Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
While the monumental success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a record feat of production is not to be doubted, the quality of the individual films have tended to vary between pretty great and barely passable. Lately, for give or take a couple of years now, they’ve been on quite a hot streak with the emotional resonance of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the visual inventiveness of Thor: Ragnarok, the political boldness of Black Panther and the shattering scale of Avengers: Infinity War. Having maintained such a solid and consistent batting average as they have, something was bound to give sooner or later. Captain Marvel is by no means a terrible movie nor is it the worst in the MCU canon (hello The Incredible Hulk); it did however leave me feeling underwhelmed in a way that the MCU hasn’t really done in a while. More’s the pity since this is the first of their score of films to feature a female protagonist and to be (co)directed by a woman. Its creation is overdue and its ardent celebration of girl power is to be lauded; I just wish it had been in service of a more compelling story with a more well-defined protagonist and told in more engaging way.
To its credit, the film does try to shake things up on the outset by giving us a superhero origin story in reverse. Instead of showing us an ordinary person who later becomes somebody extraordinary, this is instead the story of one who is already extraordinary and later learns that she used to be ordinary. This is Vers (Brie Larson) who, when we first meet her, is completely unaware that she was once Carol Danvers, a hotshot pilot for the U.S. Air Force. By this point Vers is living on the planet Hala, the homeworld of the Kree (whom MCU fans might remember as the baddies in Guardians of the Galaxy). She possesses ambiguous super powers over which she has little control but which nonetheless prove useful in her capacity as a member of an elite squadron called Starforce. They are led by Yonn-Rogg (Jude Law), a great warrior who has taken it upon himself to train Carol and presses on her at every opportunity that her emotions are her greatest weakness. She is haunted by nightmares depicting memories of a past she does not recognise and not even the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), an artificial intelligence whose appearance varies depending on the viewer, is unable to provide the answers she seeks. Vers eventually winds up on Earth and there finds that the answers to her past might have something to do with the Skrulls, the sworn enemies of the Kree.
Her arrival causes quite a stir in 1995 Los Angeles and is investigated by none other than a young SHIELD agent called Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged to his Die Hard with a Vengeance self). Marvel has used this technology before on the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas and Kurt Russell, but never has it been employed at such length and executed so seamlessly. So much so that when Clark Gregg shows up as an unconvincingly younger Agent Coulson, you’ll think that the film’s entire de-aging budget went to Jackson alone. His first meeting with Vers proves a riotous one as he winds up chasing her across the streets of L.A. while she pursues the Skrulls who followed her to this planet. Realising that their goals may be similar, Vers and Fury partner up and resolve to investigate the mystery of her forgotten past together, enjoying a playful and appealing rapport as Jackson delivers his most committed performance in the ten years he’s been playing this character. He is outmatched only by Ben Mendelsohn, playing a Skrull named Talos who spends half of the film posing as Fury’s boss Keller and the other half in his natural, green form, and Goose, the feline who deserves his very own Marvel franchise.
It’s a good thing the supporting cast is as strong as it is because they have to do a lot of heavy lifting for want of a more compelling main character. None of this is Larson’s fault as an actress though; in fact, when she’s able to get into the action and deliver a few quips, she ticks all the right boxes. She can shoot energy blasts from her hands, meaning that not every action scene amounts to a simple punch-em-up, she is rather reserved in a way that the more loudmouthed Marvel heroes tend not to be, and she has this enchantingly rebellious spark befitting a woman who has zero tolerance of mansplaining and cat-calling. The problem is more with the way the movie handles her story. Since Vers has no memory of who she was before she got her powers, the film gives her little to draw from in terms of personality and motivation. Even when she does finally remember her past, the film has given her so little of substance to attach herself to that it doesn’t feel like she has all that much at stake in this whole affair. She doesn’t have any kind of family or love interest, there isn’t any place that she calls home, and the only real connection she has to her life on Earth is her friendship with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). The film was so intent on maintaining the mystery for as long as it possibly could that it only occasionally made the time for Vers’ actual character.
The film was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are much more at home making character-driven indies, and, while it isn’t at all unusual for Marvel to hand some of their biggest titles over to formerly small-time directors such as the Russo Brothers and Taika Waititi, It hasn’t really paid off this time around. While their talents for character interaction do shine in the more down-to-Earth scenes (I mean that in the most literal sense possible), the pair seem much more lost in the spectacle of their cosmic sci-fi adventure. The action scenes are so often shot in dark, murky settings and are strung together so choppily that it’s difficult to so much as keep track of what’s happening on screen. Marvel tends to have a rather bland and generic visual style they like to impose on their films when they’re not entrusted to one of their more visually distinct filmmakers like Gunn, Coogler or Waititi and Captain Marvel is one that suffers from a severe lack of some sort of stylistic personality. The shots are routinely composed, the colour and lighting is pretty much nondescript and the action scenes don’t have any kind of punch or flair to them beyond what an anonymous second-unit team compiling a studio-mandated fight scene for a mid-90s blockbuster could have done.
Still, that this film isn’t one of Marvel’s better offerings doesn’t mean that is has nothing of value to offer. As well as the enjoyable interplay between characters and some pretty good gags, the movie is also determined to make a statement about the world today, especially as it relates to women, and there is satisfaction to be gained if only from the knowledge that a small and loathsome sub-culture on the Internet is fuming because of it. It certainly adds some amount of depth to Vers’ journey for identity and independence as she grows more defiant in her unwillingness to follow the orders given to her by domineering male authority figures that she considers to be morally wrong. There’s also a gratifying moment near the end where Vers puts one of the more obnoxious male characters in his place by refusing to do battle with him on his terms or prove herself according to his regressive standards. The film isn’t as triumphantly defiant as it aspires to be, nor is it a particularly good film in general, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there some aspects I enjoyed a good deal. Ultimately, however, Captain Marvel is more table setting than it is a cinematic feast. Maybe further along down the road we’ll get a sequel that allows the character to come more into her own, but even that wouldn’t retroactively make her first outing any better.