Captain Marvel is a breezy, fun romp complicated by the failings of the MCU formula
If you had to nail down exactly what has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) such a cultural force over the past decade, its the franchise’s adaptability. Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios’s ability to constantly tweak and revise their mythos, all while sticking to the same style and formula, has allowed them to constantly keep themselves sitting comfortably atop the pop culture throne. From expanding the boundaries of the universe (and letting itself get weirder) with space-set fare like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok to broadening its cultural horizons with Black Panther, the MCU has shown it has a power to remain relevant even if its output is continually stale. There’s perhaps no better example of that system than Captain Marvel, a dutifully crowdpleasing origin story that represents Marvel attempting to finally give a woman a lead role and push themselves into the feminist beyond. That’s an admirable enough move on its own, but when you apply Marvel’s increasingly shaky sensibilities to that idea, what should be a shining, heroic moment for female representation feels less like a well-intentioned step into the future and more like a strategy for selling t-shirts.
This is more or less a film designed to sell you on Brie Larson’s titular character becoming a major player in the larger MCU, and as a result it takes the same tried and true introductory steps to walk you through her rather scant backstory. The film opens with Larson’s captain living as a Kree (the antagonists of the first Guardians film) warrior called Vers, training with a curmudgeonly mansplainer in the form of Jude Law to harness an ability to shoot pure energy from her fists. The catch is that she has no idea who she really is, supposedly having washed up on the Kree homeworld six years prior with no memory of her past life. After a rescue mission to save a spy from the Kree’s sworn enemy (a shape-shifting race called the Skrulls) goes awry, Vers ends up crash landing through a Blockbuster into the world of 1990s (very 90s) Earth, where her mission to stop the Skrulls reveals her true history as an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers who mysteriously disappeared. Joining her for the ride is a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as MCU mainstay Nick Fury, the future founder of the Avengers who gets his first taste of intergalactic conflict as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent caught up in Carol’s adventures.
The film takes brazen, appropriate steps to scoff in the face of the online vitriol that has plagued its release, making jokes and heroic moments out of Carol continually dismantling the sexism thrown her way. The story’s emotional hook is largely ingrained in the training given to her by Law’s character, a masculine mindset that tells her that emotions have no place in the life of a warrior. That should be enough groundwork for the film to play up the impact of her inevitable discovery that her emotional core is her greatest strength, but it’s taken down by a peg by a lack of true characterization. By setting up Carol’s introduction as an amnesia tale, Marvel rigidly sticks to its origin story formula despite this character being positioned as major new character twenty-one movies deep into the franchise. The inherent problem with this strategy is it doesn’t allow us to get a strong enough feel for Carol’s backstory; her human and Kree histories are painted in board strokes, giving us scraps of details in the form of dream sequences and montages. We’re never really given the opportunity to get a feel for the woman Carol truly is because not even she knows who she is. With such a under baked foundation, Larson isn’t given much to do as our titular hero outside of quipping and punching, which in turn undermines the film’s attempts to tap into the gender dynamics that have surrounded the character’s introduction to the universe. Not even a deeply talented and accomplished dramatic actor like her, whose career is marked by flooring emotional works, can save the major feminist moments of the film from feeling slightly inauthentic and corporate, like Kevin Feige wearing one of his famous hats except this time with the words “Girl Power!” stitched on the top. That’s not to say a film this massive doesn’t get major points for trying to take a more progressive stance, but it’s hard to shake the feeling it would have felt more nuanced in the hands of another studio.
Also struggling under the weight of the Marvel Studios system is the writing-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, indie darlings known for character dramas like Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind. Obviously brought on for their dramatic expertise, the duo handle those sorts of scenes well but like so many MCU directors before them can’t make the action scenes feel worthy of the film’s colossal budget. This is an often ugly, difficult to follow example of bad effects work, continuing the franchise’s inability to make what should be it’s main hook feel like its strongest element.
Despite its story and effects hiccups, the film still has everything audiences love about these movies. Larson tackles the humor and action with aplomb, holding her own in a fight as well as or even better than her future male co-stars. The supporting cast is having the time of their lives, especially Ben Mendelsohn as Skrull leader Talos, who gives a darkly funny. cheeky performance in a franchise whose villains are too often entirely forgettable. Jackson finally gets to play it loose in a series that usually relegates him to monologues, creating a Fury who charming personality hasn’t yet been whittled down to gruffness. Lashana Lynch is equally delightful as Carol’s best friend and co-pilot Maria, using her small amount of screen time to craft a warm character that will hopefully stick around as long as her glowing superpal does. Outshining all of them is Goose, the feline star who represents some of the best gags this franchise has seen in ages and reminds you the MCU can still be playful when it wants to be.
Captain Marvel is an admittedly difficult film to process. It’s admirable for its humor, entertainment value, and attempts to position its central character as a representative for a new age of female-led cinema. However, the MCU formula holds back those elements at every turn, making it feel more like an appetizer before Avengers: Endgame than a solo adventure fully worthy of the merits of Larson’s new role in the universe. It’s fun popcorn fare that could have been something greater, not because of the feminine heart beating at its center but because of the bad habits of a studio still struggling to make amends with the mistakes of its decidedly normative past.