Film Review – Captain Marvel
After ten years and twenty films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally provided us with a female-lead entry. Captain Marvel (2019) contains much of what we’ve come to expect from a superhero origin – both positively and negatively. There are some peaks and valleys all throughout the narrative, resulting in a story that has some show-stopping moments but is also hindered by the limitations of having to fit into a larger overall canvas. This isn’t as great as Wonder Woman (2017) was, but that’s ok.
Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) has some of the cooler powers we’ve seen on screen. She has the ability to fly, shoot flames from her hands, has elevated strength, and when she really cuts loose, can ignite an energy explosion from her body that resembles an atom bomb. Needless to say, you don’t want to get on her bad side. On a more personal level, she goes by the name of Vers, member of an alien race known as the Kree, who have been engaged in a long war against the Skrulls, a green-skinned species that has the ability to transform into other forms of life. Under the guidance of her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers has to learn to control her powers so that she can effectively protect her people.
Or does she? Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who helped write the screenplay with Geneva Roberston-Dworet), gives us a glimpse into another side of Captain Marvel that she is not fully aware of. We get flashbacks to a human life on earth, as a fighter pilot known as Carol Danvers, working on a hush hush project under a mysterious boss (Annette Bening). The flashbacks come fast and often, filling up much of the plot. The editing jumbles these bits, tossing them around so frequently that much of the mystery behind Captain Marvel is revealed by the time we get to the “A-ha!” moment.
The setting is in the 1990s. This allows us to see the birth of S.H.I.E.L.D., the government agency that will become a force once the in-story timeline arrives to The Avengers (2012). Thanks to the magic of CGI de-aging, we get introduced to a younger Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – still with both eyes – who joins Captain Marvel’s adventure. The setting, the question of Captain Marvel’s past, the twists and turns in alliances and betrayals contributes to a cluttered overall whole. There’s a lot going on here and not much time to sit back and iron out all the wrinkles – from Carol Danver’s past, Vers’ responsibility to the Kree and battle against the Skrulls, the vagueness of Bening’s character, and to Nick Fury birthing the idea of a superhero team. All of these pieces are mushed together, barely holding on to coherency.
Luckily, Brie Larson sits as the anchor, providing a performance in which all other elements revolve around. While the plotting is a little messy, Larson’s commanding presence helps us feel like we’re never lost. Her work as Captain Marvel/Vers/Danvers is a combination of strength, confusion, and determination, and never at any point does she feel like she’s reaching for a reaction. I’ve read in other reviews that her character arc is like Maverick’s (Tom Cruise) in Top Gun (1986), but that is only partially true. Where Maverick had to learn to control his emotions, Captain Marvel has to learn to let go and ride her instincts to their fullest potential. There is a poignant moment in which we see her, at different ages, stand to her feet after taking a fall. While the execution is clunky, the theming behind it is all too clear – this is a person who won’t give up.
I really wanted to like Captain Marvel more than I did, but I couldn’t help the passive feeling I got walking out of it. It suffers much of the same issues that plague other MCU titles, especially when it comes to the depiction of action. Once again, we have set pieces in which the framing and editing hinders us from seeing what the hell is going on. An early battle scene, set on a remote alien planet, is so under lit and covered in smoke/fog that we can’t tell who is doing what. All we get are dark silhouettes firing energy blasts against other silhouettes. And when Captain Marvel attempts to escape an enemy spaceship, the camera shoots the hand to hand combat so up close that we can’t see what’s happening. It’s just arms and legs flailing around, edited together to give the impression of action. Fortunately, the production sticks the landing with a high-octane climactic battle, but at that point it’s almost too late of a recovery.
An even bigger issue is the abundant pop culture references that are splattered throughout. I get that this takes place during a certain time, and thus the filmmakers were obligated to provide symbols representative of the era. But the film is so stuffed with them that it became a distraction. Do we really need Captain Marvel crash landing into a Blockbuster Video Store? The soundtrack – consisting of 90’s grunge/pop/rock songs, is questionable at best. Hearing Nirvana, No Doubt, Salt ‘N Pepa, and Hole ring out while watching the movie may work for some, but for me came off as shoehorned.
There’s a lot to like with Captain Marvel, but there’s a lot to forget as well. It’s perfectly fine, it doesn’t bring the superhero genre to new heights but it’s not a train wreck either. At this point, the MCU has solidified their blueprint on giving the audience what they want but holding back just enough to keep them coming back for more. In that regard, Captain Marvel – warts and all – works according to plan.
P.S. If there’s one major thing to take away from this film, it’s this: Treat cats well, for your own safety.