Leading up to the release of Captain Marvel I was jonesing for MCU content like I’d never jonesed for it before. When the MCU was first starting I was kind of indifferent to it and didn’t see the big deal and during its “Phase 2” I went into each movie not really sure if I was going to get a winner like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or a underwhelming product like Thor: The Dark World. But ever since the release of release of Captain America: Civil War (the official start of (Phase 3) they’ve been on a pretty unprecedented win streak. They started to finally give their movies good villains, they managed to make the franchise crossovers feel genuinely fun rather than advertisements, and they seemed to have found the right formula to allow filmmakers to add their own signature styles to the films while functioning within the house style as well. Even some of the lesser movies during this span like Doctor Strange still had clear saving graces like that film’s trippy visuals or and the brand clearly reached a zenith of success last year with the release of the Oscar nominated Black Panther and the worldwide blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War. Oddly though despite releasing three movies last year they put out all of them in the first seven months and as such we haven’t gotten fresh product from Marvel in over half a year. Any other franchise and that would seem normal but we’ve gotten pretty used to out MCU fix and after what feels like a long wait we’re finally getting it in the form of Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel is the first prequel in the MCU, being set in 1995, but that isn’t apparent right away because it begins lightyears away on the planet of Hala, the homeworld of an alien species called the Kree. Our hero Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of a Kree taskforce being led by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) who are acting in a war against another alien species called the Skrull, who can disguise themselves as other people. When a mission goes wrong she finds herself on a Skrull ship being interrogated about visions in her head of someone she doesn’t recognize named Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), she escapes her captivity and in her escape she finds herself on Earth. There she meets a young agent with two functional eyes named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and quickly learns that four Skrull agents also followed her to Earth. She and Fury must find out the significance of Lawson before those Skrull agents do.
Give Captain Marvel this, it’s not structurally formulaic. That’s not to say it’s doing something truly radical here but it doesn’t necessarily follow the same predictable superhero origin path, which might partly be owed to the fact that the Captain Marvel comic book character has kind of a weird and convoluted history in a way that someone like Doctor Strange (whose origin was basically a redo of Iron Man’s). That isn’t to say that the things it does differently necessarily work for it. The way the film opens in the middle of this science fiction world that’s never fully explained before dropping the audience in the middle of a weird alien war is pretty disorienting and the film takes a while to find its footing. Once the film finally (literally) comes to earth things do improve but even then it still takes a while to really come to understand our main protagonist and what her deal is. Things also improve when Samuel L Jackson shows up and a sort of buddy cop dynamic emerges between him and Captain Marvel. Jackson is being digitally de-aged through the whole movie and the technology behind that is quite impressive. Even more importantly, being de-aged seems to have somewhat invigorated Jackson and snapped him out of the usual “angry old man” shtick that he’s been indulging for a while and he becomes a rather pleasant presence in the film.
Given the discourse around this being the first Marvel film about a female protagonist I was a little surprised that the film didn’t do more to lean into the whole feminism angle. In fact I kind of wish they’d either done more of that or less of it because female empowerment never really feels like a consistent theme in the film and the moments of it that are thrown in at times seem to come out of nowhere. We’re told that as a human our hero did deal with some gender discrimination in the air force, but given her amnesiac status at the beginning of the film that’s not really a foundational aspect of her character and instead her status quo comes in the form of fighting on what appear to be a rather egalitarian Kree task force. At times the film seems to sidestep this by making her status as a human among Kree stand in as an allegory for being a woman among men, but again, she doesn’t know she’s a human until the very late in the timeline of all this so positioning it as a lifelong struggle again seems a bit strange and the decision to play No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” over a climactic fight sequence feels rather unearned as a result.
I think what ails Captain Marvel is simply weak source material and a lack of vision of how to bring that source material to the screen. Marvel has spun gold out of second rate comic book characters in the past but when they’ve done it they’ve had people like James Gunn or Edgar Wright via Peyton Reed to find interesting ways to make it happen. Captain Marvel was made by the directorial duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are good filmmakers but their previous work like Half Nelson and Sugar were realist dramas and there isn’t much in their background to suggest an interest in this kind of comic book action movie. In the past when Marvel has gotten unexpected talent like that to make these kind of movies they’ve done it by bringing in comedic directors like Jon Favreau or Taika Waititi to inject the movies with levity, and I’m not really sure what Boden and Fleck are bringing to the table. The film they’ve made kind of feels like the other Marvel movies but without really much of its own twist on the form. It’s funny at times, but never as funny as something like Thor: Ragnarok, it’s got some nice 90s needle drops, but nothing as impactful as anything in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. And as a straightforward action movie it also comes in a little short, partly because its hero has kind of boring powers and partly just because they’re not particularly well edited. None of this is to say the movie isn’t enjoyable though. Looked at outside of the high standards that Marvel has set for itself lately the movie does have enough things going for it to be worth a watch. It’s probably Marvel’s worst movie since… the first Ant-Man, or maybe Avengers: Age of Ultron, but even a second rate MCU movie is still going to mostly be decent.
*** out of Five