After eleven years, 20 movies, and much brouhaha, with Captain Marvel, Marvel finally let one of their female characters lead an installment of their expansive cinematic universe, as well as hire a female (co-)director. The film has traits that make it unique and stand out, but at the same time, it often becomes a paint-by-numbers MCU origin story. Full of ups and downs, it’s still an engaging, entertaining addition, one that will have a lingering on-screen impact moving forward and also carries surplus revelatory weight simply by existing.
What Captain Marvel does best is character. Brie Larson plays the title hero—though she goes by multiple names in the movie, no one ever actually calls her Captain Marvel. We’ll call her Vers for sake of clarity, because that’s how she’s first introduced. She’s a warrior, a member of the Kree, a strong, proud race bent on protecting the galaxy from the Skrulls, a cadre of shape-shifting lizard-alien terrorists. But she’s haunted by hazy recollections of a past she doesn’t remember and a life on another world, Earth, that she only sees in glimpses, whispers, and dreams.
At its core, the story of Captain Marvel is a woman struggling to find her place in a world of men. She’s surrounded by condescending dudes telling her she’s not good enough, that she’ll never make it, that she must succeed on their terms and by their rules—you hear a lot of casual “honey,” “darling,” and a cringe-inducing, “You’d be prettier if you smiled.” She pushes back, and the narrative is about falling, getting knocked down, and standing back up to claim your spot. In that regard, it works as a stirring ode to empowerment and strength.
The only male character who doesn’t treat Vers as less-than or as a novelty, is Nick Fury, a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson, who, thanks to the 1990s setting, still has two eyes. He recognizes her power and accepts her on her own merits. When the two come together on Earth, much of Captain Marvel plays like a throwback buddy action comedy. Vers and Fury traipse around, bantering while they piece together Vers’ past as a hot-shot Air Force pilot, and try to solve the core mystery and save the day from a Skrull invasion. Larson and Jackson have great chemistry and are not only a blast to watch, they also create a sincere emotional bond and deep pathos along the way.
This is where the film peaks, where it hits its stride, has the most fun, and captures the audience’s attention. And the rest is…fine. It simply doesn’t stand out in most other regards. The plot unfolds in bland, predictable fashion—the twist happens precisely where you expect it, the person you suspect may actually be bad turns out to actually be bad. It’s the type of cookie cutter origin story it seemed Marvel had moved beyond.
Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck get some giggles out of the ‘90s setting. Full of ear-catching needle drops—some of which land, some of which are way too on-the-nose—we see Vers stand in front of a wall that’s basically a collage of ‘90s references, talking on a pay phone, in front of a Blockbuster. It grabs you by the lapels and shouts, “90s!” in your face. The era works for the timeline and larger continuity, but for much of the runtime it fades into the background, trotted out for a reference or bit of slang here and there.
The MCU has taken much criticism over the years for every movie essentially looking the same film-to-film, with a flat, bland palate and lighting. They’ve taken steps recently to liven things up in a visual sense with movies like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and especially Thor: Ragnarok, but Captain Marvel falls into old patterns. We get a few glimpses of candy-colored deep space we know from Guardians of the Galaxy, but most of it looks like it was filmed in a grocery store parking lot.
The sequences on Earth actually look quite a bit like a mid-budget ‘90s action movie. There’s a foot chase that’s filmed like the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze pursuit in Point Break, and the car Nick Fury drives is, if not the exact car Gary Busey’s Pappas drives, a close approximation.
In the larger Marvel narrative, Captain Marvel fills a similar niche to Ant-Man. Though full of obvious references to the continuing arc, it primarily exists as its own entity and stands more as an individual endeavor than others. Sure, there are callbacks to other films, characters like Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and Ronan (Lee Pace) show up in inconsequential roles, and we meet Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson as a newbie. But the central duty is to introduce a character and plot concerns that will play major parts in the future, especially with Avengers: Endgame looming on the horizon. Ben Mendelsohn’s Skrull leader Talos offers a nice new addition, and it should be interesting to watch that race play a larger role. And Goose the cat. Goose stole the damn movie and sure as hell better be back.
There are things I absolutely love about Captain Marvel—it’s a little bit Top Gun, a little bit Point Break, and there’s nothing wrong with that—and elements that don’t work as well. I do think it will resonate more with women (not exactly a shocking statement, I know). We don’t see often see female characters with this much agency in big Hollywood blockbusters.
It’s more than just her being tough or a badass. Vers is those things, but the film specifically touches on struggles, hurdles, and deeply ingrained behaviors women face every day. More than making her one of the guys, or making her fit in a man’s world—that’s not the goal—the film tries to distill something about the female experience and demands space, not on their terms, but on its own. She's not strong despite being a woman, she's strong because of it.
But if Marvel knows one thing, it’s how to make a broadly appealing piece of populous entertainment, and they deliver again. Captain Marvel has things going for it that elevate it a bit above the pack and provide more cultural oomph and import, but despite that, this is also a Marvel movie that feels like another Marvel movie. [Grade: B]