I’m honestly a bit lukewarm on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think what they’re doing is pretty cool in execution, and I’ll admit I have fun when I watch them. However, with the exception of every 8 films or so feeling like a real spectacle, these are not movies: they are two-and-a-half hour TV shows, adhering to a formula like The Big Bang Theory and churning out so fast the special effects range from the stunning (their work on de-aging actors is unmatched and unrivaled) to the cartoonishly bad (hi, Thanos). Still, even when they are generally formulaic and flawed, that doesn’t mean they can’t meet the barometer of good filmmaking. And that’s about where I stand on Captain Marvel, a film that doesn’t necessarily stand up to par with, say, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, or Black Panther, thanks to an insanely good Brie Larson performance and an interesting story, it does stand lightyears ahead of most other Marvel fare.
In 1995, Vers (Larson) is a member of an elite task force of Kree Warriors known as Starforce. Led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her mentor who rescued her from a disaster six years before, of which she has no memory, Starforce is assigned the task of locating and eliminating the Skrulls, a sinister group of shapeshifting aliens led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). However, their mission goes wrong, and Vers finds herself stranded on Planet C-52, also known as “Earth.” Isolated from her crew and left to hunt down Talos’ team alone, Vers is forced to ally herself with a young special agent named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as confront the overwhelming feeling that she may, in fact, have had a life on Earth many years before, under the name Carol Danvers, and that she may, in fact, be the most powerful person in the galaxy.
When Captain Marvel first begins, I won’t lie to you: it’s rough. The characters feel like archetypes, the effects are pretty disappointing, and the dialogue is so stunted it hurts. Characters deliver lines like, “You’re the best, Ace!” and “When I’m flying, I feel…free” unironically, and it makes you wonder, “Oh God, is the whole movie going to be like this?” However, upon reaching a scene where Starforce goes full-Seal Team Six, things begin to turn around, for three key reasons. The first is the writing. Around this point, the script begins to feel comfortable with Carol as a character, and allows her to have fun, play with others, and actually feel like a badass superhero. It distills the snark of Tony Stark with the fish-out-of-water-ness of Thor and the sense of duty that makes Captain America so likable into one character, while never making her feel like a carbon copy of the others. Carol is a hilarious, snarky, intelligent character in her own right, able to make mistakes and learn from them, be powerful and realistic, and always entertaining, and by allowing her character to grow from the stunted first half, it helps the film and the character improve as time goes on. The second is the thematic material. There are two major themes underlining Captain Marvel. The first is a story about female identity that isn’t quite as fleshed out as it should be, but raises some interesting questions. By using her powers as a metaphor for her femininity, the film does have a well-balanced, albeit on-the-nose and ostentatious, story about women finally embracing their inner power to become the badass that they were always meant to be – and that society sometimes prevents them from becoming. However, what surprisingly works better is the Cold War/modern day allegory surrounding the war between the Skrulls and the Kree. The Skrulls are one of the most infamous villains in all of Marvel comics – known for their ability to shapeshift and take over civilizations, they make for compelling, interesting villains. However, I’m more interested in the way the film embraces them as villains. To say much more would be a spoiler, but I will confirm that it not only allows for a fantastic use of Ben Mendelsohn, but it also creates a twist that surprised even me and offers up a fascinating look at modern day society. By leaning harder into these ideas, as opposed to the stunted generic action movie of the first third, the film ends up not only saving itself, but becoming a worthwhile, entertaining action-comedy in its own right.
And what’s the third, you may be asking? Well, it’s the general aesthetic of the entire production – the direction, the use of music, and the general feel of the entire film. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, while moderately restrained on the film, manage to keep things thoroughly entertaining throughout. Aesthetically, the best comparison to make is the original Guardians of the Galaxy – a fact that makes sense when you consider that they technically take place on the same planets and such. The effects and sets tend to match, the sarcasm feels complementary, and in general, it has that sense of rollicking action-comedy-adventure that the best worst heroes in the universe are known for. And while there’s a distinct lack of the humor and whimsy that Perlman, Gunn, Coogler, or Whedon instilled into their films, Boden and Fleck do manage to mine their material for humorous spins on things. In particular, I appreciate the way the duo mines the 90s era for both humor and aesthetic direction. Yes, the fact the film takes place during the 90s is intended to be comical, from multiple jokes about dial-up internet (jokes that surprisingly don’t grow old no matter how many times they’re repeated) to sequences set in Blockbuster video (which lead to a charming in-joke with The Right Stuff that left me the only one chuckling in the theater) to the existence of a Happy Days lunchbox. However, the 90s setting is more significant because the film emulates the decade’s filmmaking sensibilities. After the success of The Matrix and The Dark Knight, studios have begun making their films darker and grittier, forgetting that the most successful of the 90s action films allowed sassy leads to kick ass in a series of convoluted scenarios. Sure, not all of them worked, but the best directors – James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow (who has since doured), John Woo, and Jan De Bont – thrived in embracing the stupid to create the art. What some may call a “stupid” decade others would call “stylized,” and that style is exactly what Captain Marvel embraces, in all the best and worst ways. In fact, the 90s stuff works so well it raises questions about the writing in the first third: is this an example of lazy writing, or are the writers trying to pay homage to the cheesy, on-the-nose dialogue of the era? Surely those terrible lines about how flying is freedom would have been lauded an honored if they appeared alongside such gems as “I feel the need, the need for speed!” “Pain don’t hurt,” or “If it bleeds, we can kill it” (lines that I wholeheartedly love as products of their time but don’t necessarily hold up under further inspection). This sense of aesthetic is also noticeable in the music, which, while not quite as impressive as Guardians, is no less smartly utilized. The time capsule hodgepodge of songs is both entertaining (Nirvana! No Doubt! TLC! Hole!) and a reminder that the mid-to-late nineties was a terrible decade for music (for the nostalgically inclined who may want to challenge this sentiment: ska). Still, a great use of a song can surpass its quality 10/10 times – I squealed out loud during a fight sequence set to “Just A Girl.” Which brings me to my final point – the fight sequences! The action in Marvel movies has been somewhat hit or miss over the course of these twenty films – Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s elevator battle was impressive, but The Avengers and even Black Panther were fairly disappointing in their depiction of hand-to-hand combat. That’s why I’m so excited to report that the film (and in particular Larson and her stunt team) took extra care to make every battle feel real, refreshing, and genuinely fun to watch. Honestly, it is this assured sense of aesthetic that saves the film whenever it threatens to veer too far off course.
As for the cast, they perform just about as well as you’d expect from a superhero movie, with two exceptions (in the positive camp, I assure you). Brie Larson is truly astonishing in the title role. Not only does she create a charismatic hero that will stand tall with the best of Marvel’s preexisting characters, but she adds an extra something that makes the character sing onscreen. Larson’s Danvers is so funny, so smart, so effortlessly cool, I haven’t seen anyone pull this off since…well, since Top Gun-era Tom Cruise. That level of charisma is what we’re dealing with in Marvel, and the fact Larson pulls it off so effortlessly makes this film the success that it is. Meanwhile, outside of Larson, I want to give a special shout-out to Jackson. Not only does the digital de-aging actually look realistic and impressive, but Jackson manages to cross his ultra-serious Nick Fury performance with the fun-loving sarcasm that helped him break out in the mid-eighties. The film’s best moments come when Larson’s sarcastic fish-out-of-water verbally spars and/or bonds with Jackson’s confused and faux-cool Fury, and it makes for a great action-comedy buddy-cop repartee. Meanwhile, Jude Law shows up to play Jude Law, which I mean as mostly a positive, Gemma Chan shows up as another stepping stone to becoming a future superstar, and Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou show up to remind the audience, “Hey, remember these characters? Well they also exist in THIS film! Isn’t that crazy?” Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn shows up to do what he always does best: mug, deliver great lines, and just generally crush whatever material he is given, whether it’s as an Aussie gangster, a corporate scumbag, a poor stoner, the King of England, or here, as an alien warlord. Lashana Lynch gives a grounded, enjoyable performance as Danvers’ best friend Maria Rambeau, and Akira Akbar gives a charming performance as her daughter Monica. And then there’s Annette Bening, who is doing a LOT, which is the only way I ever want Annette Bening. She plays a few different characters that I won’t spoil here, but I will say she gets to deliver lines with that same sense of entitled smarminess that made her American Beauty performance one of the best of all time – and this time she does it while DANCING TO NIRVANA!!!! Enough said. If I have one complaint with the acting in this film, it’s that the filmmakers should have given Mckenna Grace more to do as young Carol. This girl is a firecracker, easily one of the best child actors in the business – she surely deserves more than throwing steely glances and delivering a total of two words. Do better by your side characters, Marvel.
Captain Marvel is a solid entry into the superhero canon. Sure, it’s no Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, or Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s at least on par with the first Iron Man and Captain America. It’s a witty, breezy action caper that captures the style of the decade it emulates perfectly, and it has just enough brains to make you feel like you watched something smarter. As reductive as it may be to make this comparison, the most apt contemporary Captain Marvel has is Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Both are imperfect films that find their groove in a period setting, both contain action sequences far superior to the rest of their shared universes, and both convey weighty material inside of a funny, exciting story. At the end of the day, that’s what Captain Marvel does best. It restores fun to a staling series, and it promises an exciting superhero for years to come.