The MCU comes of age, with its 21st offering in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel. In the eleven years since Robert Downey Jr and Iron Man began a redefinition of the extents of “franchise”, Marvel Studios has consistently refrained from giving its female principals top billing, the closest being last years Ant-Man And The Wasp, where Evangeline Lilly could still realistically be considered below Paul Rudd in terms of importance. But finally, that has changed. In the modern film-making era where the subordination of women in the industry, in so many different ways, has never been so much a topic of discussion, here comes Brie Larson and Captain Marvel to try and right the trend for the MCU. In much the same way that I had pulled hard for Black Panther before seeing any of it, I was really hoping for another home-run from Marvel here, and for the most part that sentiment had nothing to do with the franchise. Wonder Woman laid the foundations: was Captain Marvel able to build some walls, or is the whole structure of female-centered superhero movies looking a mote unstable?
In the heart of the Kree Empire, Starforce members Vers (Brie Larson) trains with commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to control her immense energy powers so they can be used in the war against the shape-shifting Skrulls. Captured by Skrull General Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), Vers is forced to confront hidden memories, and soon winds up on Earth in 1995, partnering with S.H.I.E.L.D agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in an effort to uncover the truth about her past and an intergalactic conspiracy.
I really wanted this to be a better movie than it is, and even at its worst Captain Marvel is a passable thing. But that really is damning with faint praise. 21 films in, and what we have come to regard as the traditional MCU flaws – formulaic plots, weak villains, misplaced comedy – are back in force after a few entries when it seemed like the lessons had been learned.
The big, big postive is undoubtedly Larson, who excels in the role of Carol Danvers, having to juggle a few different balls at once and dealing with some clunky dialogue (there are at least two terrible “You’re telling me…” and “As you know…” exposition dumps). She’s a wise cracking action hero, a special-ops soldier with amnesia and a god-like superhero at varying different points in the film, but she carries it all off. I suppose only in the not-so-great Kong: Skull Island has she come close to this kind of Hollywood fare, but if she lacked the priors in the tent-pole franchise area, it doesn’t really show. It helps that the character is, at the very least, interesting, with the amnesia plot not belabored, and with Larson enjoying a decent back-and-forth with Jackson’s Fury, a more happy-go-lucky version of the characters sans eyepatch (with the de-aging work asking some interesting questions of the future of the industry).
As a female-centric superhero film, there are ups and downs. There are a few strong female roles outside of Larson’s, most notably Lashana Lynch as a friend from her test pilot days, plenty of ass is kicked, there are no romance plots in sight and the film largely revolves around the theme of women being capable of doing everything that men have traditionally done, be it flying jets or flying around with superpowers: Danvers defies convention at every turn and in terms of the main character, the only serious complaint to be made is that she might be a tad too well-rounded, lacking significant flaws to mark her out.
I did feel as if the point, regards this being the first female-led MCU movie, was being made a bit too much at times though, and I still wonder if that is a legitimate observation or some of my own inherent gender bias showing. At times Captain Marvel seems, to me, to be at pains to draw attention to the gender of its title character in a way that I didn’t feel was conducive to feminist film-making: I’ll admit that when No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” began to play over a third act action scene, I did roll my eyes just a little bit. This is something I find easy to forgive, but I do think that there is just a smidge of insecurity in the production of Captain Marvel, that would be better excised for any future adventures of the title character.
Let’s go over those flaws though. The plot is, by and large, the formula that has been so successful for Marvel in the past, and in that regard you can’t begrudge them going for it again. But where the formula can be excused when the various production elements excel in a huge way (Infinity War), or when the make-up of the cast and setting are otherwise truly notable (Black Panther), Captain Marvel falls flat. Lodging the audience in the mid 90’s for the majority of the running time – a fact the film will endlessly remind you of, to the point that you smell the sickly sweet stench of nostalgia-bait off every other scene – we go through all the of the requisite beats of a person finding power, learning to use said power, getting beyond their restraints and becoming the hero. Many of the set-pieces are restrained enough, something that should be praise-worthy, but Captain Marvel goes too far, with many of the action beats too restrained, not enlivening proceedings in the way that they should.
Our villain is Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, a nothing entity who fails the absolute critical test of having no kind of decent motivation for the actions that he undertakes. Why does Yon-Rogg want to wipe out the Skrulls? Because the “Supreme Intelligence” (a badly underused Annette Bening) told him to? Because he’s just evil? Captain Marvel doesn’t want to give you too many answers, and after the highs of the Vulture, Thanos and Killmonger, we’re back to the MCU’s normal service, where the over-emphasis on the hero, especially in the origin story adventure, means that the antagonist is just sort of there as well. At least he isn’t the classic “reverse-hero” type, but any thumbs up for originality is masked by the blandness of Law’s performance. I get the very strong feeling that Law does not want to be here, and the only reason he signed up is because, well, everyone has to be in the MCU nowadays. Much better is Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos, a surprisingly good performance for what could easily have been a throwaway role: Boden and Fleck do some unexpected subversion of expectations with that character, to good effect, drawing attention to issues of refugees and propaganda regarding the same.
Oh, but the comedy. We’ll never escape it now, and Captain Marvel has all of the same errors in that regard as its laugh-a-minute brethren, albeit worse at some moments than others. The situation regarding “Goose” is the best example that I can think of, a cat that turns up in the second act and becomes rapidly important, infringing on numerous scenes until it turns out to be more than it appears to be. If I may be allowed one spoiler, the cat sprouts tentacles and consumes a few henchmen of the bad guy in a manner that, but for Nick Fury’s accompanying punchlines, would be nothing less than horrific, but that the MCU clearly wants you to laugh at. These films have a serious problem getting me, and others of a like-mind, to take the serious things seriously when you’re always waiting for that punchline. It practically took the tree-barking of half the life in the universe for that to happen.
As you would expect, Captain Marvel is taking some obvious cues from Guardian Of The Galaxy, to the point that a few characters – namely Djimon Hounsou’s Korath and Lee Pace’s Ronan – appear in this one, making it a quasi-prequel to the adventures of Chris Pratt and company. Ronan’s inclusion is particularly egregious, there isto largely set-up a sequel that doesn’t need setting up. The other way that Captain Marvel is trying to ape its more solidified cosmic brethren is in the soundtrack choices, with a lyrical reminder that you are, indeed, watching a film set in the 1990’s never too far away, (along with other references, like long-lost search engine AltaVista) to the point of distraction (and the less said about Pinar Toprak’s forgettable score the better). Much like the soundtrack choices of Suicide Squad ended up being too noticeable, so Captain Marvel can’t just let the Blockbuster signs do the job. But it’s also a de facto origin for the whole franchise in a way that I didn’t like (Guess what Danvers’ Air Force callsign was? It starts with “A” and ends in a billion dollars per movie).
The direction from Boden and Fleck is fine. I wouldn’t say that Captain Marvel is overflowing with imaginative set-pieces or visual cues, with the stuff that really stood out to me being the slow-motion origin moment for Danvers and a mental showdown with a malevolent AI. The action sequences are, as mentioned, not so great, switching from rather unexceptional (hand-to-hand in a records room, a very tired fight on top of a train) to too over-the-top (the entire ending sequence, where godlike powers eliminate any sense of risk), and aren’t lit particularly well at moments, perhaps evidence of the directing duo’s largely indie background. It’s edited somewhat frantically too, the film zipping from scene to scene very quickly, rarely slowing down to let the audience settle.
This is far from the worst MCU film, and is far from the best too. It’s pretty much slap-bang in the middle, an entry that I fear will be little regarded in the years to come, unless Larson and Danvers make a serious splash in next months Endgame, that naturally gets a nod in the obligatory mid-credits scene. But its importance is undeniable: Larson gives us the MCU’s first female led superhero film, and puts in a very good shift in a movie that most definitely contributes to the welcome trend, slow as it may be, of more female centric blockbusters in general.
You just wish that the elements around here that don’t work so well could have been better, namely the villain, the comedic elements, the sameness with Guardians Of The Galaxy and the obvious formula being followed. Offering recommendations for MCU films always feels pointless, since by the time that I do half the planet has already seen them, but this is a vital enough movie that, for all of its flaws, my thoughts are still clear: Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).