Captain Marvel Review
Captain Marvel (2019)
Dir: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck | Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Brie Larson, Gemma Chan, Samuel L. Jackson | Writers: Anna Boden (screenplay by), Anna Boden (story by), Geneva Robertson-Dworet (screenplay by), Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story by), Meg LeFauve (story by), Nicole Perlman (story by), Ryan Fleck (screenplay by), Ryan Fleck (story by)
This has been a long time coming.
Carol Danvers has come a long way since her introduction in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 in 1968. Originally a supporting character for the first Captain Marvel, an alien warrior named Mar-Vell, an accident involving exploding alien tech merged her DNA with his, giving her powers and she became Ms. Marvel. Growing up I was only vaguely aware of her in relation to one of my favourite Marvel characters; Rogue from the X-Men. In her brief stint as one of the bad guys, Rogue absorbed too much of Ms. Marvel’s psyche and powers, leaving her permanently with the powers of super strength and flight. Then in 2012 Carol took on the mantle of Captain Marvel with a new comic series by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and gained new fans worldwide, myself included. She’s one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel comics universe, and now finally makes her big screen debut in Captain Marvel.
As a member of Starforce, Kree warrior Vers (Brie Larson) fights against the threat of infiltrating shapeshifters the Skrulls trying to harness her strange powers and prove herself to her commander (Jude Law). After a mission ends with her captured by the enemy she is subjected to experimentation that reveals to her pieces of buried memories. After a crash landing on Earth circa 1995 she meets and joins forces with S.H.I.E.L.D agent Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and attempts to track down the Skrulls before they can cause havok on Earth. But doing so will lead her to a possible past that she can’t remember as pilot Carol Danvers.
Right away I should tell you that this isn’t a big popcorn event film in the way that Avengers: Infinity War is. Although still epic in its own way it is not that level of spectacle, this is a character piece, and a bit more of a mature one than other Marvel solo films, meaning that while we do still get the powerhouse action and quippy humour that we’re all familiar with, it isn’t afraid to pause and have those moments of self-reflection. Because of that some will definitely find the movie boring, but I appreciated it, especially when the beginning gets right to the action. We aren’t given any big information dumps through exposition speeches, we’re just straight in there with the Kree and Vers, as she is then known, and Starforce, and the ever amazing Annette Benning as a hologram super computer, and the audience is expected to keep up. It’s refreshing to not have the universe spoon-fed to us.
This isn’t your typical Marvel formula origins story, which has been one of the few failings that the studio has made. Captain America The First Avenger, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Ant-Man, Thor, even Black Panther, all feature a relatively similar plot structure and end in a climax of the hero fighting someone with almost the same power set as them. Here in Captain Marvel there is pretty much none of that, this isn’t the story of Carol Danvers becoming Captain Marvel as it is this journey of self-identity. In the beginning she is Vers, Kree warrior eager to prove herself in the fight against the Skrulls. The path she goes down on Earth leads her to a forgotten past and eventually embracing her human self with all its weaknesses and strengths. To that end Brie Larson does not have an easy job here, bringing these two sides of the character together. She is confident and quippy, but leaps before looking and rubs people the wrong way. It’s a well-rounded character, and as the film goes on we also get to see the vulnerabilities that lay beneath the surface. She looks amazing as well, and I will admit I got a little choked up seeing British comic artist Jamie McKelvie’s 2012 design of the Captain Marvel costume on the big screen. From Hackney to Hollywood, not bad at all. One thing I also love in superhero movies is superheroes actually enjoying their powers and I delighted in sequences that showed off Carol’s and we got to hear the cries of delight.
However, it is when Vers crash lands to Earth after escaping the Skrulls that the movie really gets going. The 90s setting feels grounded, and apart from a few relics of the era, alas poor Blockbuster, it doesn’t push the decade nostalgia references so hard to the point of parody, looking at you Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Fury, and that’s “just Fury”, gets to be much more of an actual character here than in any other of his Marvel appearances. And yes, I am including Captain America The Winter Soldier in that assessment. He is not yet the Nick Fury of shadowy corners, mastermind plans, and third act dramatic appearances Here he is a raw agent, prone to mistakes, not yet seen it all with his two fully working eyes, and his dynamic with Carol is honestly one of the best parts of the film, a real odd couple bouncing off one another. He also gets just about all of the film’s best comedic moments. He’s a person, not a plot device, and even through the CGI de-aging of 25 years, which looks pretty good, you can tell Jackson enjoyed getting to let loose and have a bit more fun with the role.
One big factor in the lead-up to the film was the first inclusion in the MCU of the Skrulls, shapeshifting alien infiltrators and enemies of the Kree. The Skrulls were introduced in Marvel comics with the Fantastic Four, who until the recent deal with 20th Century Fox Disney were not allowed to use in the MCU. They have been the subject of several major stories, including the comic event Secret Invasion, which set up a paranoia piece with Skrulls posing as various powerful figures in the Marvel universe. It whipped up speculation that this could mean a real shift in the next phase of Marvel films, with the possibility of characters we’ve long been familiar with having been replaced by imposters at some point, all possibly leading up to the introduction of the Fantastic Four. Does their presence in Captain Marvel begin the set-up for that? Well, that would be telling and depriving you of any surprises the film may have. However, I will say that the Skrulls look fantastic, not easy when you’re dealing with a look that is green jelly chin and bat ears, and Ben Mendelsohn does a brilliant job as their leader Talos. He chews up every scene which he then steals, and it’s great to hear him use his native Aussie accent as having a wider variety of accents really gives a little bit more personality to the wider universe of the MCU.
The rest of the supporting cast, including Gemma Chan, Jude Law, and the inspired choice of Annette Benning all add to that character driven flavour of the film and make it a lot weightier than your typical superhero film. Lashana Lynch particularly does a great job as Maria Rambeau, Carol’s lifelong friend and emotional human connection, and mother to Monica, who in comics was also known as Captain Marvel briefly before taking the superhero name Photon, which here is her mother’s pilot callsign in a nice reference. I am so glad that Maria also got to be a part of the action for the third act instead of being merely used for those character moments and discarded, or worse killed. Said third act also has a pretty satisfying action setpiece, flowing between different levels from space to ground to dog-fighting.
But really, the best character of the film is obviously Goose the cat and we all know it.
Then we come to the part of the film with the dreaded F word: feminism. There are parts of the film that tie directly into things that women experience based on how people treat them for their gender. As Vers our main character is told that she is “too emotional”, a criticism many women will find familiar. When on Earth a biker tells her to give him a smile, which was reflected in real life when the posters and first trailer for the film came out and men complained that Carol wasn’t smiling enough. Then there are the snippets of Carol’s past that she lost, which are full of moments of boys and men telling her “you can’t do this” and getting knocked down. This feeling is something that women can encounter often, especially when stepping outside of what many see as the “role” of women in society, but what’s important is that Carol gets up, again and again, showing a determination that can inspire. It’s also something very much taken from the woman social experience that gives the movie one of its strongest “this is who I am” character moments. On a less straight-faced side we also get a very “rah rah” Girl Power fight scene set to No Doubt which isn’t Marvel’s best use of music with a fight scene, but I still enjoyed it. It all makes up an effective through-line that can really resonate with women, but at the same time I don’t see why anyone can’t look to Carol’s arc of one person against a wider conflict and connect to that. The film does look at war, and in particular dwells on the actions of good people in war and the way that nobody comes out the other side with clean hands. There is also a refugee subtext that undoubtedly was chosen to reflect certain current events and will certainly prove divisive.
The only places that have any real issue are when they tie Captain Marvel into the MCU as a whole. I am not talking about the role of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D, with added Coulson and Maria Hill (although she features in voice only because if you digitally de-age Cobie Smulders by 25 years she’d look too young to even join the S.H.I.E.L.D college intern programme), when I say that. What doesn’t really work are all the little nudge nudge wink wink moments that straddle the line between charming in-joke and cringingly self-aggrandizing. It takes you out of the story that it being told that in all over respects stands on its own just fine. There are also parts of the film, particularly with Lee Pace returning as Kree Ronan the Accuser, that are only there to set up things for the sequel. Still, depending on what they do in that sequel it could mean we get something interesting with one of the MCU’s most forgettable villains, which I am all for.
While not without its flaws, there is a strong core to Captain Marvel that I think makes it absolutely worth viewing. It works with the familiar Marvel formula, but also plays with it when needed. But ultimately it lays the groundwork for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond Thanos and that is very exciting.
Oh, and there are both mid credits and post credits scenes, although that probably goes without saying at this point.