Captain Marvel stumbles when it should fly
Has it really been over six months since we got an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)? The newest entry stars Brie Larson (Room, Short Term 12) as Captain Marvel, also making this the first character to headline their debut film since Doctor Strange, more than two years and seven movies ago (Spider-Man and Black Panther both stepped onto the scene in in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War). So the question is, did Captain Marvel stick the landing? The online culture wars are already raging about this movie, presumably because some “fans” have decided that girls have cooties or something? Putting all that aside, it makes sense to dig into this as a comparison to other films in the franchise tasked with introducing the character and their particular corner of the MCU.
Captain Marvel spends much of its runtime unravelling the mystery nagging at its title character. When we first meet Vers (Larson), she wakes up her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for a late night sparring session after having dreams of events she doesn’t remember. They are both warriors in the Kree Starforce, an intergalactic police force. They’re like special ops for the Kree Empire, trying to fight back against the Skrulls, naturally green aliens who can shapeshift at will. When Vers gets captured by Talos, a Skrull leader, (Ben Mendelsohn), she escapes and finds herself on Earth in 1995, six years after she disappeared from her former life as Carol Danvers.
Sadly, this is a frustrating film when looked at as a whole. The film trips over itself when trying to “flip the script” on the origin story formula, which ultimately undermines the clarity of the story’s themes. While his first film ends with Tony Stark proudly proclaiming “I am Iron Man,” having gone through the first steps of reexamining his life choices, the emotional equivalent in this film is Danvers reasserting her own memories, telling her adversary, “My name is Carol.” Because she spends the first two acts of the film suffering from memory loss, Carol Danvers remains as much a mystery to us as she does to herself. And the mystery isn’t terribly interesting, because the film is advertised to us as Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson in the iconic costume designed by Jamie McKelvie. So it’s not even that fans of the comic are ahead of the the character, but even casual fans as well. We’re not on the journey with her so much as watching from the outside in. Luckily for Marvel, Brie Larson has enough charisma and innate sense of joy inhabiting this character that much of the film is able to cruise by on her performance alone. The second lead, Nick Fury (an impressively de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) being that he is a guarded superspy, is also a cypher to us, so there isn’t really a strong point-of-view character to follow through the story.
Maybe that approach would have worked better if this wasn’t the 21st film in this franchise. One of the benefits of having brought fans along this path for the last 11 years is that throwing them into the depths of the Kree/Skrull War (first explored in a famed run of Avengers comics from the 1970s) doesn’t feel like asking too much of the audience. And that stuff is all rad. Using cosmic forces as clear allegories for our own political crisis is a hallmark of the science fiction genre, and allowing the conflict to evolve in complexity over the course of the film does keep the stakes interesting. But it would be better served with a stronger main story.
Luckily the viewing experience is serviceable. The trademark Marvel charm continues to work, and most of the quips land. Again, much of the credit goes to Larson’s and Jackson’s performance. The addition of the cat Goose (played by a quartet of feline actors), is something the film leans heavily on in the second act, and it works as a recurring gag and as something unique to this particular outing. Sadly, much of the 90s trappings–while allowing for Nirvana, Hole, and others on the soundtrack–feel like Gen X nostalgia wallpaper. Hey kids, remember pay phones? To be fair, there is an homage to an Independence Day action sequence that works wonders. But still, a better film would have found something in 1995 to latch onto thematically. And as we all know, the setting is primarily a way to let Marvel place this film before all of its others while allowing Larson to join up for Avengers: Endgame.
The film’s many credited writers, as well as directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Mississippi Grind), have all the pieces to make this as engaging and transcendent a film as Black Panther. There is clearly a lot of thought put into the film, and there are great threads in here around female relationships in particular, whether they are mentors like Annette Bening's take on the Supreme Intelligence, or friends like Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). The smaller moments in the film, whether it be conversations in homes or virtual environments, are the best parts of the film. From these scenes, we get glimpses into Carol’s past that show these pieces are all baked into the fabric of the film (Captain Marvel joins the long list of Marvel heroes to also have issues around fathers/fatherhood), but because of her amnesiac state, we barely see their impact on Carol. They don’t feel foregrounded enough to feel all of those threads pull together into a complete vision. For a film about a single hero, Captain Marvel tries to do as much as one of the team-up movies. It is breathless when it doesn’t have to be, and skimps where it should indulge.
And that is what makes it frustrating. All of the pieces are clearly here, but the movie never feels like it finds its groove, walking cool in slow motion when we all want it to fly.
Captain Marvel opens tonight in Philly theaters.