A female fronted Marvel film has been a long time coming. After two full Phases of male and team dominated enterprises, all eyes now turn to Captain Marvel, the latest superhero film in the comic canon and the connective tissue between last year’s Avengers: Infinity War and the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame.
Starring a game and immensely charismatic Brie Larson as the title character (who goes by the name Vers for the majority of the film), Captain Marvel unfolds as a bit of a retro mystery in its first two acts. The film opens on a fragmented nightmare: Vers and a mystery woman (Annette Benning) are wounded in a crash on a beach and under fire from what we will later learn is a shape shifting Skrull alien. The bad dream prompts Vers to awaken her squadron leader and mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), but her inability to control her photon fists lands her in hot water with the Supreme Intelligence, overlords of the Kree empire who remind Vers to toe the line and suppress her emotions.
The plot really kicks in when Yon-Rogg, Vers and the rest of the team, including sharpshooter Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan) and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Korath (Djimon Honsou), travel to a local planet to rescue a spy before he is apprehended by the Skrulls. Vers is captured in an ambush and, on a Skrull ship run by Talon (Ben Mendelsohn), her memories are sifted through and a connection is made to both the mysterious woman in her dreams and planet Earth.
From there Captain Marvel becomes a fish out of water origin story as Vers travels to Earth, meets up with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and investigates her jumbled past, which has ties to a mysterious Army project code-named Pegasus, as well as the war between Kree and Skrulls.
Reviewers were specifically asked to remain coy about most plot developments, so the less said about the unexpected cameos, Captain Marvel’s connection to the two Thanos-led films and other character reveals, the better. The fact that the studio is aggressively trying to keep certain elements under wraps, however, hints at one of the film’s biggest shortcomings.
The screenplay, written by co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (along with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) prioritizes Vers’ mysterious origin story above all else, which means that the amnesiac title character remains a cipher for the vast majority of the film. It’s never exactly clear who Vers is; comic fans know her as Army pilot Carol Danvers and she’s clearly brave, (head)strong and has a rebellious nature. Too often, though, the character is simply reacting or puzzle-solving rather than driving the narrative and at times it feels as though the title character is less the star of the film than simply a stand-in to move the plot along and wind audiences up for future Marvel (and Avengers) films to come.
None of the fault rests with Larson, who’s dynamic performance completely anchors the film. She’s equally adept at comedy as she is action, though fans of the actress’ early work on indie dramas like Short Term 12 or the Toni Collette-led dramaedy United States of Tara will find her dramatic skills sorely underused. It’s a shame that Larson isn’t given more opportunities to lend the character some heft, especially since Captain Marvel works best when it’s focusing on its characters, not its intergalactic war.
As for supporting cast, Jackson is expectantly good. Fury has a nice, playful banter with Vers (and a surprising good camaraderie with Goose the cat, who tags along for the ride). At 70 years old, Jackson moves a little more slowly – particularly in the fight scenes – but the de-aging FX works to convincingly make the early era SHIELD agent fit right in.
The other stand-outs in the cast are surprisingly not Law or Benning (the former is adequate; the latter is underutilized, as Marvel films are apt to do with their prestige older actresses). Rather it is character actor Mendelsohn (late of Rogue One and mostly buried under layers of prosthetics) who steals the show, as well as Lashana Lynch as Danvers’ best friend, who brings strength and a genuine warmth to the proceedings. And while it’s always nice to see Gemma Chan, it would be nice if a film found a way to make better use of the talented actress.
The Louisiana-set and shot scenes where Vers and Fury regroup and uncover Carol Danvers’ past are some of the most genuinely touching moments in the film. Unsurprisingly this is also where Larson shines brightest (not literally – that occurs in the climax) as Vers grapples with the reality of her lost life and the connection to friends and family that she was sorely missing. More moments like these and fewer endless FX battles where CGI characters punch other CGI characters or spaceships would have been a welcome deviation from the standard Marvel fare that the company has fallen into of late. Particularly egregious is the entire climax of the film, set in space and the desert, which is visually little more than mind-numbing collision of poorly edited fight sequences that too closely resemble other films, bringing the film to an underwhelming end that fails to distinguish this historic enterprise from its male-dominated predecessors.
On the plus side, the 90s-set film provides a certain amount of throwback charm. Particularly welcome are the period-specific references to grunge fashion (plaid shirts!) and the fantastic soundtrack, which is predictably stacked with female artists such as No Doubt, Hole, and TLC. There are also some traditionally hokey jokes at the expense of the time period, such as the length of time a CD takes to buffer, a “fancy” two-way pager and the promotional items on display in the Blockbuster where Vers crash lands on earth.
Bottom line: Ultimately Captain Marvel is an entertaining and watchable entry in the superhero canon. Considering Larson’s talent, the character’s integral role in the franchise moving forward and the historical milestone unlocked with a female-fronted Marvel film, however, Captain Marvel doesn’t feel as unique or well-executed as it could have been.