(Obviously there will be some SPOILERS in this post. Do with that what you will.)
Let me get this out of the way first: Captain Marvel the character, as portrayed quite brilliantly by Brie Larson, is awesome. Along with Black Panther she quickly vaults into the upper echelon of interesting Marvel superheroes I can’t wait to see more of. Which makes it all the more tragic for me to say I sincerely wish she was in a better movie. Her arrival into the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), while long overdue, feels like a superhero movie made ten years ago.
Unlike most Marvel origin stories, Captain Marvel does have a unique starting point. We are introduced to “Vers” (Brie Larson) when she is already a member of the Kree’s intergalactic space force. Her powers are present, if unrefined, and she would be a complete person if not for the nagging fact that she has no memories of her life earlier than six years ago and keeps having mysterious flashbacks to a previous life as an air force pilot on earth. And thus after a frantic and messy first act that tries to find space to establish Vers’ essence while also introducing us to her Kree comrades and their rivals, the shape-shifting race of Skrulls, it should come as no surprise that she finds herself eventually ending up on earth in a dual quest of thwarting her enemies and uncovering the mystery of who she really is.
It is when Vers lands in the 1990s Los Angeles and teams up with Nick Fury (a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) and a feline companion that the directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story) find themselves on surer footing. Fury as the brasher and somehow cockier version of the character we’ve come to love proves to be the perfect foil to Brie’s Vers who, as another character describes her, is “smart, funny, and a pain in the ass” (we also find out that Vers is really Carol Danvers). Even though the movie is set in the 90s (and throws plenty of fun at the absurd difference a couple of decades have made), Fury and Carol make the perfect 80s buddy-cop pairing and the time spent with them together gives us the perfect chance to get acquainted with the newest Avenger; she does not disappoint.
Borrowing heavily from Kelly Sue DeConnick’s re-imagination Captain Marvel in her 2012-13 comic book run, Larson plays Carol Danvers as a cocksure, aggressively competitive, and sarcastic hotshot pilot (think Top Gun), an archetype that would be unremarkable if played by a man but one that feels refreshingly new when played by Larson. It is a pure delight to see Carol, when faced with overwhelming forces, have the strength and confidence to simply punch and kick her way out of trouble. In the same way that Black Panther was empowering for this nonwhite comic-book lover because he was a powerful hero who embraced his African-ness, I suspect Captain Marvel will feel similarly empowering for every girl who has had to hear repeatedly that comics books are “boys stuff”. Seeing her bat away every micro-aggression that is thrown her way (including her superior officer, played by Jude Law, who essentially tells her to not be so emotional) with increasing efficiency as she steps into her powers is nothing short of liberating and immensely satisfying while the moment she actually realizes the extent of her strength is a spine-chilling and fist-pumping bravura moment. The movie’s goal is to establish her as the most powerful Avenger, by its end there is little doubt that if she were around for the events of Avengers: Infinity War things might have turned out very differently.
Unfortunately while Captain Marvel herself is quite wonderfully introduced to the MCU the movie she occupies is underwhelming. Much of this has to do with the fact that this is yet another superhero movie that employs a fairly conventional origin story narrative. In the MCU alone, it joins Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange in that regard and unfortunately the formula has long gone stale. It is safe to say that none of the story beats of this movie are going to surprise you. Like most origin stories the movie spends most of its runtime with Captain Marvel effectively depowered and as such she has to face some bland-vanilla training-wheels villain who serves more as a character development foil than any antagonist of note. While this served as an effective strategy in Phase 1 of the MCU (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) when both the legitimacy of superhero movies and the viability of a “cinematic universe” was still in question, the decision to employ that narrative device here seems retrograde especially when the next installment in the MCU’s is literally called “Endgame”.
And while Boden and Fleck are great choices for distilling Captain Marvel’s character and for the more intimate moments with Fury and her former co-pilot , they reveal their limitations in the traditional action scenes. This I believe is what makes the first act such an incoherent mess (I desperately want to see Captain Marvel again because I hope knowing the plot makes things more clear) as most of the action scenes here are confused and muddled. Similarly, thanks in no part to the less-than-compelling villain, the third act descends into the typical MCU CGI-fest that apart from the thrill of Captain Marvel flexing her full powers is as generically boring as the next sub-par MCU action sequence.
In addition Captain Marvel suffers from the frequent MCU problem of needing to simultaneously fit into the current universe as well as set-up the future. More than any recent non-Avengers Marvel movie Captain Marvel is guilty of requiring prior knowledge of past movies in order to make sense (remember Ronan? Coulson?). Ultimately from a macro-level, Captain Marvel had to introduce us to the character with enough clarity that (and I’m theorizing here) she can play a meaningful role in the upcoming Avengers movie seamlessly. In that goal I believe they succeed, but the task of doing that ultimately detracts from the story Captain Marvel is trying to tell and illuminates again the limitations of the cinematic universe as a narrative device.
Captain Marvel is ultimately a victim of Marvel’s success. I have no doubt that had this been a standalone introduction to the heroine (or had been released ten years ago), Captain Marvel would represent an impressive feat. As it is however it merely feels like a movie with an outdated narrative device. Make no mistake, Captain Marvel herself is a welcome addition to the ever-growing universe and it is genuinely exciting to imagine how she is going to fit in to the larger sandbox Marvel has created. Like most superhero origin stories, I can’t wait for her next solo adventure when freed from the pesky need to establish her character Captain Marvel is simply allowed to flex. And as a warm-up to the gargantuan Avengers: Endgame, it more than whets our appetite for what is to come. But as it is, the movie Captain Marvel is perfunctory and nothing more.
(Side note: There is a segment of the internet that is systematically troll review bombing Captain Marvel in the same way that they troll-bombed the all-female Ghostbusters, Black Panther, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi for stupid male-insecurity reasons. This review, though in some ways negative, should not be seen as siding with their viewpoints. I believe that the more diverse stories we can tell with more diverse storytellers, the better. Superheroes do not belong to men, and Captain Marvel’s existence as the most powerful superhero yet in the MCU is frankly more than a welcome change to the MCU status quo. I did enjoy the movie and I genuinely wish I could be give a more positive about the movie itself, but I also have to be honest; though Captain Marvel is fun, the movie has its significant flaws.)
Rating: ★★★½ (which, I should remind the reader is NOT a negative score)
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Written by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Benning, Clark Gregg, Jude Law.