Captain Marvel – Review
Let’s get something out of the way. I really like Carol Danvers as a character. Growing up, my anchor to the Marvel comics universe as a whole was mostly X-Men, and her involvement with that branch of the mythos is what introduced me to her. Like a lot of people, I had little-to-no interest in Mar-Vell, but Carol always had a cool adopted power set and more agency as an off-shoot than Mar-Vell ever did as a title character. From her involvement in House of M, to Rogue stealing her power and memories, her stint as Binary, to her appearances in series like the X-Men animated series or Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, I’ve been on her side since I was a kid.
When it was announced back in 2012 that Carol would finally drop the diminutive “Ms.” and finally be promoted to the Captain herself, after Mar-Vell’s relevance had withered away, I thought it was long overdue. I also found it no surprise that Marvel Studios would be getting right to the point and make her the lead were they to ever develop a film, and now here we are.
Captain Marvel is the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is the origin story of the eponymous lead, played by Brie Larson. Known as “Vers” by her fellow Starforce comrades, she is a soldier and ally to the Kree (Guardians of the Galaxy), having lost memories of her past life outside of recurring nightmares. Amidst a war between the Kree and the Skrulls, a shapeshifting race, she’s captured and memory probed by the latter’s commander and crash lands in Los Angeles during her escape, attracting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attention in the process. What follows is a series of fragmented, though inspiring moments with no strong emotional core or agency to gel them together.
I came out of this film quite conflicted, because there are moments of brilliance constantly undermined by what is a fragile foundation for a narrative. Upon seeing no less than five writing credits at the end, it sort of became clearer to me. I’d hazard to guess that there was development trouble regarding this character. It reminds me of the growing pains the Phase One films had. It’s all sort of undercooked.
While Brie Larson is great in the part, Carol’s motivation is quite confused. The film puts the lost memories subplot at the forefront, attempting to make it the emotional throughline of the film but the problem is, our lead isn’t motivated by recovering her memories, it seems like she couldn’t care less about them. Instead, it’s granted to her more as a byproduct of her trying to stop the Skrulls. Characterization is inconsistent as well. There is a recurring motif about her mentor (Jude Law) telling her to keep her emotions in check, which is clearly supposed to tie into obstacles she faced in the past. Reaching for the stars only to have her hand slapped down. Not having ideas above her station, knowing her place, that sort of thing. But, because her mentor only really plays a part in her journey at the very beginning and very end of the film, it feels disconnected. Especially since Carol is probably the most stable, affable and contemplative protagonist the franchise has ever had, so it comes off like the equivalent of someone ordering you to calm down while you’re perfectly calm and just making it worse.
This film has almost Kingdom Hearts levels of telling me how close friends are without actually showing why. Her fellow pilot Maria (Lashana Lynch) and her boss Dr. Lawson (Annette Bening) are the anchors to her past, but the actual camaraderie and effect they had on her life outside of the major setpiece that gave her her powers is ultimately superficial. I need more than one brief flashback where they fist bump and quip at each other to flesh out why they’re close and how one motivates the other.
On the topic of setpieces, this film offers very little in the way of spectacle. Fights tend to just happen because the plot demands an action beat at this particular moment, but there’s never any real tension because the drive is either non-present or unclear. It also relies far too much on quick cuts and shaky cam. This wouldn’t be a problem if the emotional core of the characters elevated this, even a little bit. The visual effects in something like Wonder Woman ranged from impressive to almost laughable, especially in the third act, which many had a problem with. But for me, Diana’s drive was always at the heart of the story, and it carried me through even what’s supposed to be just a big, dumb CGI clash.
There is something to mine out of a character constantly told no, wings clipped at every turn. She wants to run, she wants to fly, and the power to do so has always been inside her, without needing to drive a car or a motorcycle or prove herself to her superiors or need a jet to soar through clouds and planets alike. But when we get to the big culminating moment of her continuing to stand up in spite of failings, a moment which could have been beautifully poignant, and was heavily advertised, feels unearned as a result of its haphazard structure.
I understand if the film speaks to you, I really do. I think there’s a fair amount of its fans who are just happy to finally see a Marvel Studios film with a female lead, and while I’m happy for that too, you need to do more than just go there. This film runs on complete autopilot, pardon the pun. Instead of using the grander foundation provided by the franchise’s past, it almost uses it as a crutch. Nick Fury and Phil Coulson’s involvement could’ve been written out and it would change very little with a new character as the surrogate.
Because this is a prequel set in the 90’s, it also falls into the trap so many of these do by retroactively undermining key moments in movies already familiar to us. Captain America: The Winter Soldier got the worst of it, for my money. Which is sad for me, as that’s still my favorite out of all of these. How this ties into the grander scheme of things just feels so contrived, which to be fair, depends on how much you care about the universe as a whole. But, when it puts so much emphasis on being the retroactive foundation for other movies, it’s hard to ignore.
On positives, the cast is very good. Brie Larson is again, great in the part, even if the story does her no favors. Samuel L. Jackson as a younger, hipper Nick Fury is also endearing to watch and without giving anything away, I also really enjoy how this film recontextualizes the Skrulls. Ben Mendelsohn is a particular standout as Talos, the Skrull commander. To reiterate, the skeleton of a great film is buried deep somewhere in here. As presented, it almost comes off like a movie directed and edited by a bot. It’s very odd. They do find a way around the whole “Mar-Vell” aspect to the origin as well, and I am astonished as to how they managed to make it even less interesting than it was in the comics.
I was ready to love it, but didn’t. And if you love it, I’m jealous.
6 out of 10.
P.S. The Stan Lee tribute and cameo were really cute.