Captain Marvel‘s “Vers” (Brie Larson) can’t remember a thing about her past life. She has only known this: training with her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and fighting with her fellow Kree warriors in Starforce.
Their mission is to wipe out the evil shape-shifting alien race known as The Skrulls. Though Vers can’t recall her origins, Marvel Studios has their origin template memorized by now, 21 films into their world-conquering juggernaut franchise. It’ll involve comic sidekicks, training sequences, losing an early battle, questioning old beliefs, forming new alliances, and the hero finally coming into their own, more powerful than they were before. Cue end credits.
Things start slowly, as origin films, do with a lot of world-building groundwork in outer space. Starforce includes talented actors like Rune Temte, Gemma Chan, and Djimon Hounsou, but they’re badly underused in the picture, separated from Captain Marvel almost immediately. That’s probably so we can get to Earth quicker, but it makes their obviously forthcoming return later in the picture less emotionally impactful than it should have been.
When we arrive on Earth in the 1990s the movie picks up considerably, buoyed by cheeky nostalgia, plentiful jokes, and a stronger focus on the protagonist’s plight. The best move is an overall lightness in tone, which springs from the delightful chemistry between Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson (reprising his Nick Fury role, this time with both eyes since we’re in the past) and the total relief that the stakes aren’t the destruction of the universe for once (whew) but a war in outer space that we largely aren’t privy to.
We’re on a more personal journey for Captain Marvel to recover her memories and become her truest, most powerful self. With something of a blank slate to play, Brie Larson leans into her star charisma with professional ease.
The supporting cast are all strong. Annette Bening, who we didn’t expect to see in a superhero picture, is having fun with her dual role, as a mysterious figure from Marvel’s past and the Kree leader known as “The Supreme Intelligence”. The film’s happiest surprise, though, is not one but two scene stealers in the form of an adorable ginger cat named “Goose” and a very game and rangy performance from Ben Mendelsohn as both a S.H.I.E.L.D agent and the Skrull who impersonates him.
But the bread and butter of superhero movies are their action sequences and unfortunately here Captain Marvel comes up bland. Directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (best known for the fine Ryan Gosling drama Half Nelson) have always been gifted with actors but haven’t yet conquered the unique directorial challenge of fight scenes and crafting memorable action set pieces.
There are beats within the sequences that pay off, though.
One early sequence requires our heroine to fight without the use of both of her hands (long story) and in another, she isn’t exactly sure who’s she’s fighting, stopping frequently to suss out which “human” is actually the Skrull she’s chasing, giving the sequence a unique rhythm.
These significant obstacles make a world of difference; In the end the problem with the other action sequences, particularly the dreadful finale, may be that Captain Marvel is too powerful. When a character feels unbeatable, action sequences deflate into mere pyrotechnics and foregone conclusions, CGI light displays doing all the work when it’s the heroes themselves and those insurmountable odds that we can’t imagine how they’ll overcome that we’re invested in. If it’s too easy for them, there’s no triumph to cheer on.
With film #21 Marvel is breaking no new ground but for the gender of its protagonist. It seems insane in a subgenre that firmly belongs to the action/adventure side of filmmaking that’s already given us iconic female characters like The Bride, Sarah Connors, Lt. Ellen Ripley, Neytiri, Catwoman, and Wonder Woman to name just a few, that it would take this long for Marvel to let a woman lead the way but here we are.
Women and fans of female heroes deserved better than Captain Marvel (a mediocre entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – MCU) but there’s no denying that it’s rousing to see a woman triumph within the context of this heretofore excessively masculine universe.
That said, there’s unfortunately not a single moment that’s a patch on the kind of ecstatic cultural charge of the “No Man’s Land” sequence in Wonder Woman (it remains a shaming miracle that the messy Warner Bros/DC school of superhero filmmaking pulled off a great female hero movie before Marvel even deigned to bother trying).
Perhaps now with Marvel’s self-imposed glass ceiling shattered, they’ll be able to reach for that kind of grandeur themselves? We hope they’ll try. Comic books have a rich history of great female characters and all too few of them have been done justice on the big screen.
[SPOILER] Since Marvel has trained us all to expect an end credits scene you should know that there are two of them. The last is a very funny punchline to something you’ll casually wonder about during the movie, but the important scene comes early in the credits as we return to the present day. We’re in the Avengers HQ and Captain America and team are huddled around that pager that Nick Fury set off at the end of Infinity War, an S.O.S. to Captain Marvel herself, before he disintegrated. They’re wondering why the device has suddenly stopped signaling and they still haven’t figured out who it’s trying to reach. As Black Widow turns to leave the room she’s faced with the sight of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), an intergalactic stranger standing right behind her, suddenly barking “Where’s Fury?” With that split-second moment, a simple cut from one heroic female face to another, Captain Marvel finally delivers on its promise of greater gender parity in the MCU moving forward. That single beat carries it own electric charge, far more satisfying than any CGI photon blast; the future is female. [/SPOILER]