Ejiofor (far right)
Ilze Kitshoff/Netflix


A boy’s big idea

A famine and science education test a father-son relationship in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the true story of a Christian family living in the African nation of Malawi in 2001. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) wrote and stars in the Netflix film and also directed it on location in Malawi in just 37 days.

Trywell Kamkwamba (Ejiofor) and his wife are farmers and Christian leaders in their small Malawian village. While the couple is poor, they value education and spend precious funds to send their 14-year-old son William (Maxwell Simba) to school.

From a young age, William has shown an exceptional ability to fix and build electronics, and he’s excited about learning even more in his science classes. But when famine destroys crops and starves villagers, the family’s prospects falter.

The famine forces William to drop out of school, but his knowledge of electricity gives him an idea of how to stop his village from experiencing the ravages of famine. Still, building the solution will require his father’s help and complete trust—something Trywell isn’t ready to give to his adolescent son.

During the famine, the Kamkwambas continue to believe God will provide. But William helps the family realize God has also given humans knowledge and tools to solve difficult problems. 

Beyond being a delightful story about the power of education, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (rated TV-14 and including a violent scene) teaches valuable lessons about respect and obedience. As stress builds, the Kamkwambas’ oldest daughter rebels against her parents in order to save her own future, while William chooses to support his family.

Trywell initially won’t let his son try out his idea, fearing it will fail. In desperation, William considers forcing his father to help him. Instead he obeys his father’s wishes, even though he doesn’t understand them. Eventually, in mutual love and respect, father and son stop the famine together.

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Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Jack Lowden and Florence Pugh
Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures


Siblings in the ring

While not quite family-friendly, Fighting With My Family upholds values of hard work and familial love

It’s a long way from the wrong side of town in Norwich, England, to the glitz and glamour of America’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). But that is the unlikely journey Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) travels in Fighting With My Family, a film based on a true story.

All the members of the Knight clan are professional wrestlers—professional in the sense that they are paid for their work, although just barely. The crowds are small, a far cry from the stadiums full of screaming fans they dream of. Saraya is reluctant to join brother Zak (Jack Lowden) in learning the sport, until he agrees to dress up as a girl for their first match in the ring.

Zak and Saraya become wrestling fanatics, particularly of WWE with its over-the-top acting and storytelling. In their Norwich neighborhood, they teach a small band of local kids how to wrestle, including a blind teenager whose mastering of moves is really inspiring.

When WWE comes to London, Zak and Saraya are among dozens to audition for talent scout and trainer Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn). Morgan encourages the aspiring wrestlers to see their sport as storytelling, “soap opera in spandex.” Saraya is the only one of the group invited to the USA to see if she can make it on a bigger stage. Along the way, she meets Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who plays himself admirably).

With the stage name Paige, Saraya chases her dreams despite many obstacles, including the jealousy of Zak, who is devastated by his failure to make the grade. Saraya reminds him of the value of his continued work with neighborhood kids: “Just because millions of people aren’t cheering when you do it doesn’t mean it’s not important!”

It’s too bad the writers and producers of Fighting With My Family infused the PG-13 film with so much unnecessary sexual humor, sensuality, foul language, and blasphemy. The storyline otherwise has an unexpected sweetness, championing the values of hard work, love of family, and service to others.

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