Captain Marvel, the MCU’s first female-led movie in 21 outings is long overdue.
Captain Marvel, the comic book character has exploded in popularity in recent years. She’s become a central figure in Marvel Comics’ most earth-rattling story arcs. As we move into the MCU’s next phase, the character will take Captain America’s spot as the heart, soul, and moral compass of the Marvel universe. The character and her introduction to moviegoers is a huge deal. With each phase of Marvel movies growing in scope and complexity, it’s unfathomable that Captain Marvel is a step backwards for the MCU.
Six years ago, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) was a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force. But when the film kicks off, she lives on the extra-terrestrial world of Hala among an advanced alien race known as the Kree. Carol has no memory of her life back on earth, and the Kree adopted her as one of their own. She’s a member of the Kree’s elite space force – think intergalactic G.I. Joes. Led by her friend and mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Carol and her team are tasked with defending their people from an insidious race of shape-shifters known as Skrulls.
Carol makes for a perfect soldier. Almost. She’s fiercely competitive, refuses to back down, and she shoots blasts of energy from her hands. The problem, as Yon-Rogg man-splains, is that she can’t keep her emotions in check. Because, you know – silly women and their silly feelings, apparently.
When a mission goes wrong, the Skrulls capture Carol and probe her subconscious. A scientist on Earth may have discovered tech that will turn the tides of war, and its location lays somewhere in Carol’s repressed memories. Ever the soldier, she breaks free, destroys her captors’ ship, and crashes on Earth circa 1995. Carol soon crosses paths with a young younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – sporting a head of hair and two functional eyeballs. Fury and Carol team up to track down the tech before the Skrulls get their shifty-little hands on it.
Captain Marvel must have Skrull DNA since it comes across as a mish-mash of film genres. It’s a space opera, superhero origin story, a war movie, and a buddy cop flick rolled into one. And it doesn’t nail any of these genres. Most of the film occurs on earth in 1995, which is a shame, since the picture is at its best when it operates on an intergalactic scale. The Kree’s high-tech alien world and the pulsing electronic score that announces it left me feeling like I was in store for a new breed of Marvel movie. But Carol’s Earth-bound shenanigans play put like a Marvel phase-one film.
The script does its damndest to keep Captain Marvel from playing out like yet another superhero origin story. And it’s this choice that makes the narrative so stilted and awkward. First off, the script saddles Larson’s character with amnesia. Carol doesn’t know who she is for much of the film, and the audience doesn’t know either. Carol Danvers comes across as a blank slate.
We learn about her complicated personality through lazy character-building. When Yon-Rogg isn’t telling Carol what her deal is, we’re subjected to choppy flashbacks and hazy memories. It makes strapping in for this story one bumpy ride. And Captain Marvel’s big-budget spectacle isn’t enough to carry the movie either.
Captain Marvel features some of the MCU’s worst action sequences. There’s a subway train chase that is as tedious as The French Connection’s classic chase is thrilling. And a climactic brawl on a space ship takes place in a room so dark that you can’t make out what’s happening. DP Ben Davis leans into that obnoxious Paul Greengrass shaky-cam style to cover up for the film’s atrocious fight choreography. When fights break out the camera tilts, whips, and wobbles so tenaciously that the action becomes a big unruly blur; hard to track and no fun to watch.
When Carol goes all cosmic and fights battlecruisers in outer space, the movie goes into total video game mode. She looks great on a poster or in a still, but once she lights up like the aurora borealis the picture becomes CG spectacle and there’s no weight to the action. It’s like watching a lit-up Mario rip through Goombas after catching an invincibility star.
The picture’s co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are talented filmmakers with some great films under their belts. And Larson is an Oscar-winner actress whose best years are still ahead of her. Together they sound like the perfect combination for a character-driven film. But their collaboration falls short of Marvel’s high bar. Captain Marvel is a middle-of-the-road movie, lacking the personality, thrills, and charm of last years trio of Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and even Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Captain Marvel is the MCU’s new resident bad-ass. Larson plays her as someone who wouldn’t back down from the Hulk – even without her cosmic powers. I love how Captain Marvel physically radiates waves of energy. And it’s fun watching her smack bad guys around like rag dolls. On paper, Carol Danvers has all the right superhero tools, but the character never pops.
Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel as presented here, underwhelms. She’s tough, sure. She’s heroic, of course. And you better believe that when she’s knocked down, she always gets back up. But even though this character literally glows, there aren’t many flashes of charisma. Larson comes across like a Terminator impersonating a human, even when she’s in buddy-movie mode with Fury. Larson plays Captain Marvel more like Henry Cavill’s Superman than Chris Evans’ Captain America. She’s believable as an action hero but lacks the spark that brings the MCU’s best characters to life.
It’s the supporting players who swoop in and imbue the movie with life. Ben Mendelsohn leaves a lasting impression as a slippery Kree operative named Talos. Jackson does spot duty as the film’s comic relief, while Annette Bening gets severely underutilized as a mysterious woman from Carol’s past. A wonky third act and strong supporting performances help salvage the uneven film, adding the laughs, the heart, and the acts of heroism that audiences came to see.
There’s a scene that sums up the movie’s issues. It’s when Carol commits a selfless act of sacrifice that transforms her into Captain Marvel. In terms of selflessness, it’s right up there with Steve Rogers throwing himself on what he thinks is a live grenade way back in the first Captain America movie. In that film, Steve’s valour tells you all you need to know about the character. But Carol’s big moment doesn’t come across as a revelation. Boden and Fleck lack the savvy to elevate Carol’s action to the stuff of legend. The inception of the MCU’s next great hero plays out like just another action-movie beat.
Captain Marvel the movie may finally be in theatres, but the character’s big moment still hasn’t arrived.