(The following review contains minor spoilers.)
The trailer for Captain Marvel came equipped with an emboldened tagline: “Discover What Makes a Hero.” It’s a generic line, as easily applied to most of the three dozen or so superhero origin films we’ve seen in the past decade. But there’s a catch – as displayed in the trailer, the words “A Hero” first appeared as “Her” before the other letters faded into view – underscoring how, after twenty films with men at the center, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was finally focusing one of its adventures on a woman.
The embedded female-empowerment message in is, in fact, the only way to properly read that tagline. Because while Captain Marvel does noticeably push for female empowerment, it falls short when it comes to discovering what “makes its hero.”
And that’s too bad. Carol Danvers has had a long and intriguing history at Marvel Comics (which I detailed here and here), and she’s only grown more interesting since taking up the Captain Marvel name in 2012. With ties to both humans and the Kree alien race, she’s among the most powerful heroes in Marvel Comics, yet writers have long equipped her with some deeply human flaws. She’s a great character, deserving of a great movie.
But alas, Captain Marvel settles for being an adequate movie, less impressive and innovative than most of its MCU brethren. Whereas recent films like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther challenged the ideas of what a superhero origin story could be, Captain Marvel plays it safe, telling a fairly complacent tale across its 130 minutes. This is particularly vexing when you realize that Captain Marvel herself is actually given a fresher introduction into the MCU than Spidey or Panther (both of whom made their proper debut in Captain America: Civil War before spinning off into their own films), which should by rights inspire a more intriguing standalone adventure.
Unfortunately, perhaps because it’s been unceremoniously sandwiched between two massive Avengers films, Captain Marvel feels less like an inspired work than a necessary chapter in the ongoing franchise. Taking place in 1995, the film finds Vers (Brie Larson) separated from her Kree fleet when she crash-lands on planet C-53 (known to us commoners as “Earth”) and sets about trying to stop an invasion by the shape-shifting Skrulls. To this end, she partners with Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged Samuel Jackson) and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), as well as a lovable and extraordinary cat named Goose.
There’s a lot that Captain Marvel does well, much of it being touched upon in that little plot summary. The film has fun with its mid-90s setting, evoking the feel of the age (Blockbuster! Radio Shack! Slow-downloading CD-Roms!) without feeling on-the-nose. It also boasts a colorful assortment of characters – this is easily the most fun Samuel Jackson has had since the start of the MCU, and he plays well off anyone he’s onscreen with. Actors like Lynch, Jude Law, and Annette Benning each add dramatic weight to the proceedings in their own way. And the film’s highlight is Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, the Skrull leader, who steals every scene he’s in that doesn’t feature the cat.
And in terms of action, the MCU remains on top. Though some of the direction can be choppy (particularly during the lightshow climax), Captain Marvel boasts some terrific fight scenes, particularly when during scenes of aerial or hand-to-hand combat. And the special-effects remain top-notch, especially in capturing the grotesque way the Skrulls morph their bodies to human form.
So where does Captain Marvel go wrong? The answer, unfortunately, is with Captain Marvel.
In crafting the MCU’s first predominant female hero, Marvel has treaded the line carefully – too carefully. They’ve given Carol great superpowers, a colorful costume, and a feminist message… but they’ve forgotten to saddle her with much of a personality. We are told repeatedly that Carol is a flawed hero, incapable of keeping her emotions in check, yet nothing about this really shows in her character, who comes off as a generic superpowered do-gooder.
Part of the problem can be traced to the confusing way in which the story unfolds. Much of Carol’s origin is shrouded in secrecy (her early life is buried by amnesia), and eventually revealed through quick and undercooked flashbacks. Her days as an Air Force pilot – indeed, much of the events which developed her into the hero she is – get glossed over, and multiple blanks are filled in by other characters who remember more about Carol’s life than she does. If developed in a clear and linear fashion, Carol’s story could make for an intriguing film. But in its haste to set up Endgame, Captain Marvel squanders its potential as a bold and thrilling origin story.
And another part of the problem lies in the performance. Brie Larson is a talented actress with several great film roles in her arsenal, so perhaps the portrayal of Carol here isn’t totally her fault. But her delivery, even for humorous lines, feels stiff and stoic, far from the loose and flighty delivery of the average MCU hero. Was Marvel worried that making their female lead too funny or self-deprecating would detract from her ability to be a role model for young girls? It feels like a self-conscious decision that goes against the studio’s typical grain.
Perhaps if Captain Marvel felt less formulaic, its generic action-figure lead would be more forgivable. But less than two months from the premiere of Avengers: Endgame, it just can’t help but feel like a last-minute setup for Phase Three’s grand finale. Maybe the (inevitable) sequel will allow more room for Carol to grow and develop more as a character; for now, though, her debut film feels like just another cog in the MCU machine.
– The Marvel logo which kicks off the film has been turned into a loving Stan Lee tribute, with clips of Stan in place of the MCU superheroes. (Earlier, non-MCU films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Once Upon a Deadpool have also honored him, though with end-credits sequences rather than opening logos.)
– Stan also makes a cameo, as the film was produced before his death, perusing the Mallrats script in an appropriate full-circle joke. (Mallrats was arguably the film which ignited the “Stan Lee cameo” trend.)
– Blink and you’ll miss Kelly Sue DeConnick as a subway passenger in the scene where Captain Marvel steps off the tram. (She’s the lady with bright red hair and glasses who gives our hero a funny look.) DeConnick is a popular comic book writer who authored the series which established Carol as Captain Marvel in 2012.
– The fanboy in me was saddened to learn that the cat’s name was “Goose,” since his name in the comics is Chewie (short for Chewbacca). Was Disney just wary of putting Star Wars references in non-Star Wars productions? Maybe Ralph Breaks the Internet pushed the limit.
– What, precisely, was the point of casting Gemma Chan, covering her in blue makeup, and then giving her almost no screentime? There should be a penalty for that.
– So, does Monica Rambeau grow up to be the other Captain Marvel? The movie pretty strongly indicates that she’s destined for heroism, possibly along the lines of her comic-book namesake. I’m curious to see how a grown-up Monica is portrayed in a presumably present-day sequel.
– The mid-credits sequence was cribbed from Avengers: Endgame, evidenced by the fact that part of the scene was clipped in the Endgame trailer. It’s a predictable scene for anyone who sat through to the end of Infinity War, but still an exciting tease for what’s to come.
– Marvel’s post-credits sequences have become more comedic lately, haven’t they? We’ve got a drum-playing ant, a dizzied Jeff Goldblum, and Captain America lecturing audiences on the virtue of patience. Now here’s Goose coughing up a Tesseract hairball. (Whether he coughs up any Kree soldiers is a question left, I presume, for the sequel.)
Captain Marvel is currently playing in theaters. Unlike recent MCU films, it won’t be showing up on Netflix. Life ain’t always fair, folks.