While Captain Marvel should’ve created a seismic “superhero landing” crater of an entrance, Marvel’s first female-led standalone is more a radio-dubbed nostalgia mixtape. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s turned-back time capsule stresses (righteous) empowerment over storytelling, allows (talented) supporting characters to outshine title heroes, and relies on 90s remembrance to a cumbersome degree. Much like how I remarked about Stephen Strange after 2016’s equally bogged-down Doctor Strange, Carol Danvers will shine much brighter when interacting with Marvel’s greater ensemble despite underselling her solo project.
Translation: Captain Marvel is a pretty alright MCU origin tale.
Brie Larson’s portrayal of an Air Force pilot turned Kree superhero ranges quite the journey but has shallow depth. We meet Captain Marvel as “Vers,” her Kree-given name under Yon-Rogg’s (Jude Law) elite command. An especially dangerous extraction mission is ambushed by Skrull warriors, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), which separates Vers from Yon-Rogg’s squad and sends her hurtling towards Earth. Stranded, Vers awaits Yon-Rogg’s aid while being hunted by Talos’ surviving assassins and questioned by Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) S.H.I.E.L.D agents – but memories start flooding back that strengthen her connection to “Carol Danvers.”
Oh, do you think Act I is jam-packed? Acts II and III start looping and diving like a fighter jet thrust into “motion sickness” mode.
Fret not, because Captain Marvel is still an MCU brand product that’s remarkably in-tune with consistent levels of success despite mundanities rearing upwards. Ben Mendelsohn steals the show as Skrull leader Talos, who becomes the film’s shapeshifting MVP thanks to signature “Ben Men” charms that are sweeter than the milkshake he’s seen drinking. Danvers’ kitty companion Goose, meanwhile – actually a Flerken – chalks up many a nuzzled Samuel L. Jackson gush of comedic respite. Blockbuster revivals score a smirk, latter half twists flip an otherwise formulaic script, and Stan Lee’s sobering cameo is Grade-A given its Kevin Smith tie. In other words, there’s lots of cosmic wonders, pinball machines and Kree fist-to-face fighting that’s worth another Avengers-era watch.
In contrast, Captain Marvel struggles to earn enriched investment be it domesticated needle drops (No Doubt’s “I’m Just A Girl”/R.E.M.’s “Man On the Moon”) or Ronan The Accuser’s (Lee Pace) unnecessary appearance as the Kree’s eradication-happy judge. Boden, Fleck and co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet – with additional story input from Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve – backtrack decades yet still must connect Captain Marvel’s ceremonial birth into MCU lore given Ronan’s pre-Guardians defeat. Is it a successful retro redux? Ask Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) digital de-aging. Low-hanging fruits are plucked in an attempt to maximize impact, but when Samuel L. Jackson is the one taking a big meaty bite out of said danglers, it’s not all bad.
Keying in on the phrase “step backward,” that’s exactly what Captain Marvel feels like. Directors like James Gunn, Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler all found ways to sidestep Marvel’s pre-packaged directions, while Boden and Fleck play directly into their overlord’s design. Even something as silly as Goose’s crowing moment – Flerken tentacles slamming Kree soldiers against spaceship corridors – is just Groot’s enraged vine attack in Guardians Of The Galaxy repurposed. Carol Danvers rises continually upwards and strolls through Earthly obstacles like a T-1000, unable to be stopped nor bothered by dramatic tension in Captain Marvel’s story. Chaotic and darkened action blurs comprehension, Top Gun parallels are disappointingly short-lived, and it appears as if the Half Nelson directors are merely tracing Marvel templates used so many times before.
Once again, let’s point to Larson’s performance. From square one Carol’s seen as a tough cookie – sparring with Jude Law – and Larson holds this attitude until the very last shot. She’s instructed to contain her emotional instability, but it’s not until Carol breaks the shackles of power restriction (tangible metaphor) that she realizes her true potential – although what should be a monumental moment feels like just another line read for Larson.
Same goes for Carol’s costume color scheme unveiling, or closing quip to [redacted] stating “I don’t have to prove anything to you.” Females of all ages deserve to see themselves represented on screen, and that’s not the issue here. Captain Marvel stinks of message-first storytelling *in place of* character development, much like how Larson’s undefeatable spirit never wavers or flexes or bends amidst Totally Needed Dialogue Zingers (her spoken language) that weaken that stakes the MCU has been striving to escalate.
Not to stress rivalries, but Gal Gadot’s rise from military trenches in Wonder Woman marks a speechless and stunning pivot point in cinematic superhero representation. Carol Danvers has multiple chances to shoulder the same impact, but Larson’s one-note delivery is almost too repetitively cavalier where nothing seems extraordinary (by Marvel standards).
All things calibrated, we’re still discussing a spacelord astro-punk adventure rife with interplanetary boundlessness on an impressive universal scale. Samuel L. Jackson, Goose, Lashana Lynch and Ben Mendelsohn frequently meet performance challenges to remind us that Marvel’s heart still beats steady and strong. When action sequences avoid fogs of war, Jude Law and Brie Larson high-fly around glowy Kree weaponry and pulsating energy cannon fists. Marvel may stumble, but they’re falling from the penthouse into more commoner holdings – it’s not a basement tumble. Now just give me the 90s buddy-cop procedural starring Fury and Coulson we all deserve and let Captain Marvel play “save the world” with her Avengers equals.
Captain Marvel is a recorded mixtape of familiar MCU beats that sets Carol Danvers up for success, but as a period standalone, struggles to be anything we haven't yet seen from superhero cinema.