OnScreen Review: "Captain Marvel"

  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

21 movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and we have our first one with a female lead. This has been a dividing issue for many, for some it is an empowering moment about representation and for others (idiots, in my opinion) it’s a chance to show their trollishness and insecurity. I think it’s great that Captain Marvel, like Black Panther before it, serves a demographic that hasn’t been served by previous films in the MCU and potentially grows the market for Marvel. But ultimately, what matters is whether the content is good and worth coming back to for more, so let’s delve into that, and maybe a bit into the female empowerment for good measure.

Captain Marvel take us back on a nostalgic-laden journey to 1995, smack dab amidst grunge, Blockbuster, Radio Shack, and Windows 95 references on planet Earth. Beyond Earth, Carol Danvers/Vers (Brie Larson) is a noble warrior hero training on the Kree capital of Hala. Her trainer and commander is Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and the are ruled by an AI known as Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening). Vers is incredibly powerful, but has difficulty controlling her power, and is told that she must keep her emotions in check to control her power. A skirmish with the Skrulls, whom the Kree are fighting a war against, results in Vers crashing on Earth, and enlisting the help of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in trying to find hidden technology on Earth that the Skrulls and their leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn)  are trying to locate while having her memory jogged of a life she may have had here, as Carol Danvers.

Brie Larson is center stage for this movie, and I have long been a fan of hers. She has a natural ease and charm as an actress, and it serves her well in this role. Danvers has a level of swagger and confidence and sass that Larson really makes work. She has good comedic timing with Jackson, which is great because a lot of this film is them in buddy action movie mode. What I found most refreshing about her character is that there is a genuine enjoyment in what she is doing, relishing in her abilities and expressing that. Often superpowers in these movies are as much of a burden as they are a superpower, but not so much here. Toward the end when she is flying through the air there is an audible shout of glee as she soars across the screen. It reminded me of Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker when he is first web-slinging through the city or Dash in The Incredibles when he realizes he’s running on water.

The supporting cast is equally good. We’ve seen some snippets of de-aging effects in previous MCU movies, such as in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain America: Civil War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is given this treatment through the entire film, and it is pretty seamless. It looks like they tried to make him like as he was in Die Hard: With a Vengeance, which came out in… 1995 (and was another buddy action movie he was in, one of many). Ben Mendelsohn is almost always an assured grand old time whenever he shows up in a movie, and here is no exception, playing a Skrull and even getting to show some comedic range as an actor that he doesn’t normally get to show. We also get younger version of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg),

In hindsight, Captain Marvel is a difficult juggling act, because it must not just tell its own story but also fit neatly into the larger MCU, a feat made more difficult because it takes place before practically everything except for Captain America: The First Avenger. And yet the mostly manage to pull it off. I’m not sure that there aren’t some inconsistencies, but on the surface at least, it’s a puzzle piece that seems to fit nicely with the rest of the pieces.

The film also has to explain why Carol Danvers is not seen or heard from during everything that transpires across the MCU timeline up through Avengers: Infinity War. They mostly do a good job with that, and how her leaving sets a few things in motion for what will come with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers. The story as it relates to the Kree/Skrull war is a little predictable and an attempt to take a complex comprehensive view of war than a simple us vs. them approach. Would it surprise me if there is a lengthy online dissection somewhere online about how the Kree/Skrull war in Captain Marvel is a metaphor for or commentary on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict today? No. But I do not think those are deliberate and intentional by the writers or the directors (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)? Unlikely. There is still meat on the bone for the Kree/Skrull conflict to be explored in a sequel.

A significant amount of the film is dedicated to the Kree/Skrull war, but a significant portion of it is also given to Carol Danvers and her background, or lack thereof in her memory. Having almost no memory of her life prior to six years ago when she awoke on Hala, her memory is slowly jogged over the course of the film. It all culminates in a moment of several flashbacks of her growing up in moments where she crashes and burns or falls or fails, but ultimately gets back up, dusts herself off, and gets back on the proverbial horse. This movie is not some feminist screed, and the overall centrality of female empowerment to the movie may have been a bit overstated, but this is a perfect moment of female empowerment. Visually, it shows her being told by everyone around her that she is weak because she is a woman; verbally, she is being told that she is weak because she is human. It’s the combining of these two in the same moment that makes the message for young girls and for everyone at the same time.

We have our first MCU movies with a female lead, and the universe hasn’t ended. Larsen plays Carol Danvers with charm and charisma and joy. The 90s nostalgia is laid on a bit too thick at times, even for me, but it’s a solid introduction to the character and lays a good foundation for her future in the MCU. I’m very interested to see what lies in store for her going forward. I would stop short of putting it at the top of my rankings for the MCU (it’s around the middle overall), but I think it’s a better origin story than Captain America, Thor, and Ant-Man all got with their first films.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars