When the first trailer for Captain Marvel dropped I had a frisson of deja vu. It wasn’t due to the image of the Blockbuster Video logo on the building she crash lands into, I have no love for the chain that slowly destroyed all the genuinely interesting mom n’ pop video places. But rather as I watched a trailer for a movie where Samuel L. Jackson helps an amnesiac woman piece her past back together I realized with a shock that Marvel was doing an unofficial 150 million dollar remake of The Long Kiss Goodnight.
The Long Kiss Goodnight was a film audiences didn’t quite know what to with in 1996 and still feels startlingly new 23 years later. For all of Captain Marvel’s anodyne “girl power” sloganeering which seems lab designed to slap on t-shirts to sell, The Long Kiss Goodnight is one of the wittiest and sharpest commentaries on the “can women have it all?” wars of the nineties when the backlash to second wave feminism was in full swing.
Small town school teacher Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) has an idyllic life complete with an adoring finance and a devoted little girl. There’s just one problem, her life only began about eight years ago when she washed up nearby, no memory, no name, and pregnant. She’s been paying an increasingly seedy succession of private investigators to dig up anything about who she was. One of the seediest, Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), introduced giving a a hilariously profane monologue to a mark, is about to give up when he gets a clue to an old apartment Samantha may have had before she lost her memory. Unfortunately Samantha’s also been spotted by some associates from her old life - and since that life was as Charly Baltimore, a tough as nails assassin and black ops specialist, she’s built a list of enemies who want her dead by any means necessary. Davis and Jackson go on the run, and her memory starts returning in pieces and with it Charly’s steely demeanor and fighting style. And Charly’s complete disdain for the domesticity Samantha surrounded herself with.
For all that Captain Marvel positions itself with a female lead who deals with institutional sexism on Earth and in Outer Space it’s uneasy letting Captain Marvel be anything but a perfect role model and hero. With all of its cursory nineties nostalgia of Nirvana and Garbage needle drops it doesn’t dig into the complicated women nineties blockbusters could feature. From Sharon Stone’s magnificently malevolent force of nature in Basic Instinct to Angela Bassett's valiant protector in Strange Days. In a cultural moment where characters are allowed no weaknesses or contradictions less they be immediately dismissed as “problematic” I can’t imagine a big movie with a female lead being comfortable with Charly snarling “I didn’t ask for the kid. Samantha had the kid, not me! Nobody asked me!” and stalking off when Jackson asks her what will become of her daughter if Charly wants to resume her life of globetrotting and killing.
That she comes around is not a result of her learning what it means to be a “real” woman. Rather the day is saved because Samantha and Charly learn to work together. A synthesis of the two personalities as they understand that being a good mother doesn’t have to come at the expense of being a good fighter and vice versa.
The rest of the film’s pleasures are plentiful. Director Renny Harlin’s staging of the fights and flashbacks with deep focus shots that transform slick nineties action into big gothic nightmares, including shooting the tacky ruin of the Trump Taj Mahal to resemble the circle of hell that recently caught the clap. Shane Black’s caustic script is endlessly quotable. And Brian Cox plays a delightful weirdo shrink who seems to have wandered in from a Coen Brothers picture. But the film belongs to Davis and Jackson, and as much as I’m relieved Captain Marvel’s success means it won’t be used as argument against action films with female leads I can’t help but wish The Long Kiss Goodnight had set the standard. I like my women characters messy, and complicated, and sporting the perfect gunmetal gray shade of nail polish.