By Noah Howard
“Captain Marvel” is a movie in an awkward position. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) demands that it establish its most powerful, explosive superhero yet, explain Nick Fury’s eye, indicate the first hints of the Avengers, explore an Infinity Stone and introduce Ronin the Accuser (who we see in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie), all while answering the question, “If the plot’s events are so crucial, why have they never been referenced in any of the other 20 MCU films?” As a result, “Captain Marvel” can’t escape the feeling that it’s holding back. Though it’s a competent film in its own right, it sacrifices much of its potential in order to please the Overlords of Continuity that run the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This is nowhere more apparent than in Captain Marvel’s powers. Though Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) ultimately reaches a godlike level and becomes the Marvel Universe’s Superman equivalent, for much of the film the extent of her superhuman abilities consists of shooting beams of energy from her hands. Other than her ability to warm teakettles, her photon beams are only marginally more powerful than if she was holding two large laser guns. Her opponents are the Skrulls, green-skinned and butt-chinned aliens that invade Earth searching for an experimental engine. Their ability to shape-shift into human forms is a convenient plot device, allowing Captain Marvel to fight an alien enemy with no lasting effect on the chronological future of the MCU.
It isn’t conducive to good action, and sure enough, the action falls far short of what we’ve come to expect from other recent Marvel movies. While “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” filled the screen with fluid fireworks of color, “Captain Marvel” retreats into the doldrums of competent classic American action filmmaking. The most violent movements come from the frantically shaky camera and choppy editing, as we watch stunt doubles flail on each other with their hair conspicuously obscuring their faces. “Captain Marvel” begins to loosen up as the titular hero’s powers start to fully manifest, but even as it adopts more color and a charming ’90s soundtrack, it never feels like more than a merely adequate version of far superior battles in other MCU films.
But “Captain Marvel” seems aware of its own weaknesses, and so, smartly, it has a reduced focus on fighting compared to its contemporaries. This film spends far more time on story, structure and character, all of which rise to the top of superhero cinema. Carol Danvers starts the film as an amnesiac alien warrior, so her transformation into Captain Marvel is told through a series of flashbacks and character expositions. Though the “I can’t remember who I am” plot trope is lazy enough that it should be burned in a trash bin, “Captain Marvel” is the rare film where it actually works. Not only does it solve the primary problem with first-entry superhero movies (that is, the origin story turns the first act into a boring slog) by giving us a hero from scene one, but the plot that is slowly uncovered is one of the most sincere, heartfelt and touching in any recent blockbuster.
The non-traditional structure is sewn together by a clever screenplay that Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson (reprising his beloved role as Nick Fury) brilliantly bring to life. The banter between Marvel and Fury is fast, fun and full of wit, as the former’s unending sarcasm clashes with the latter’s dry delivery. The many scenes where they’re together are collectively the film’s highlight, but their humor and sense of levity never cease to entertain even alongside the comparatively less interesting (but still more compelling than in any average blockbuster) side characters.
Even with dialogue, rampant CGI and corporate-mandated MCU setup, “Captain Marvel” still finds the time to weave potent feminist themes throughout its plot, as Danvers struggles against sexism and suspicion both overt (one sleazeball asks her to show him a smile) and implicit (Marvel’s commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) always insists that she is “too emotional,” an assertion that will satisfyingly return to haunt him). Though “Wonder Woman” is in many ways the better film (and still keeps the prize for first modern superhero blockbuster featuring a female lead), “Captain Marvel”’s approach to feminism is both more nuanced and more holistic, combining rich social commentary with the type of deep, well-developed (and not pointlessly sexualized) female character that the MCU, until now, has sorely lacked.
“Captain Marvel” is easy to appreciate no matter what, but it will be best enjoyed with appropriate expectations. If you crave nothing more than intergalactic action in the vein of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” stay home and cue up that film on Netflix. Because though “Captain Marvel” fails in that respect, it soars everywhere else. Its characters are engaging, its story is moving, its script is clever and its embrace of feminism is leagues superior to any other superhero movie. Though the fate of characters in “Avengers: Endgame” is still anybody’s guess, by the time “Captain Marvel”’s credits rolled I found myself secretly hoping for Captain America’s death; Chris Evans has had his time in the spotlight as the leader of the Avengers. It’s time for Brie Larson to take his place.
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.