Film Review: Captain Marvel

Here Comes a New Challenger

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Captain Marvel, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-led superhero flick, sees the highly anticipated (and also unfortunately controversial) debut of Brie Larson as the titular super-heroine. Directed by indie film duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Captain Marvel is the living embodiment of some of the MCU’s worst tendencies, but still ends up being an enjoyable ride and a fine introduction for Carol Danvers. The film’s uneven pacing, muted character beats, and boring CGI spectacle leaves a lot on the table, but are outweighed by the script’s humor and Brie Larson’s fun and easy chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson. Mild spoilers ahead…

Captain Marvel is a film that bears the burden of several responsibilities. As the last entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Three before Avengers: Endgame, a launchpad for a new Avenger, and the first female-led movie of the entire franchise, the film wears a myriad of important hats. In addition, as a followup to the awe-inspiring hat trick of Thor: Ragnarok, the now Oscar-winning Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel has the unenviable task of living up to a string of significant critical and commercial successes. So, does the newest member of the Avengers deliver in her solo debut? Yes, and no. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has an unprecedented track record of quality, a streak of 20 films that range from solid to fantastic with few outliers (sorry, Thor: The Dark World). Captain Marvel isn’t a film to tarnish that reputation, but at the same time, it is also a film that harkens back to the nascent MCU of the late 2000s, with much of the esteemed studio’s worst tendencies back on full display. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar, Mississippi Grind), the film buckles under the enormous weight of its responsibilities with messy and uneven storytelling, an over-reliance on vague CGI, and a severely underdeveloped heroine. However, that isn’t to say that Captain Marvel isn’t fun - buoyed by an excellent supporting cast and Brie Larson’s breezy chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the film is a delight when it’s not taking itself too seriously.

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“…buoyed by an excellent supporting cast and Brie Larson’s breezy chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the film is a delight when it’s not taking itself too seriously.”

Captain Marvel wastes no time introducing us to our protagonist, throwing us right in the middle of an alien conflict. Vers (a clever play on Carol Danvers’ burnt up dog-tag), as she’s known, is an amnesiac member of Starforce, an elite squad of “noble warrior heroes” from the Kree home planet of Hala. Led by Yon-rogg (Jude Law, cranking up his smarm and charm), Starforce is on the covert back lines of a conflict with the Skrulls, a race of green-skinned shapeshifters that are allegedly an invasive and belligerent threat to the entire galaxy. When a mission goes awry and Vers is captured by the Skrulls, they set their sights on Earth after probing her buried memories. The story’s setup is problematic right out of the gate - by introducing tidbits of our heroine’s Earthbound history and making her an amnesiac, it takes the wind out of its sails almost immediately. Being privy to important information that our protagonist isn’t even aware of, the audience is forced to watch Vers play catchup for over an hour, draining a significant amount of dramatic tension from the film. With no memory of who she really is, Vers is also a literal cipher, an unrelatable blank slate that comes into her own way too late as our headlining hero. It also doesn't help that the first act is muddled and uninspired - the Kree/Skrull war just isn’t that interesting, and a frustratingly dark filter over the picture really confuses the visuals.

Once Danvers crash lands on Earth, however, the film peps up dramatically. With the introduction of a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the mood lightens and Captain Marvel really finds its footing. Brie Larson is a tremendously gifted actress, coming off a well-deserved Best Actress win for 2015’s Room - and even though the occasionally sleepy script doesn’t live up to Larson’s caliber, Carol Danvers shines particularly brightly opposite the film’s excellent supporting cast. Whether it’s an oftentimes hilarious buddy-cop vibe with Nick Fury or a deeper exploration of female friendship with Maria Rambeau (a resonant Lashana Lynch), Captain Marvel is elevated by the characters in Danvers’ orbit - when Larson is given the slack to play fast and loose with the cast, the pace and energy feels right at home alongside Marvel’s best. And while the film suffers from the lack of a real impactful villain, there are some refreshingly interesting surprises and swerves in store that give Talos the Skrull (Ben Mendelsohn) more to do than just twirl his mustache.

Unfortunately, however, with all the things it’s trying to accomplish, Captain Marvel lets many of its inspired ideas slip through the cracks. The film’s 1990s setting, while charming at times, feels extremely reductive and haphazard. An effective throwback allows its time period and nostalgia to seep into every frame and every corner of the film, where it floats in the background as a gentle reminder. By no means am I expecting Zodiac-levels of fidelity in a Marvel superhero film, but it needs to be more than just Nine Inch Nails tees, Blockbuster stores, and the occasional No Doubt riff - Captain Marvel’s 90s references, unfortunately, are just jarring when they should be seamless. The film also suffers from many of the worst attributes of the MCU, with tedious CGI sequences and a mostly uninspired third act. One only needs to look at Danvers’ encounter with the Kree Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening pulling double duty in two mostly thankless roles) to diagnose many of the Marvel Universe’s biggest problems. The last act of the film, a slapdash clash of CGI beams and explosions, has high physical impact but almost zero visceral or emotional heft thanks to Captain Marvel’s ill-defined superpowers. When Danvers is finally allowed to cut loose, she becomes nigh invincible, able to fly through the air and obliterate anything in her path, including any stakes the film once had.

It seems that I’ve complained a lot about Captain Marvel, but the truth remains that it isn’t a bad film. Not even close. The movie knows how to have its fun, even with some glaring flaws. Brie Larson remains a captivating screen presence, and even though the film isn’t breaking ground like many of Marvel’s other Phase Three films, we did finally get our female-led superhero film. Even though it aims to be a big-gun headliner, Captain Marvel ends up resembling more of a supporting player, and that’s just fine. There are fates much more dire than fitting right in with Marvel’s library of films, for better or worse.

Grade: B-