By this point we need a lot of context. As Marvel Movie #21 there is inherently a lot of background to understand, but for how much people tend to gripe about this, Captain Marvel largely stands on its own, with little bits to discover as treats, not detractions. Considering how every other major studio has fallen on its face when it comes to shared cinematic universes, it's impressive that Marvel continues to actually restrain itself for stand-alone adventures. Of course Infinity War (2018) is something else entirely, but let's keep it to the Captain here.
|Bring back Phyla-Vell!|
The structure of the film exists in this weird limbo where we start en media res, somewhat eschewing a typical superhero origin story and making that origin more the driving mystery of the film. This ends up being a little choppy and haphazard, but if they had done anything any other way they'd be criticised for ripping off Doctor Strange (2016) or Iron Man (2008) or Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), or anything else they've done. There's not really a way to win this argument with people who aren't fans of these movies.
Captain Marvel largely succeeds as a film. Every character has a successful arc, action scenes are well-choreographed, and there are some engaging scenes at heart. It doesn't quite stand out as one of the greatest superhero films ever, but it's certainly an enjoyable time at the cinema. Let's talk about the cast.
Brie Larson is okay as the eponymous Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers of Earth who ends up a space commando for the Kree Empire. She can act, but the film tends to waddle the line of whether they want her to be an irreverent goof like Chris Pratt or a genuine badass like Chris Hemsworth (at least in the early Thor movies). We've seen that we can have both in THOR: Ragnarok (2017) and in Robert Downey, Jr. in everything, but the writing isn't quite as crisp here.
What's more powerful is what Cap'n stands for, and as there should be, there's a heavy feminist message here. The scene where she keeps getting up time after time should be immortalized forever as both an astounding character moment and a powerful statement for her gender. Even the end when she faces off with Jude Law who is still trying to bring her down to his level is a satisfying moment of a woman instead claiming her own destiny in her own way.
That being said, the film does creak a little bit into distaff counterparts rather than true feminism. Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (2017) worked in part because she was a fierce warrior who also fought with love and compassion in ways that the cold, battle-hardened men couldn't. Marvel is feminist because the protagonist taking action is a woman, not because she's really doing feminist things. This is a tricky landmine to navigate. There are some moments that stand out, like her and her fellow fighter pilot not being allowed to fly male missions or the crude biker wanker who disrespects her. Still, part of it feels like cool girl wish fulfillment.
Speaking of that, why does every single Marvel superhero need a black best friend? It's kind of crazy at this point. Not only her fellow pilot, but Sam Jackson features more prominently here than in any other Marvel film, which was great to see. Marvel seems to stealth infuse different genres into its films lately, and this was totally a 90s buddy cop movie. Jackson's presence even gave it a Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) vibe, except you know - in space. In the way that some prequels tend to find a need to over-explain everything, there was also remarkable restraint here. The big thing is how Sam Jackson loses his eye, and having it scratched out by a kitty/space monster is pretty damn fitting.
On that 90s note, this also could have been a pretty heavy-handed nostalgia trip, but it's never very overwhelming. We aren't constantly reminded that it's the most Extreme Decade ever. Sure there are Nine Inch Nail shirts and Blockbuster Video, but it's not crazy. In fact, the Blockbuster really works because we have no frame of reference for the time period when Captain Marvel is flying around shooting folks in space. It instantly places us in time in a meaningful way. As for how that stacks up in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, I don't really care. It doesn't matter. This is a fun movie.
Some of the music choices were weirdly on the nose and tonally off. It's almost as if they were going for a 90s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) soundtrack? "I'm Just a Girl" by No Doubt fit pretty solidly with Carol first really unleashing against her former Kree Commando colleagues. "Come As You Are" by Nirvana was super weird during the big moment when she's confronting the Supreme Intelligence, once she was revealed as the real villain of the picture.
One thing I was really excited about was that the villains weren't just doppelgangers of the hero. For how great it is and how amazing Killmonger is, Black Panther (2018) still beefed this. Every damn Marvel movie does. Instead we get the shape-shifting Skrull as who we THINK are the villains, but then it turns out that they're just like, the Mexicans of the Universe trying to find a new home. The immigration stance is not exactly obvious, like many things in this film - just the right touch. The real bad guys are the Kree, which we should kind of know from Ronan being insane and trying to destroy the Nova Corps in Guardians, but the switcheroo still largely works here. Everyone has a finely crafted motivation.
It also gives this idea that Captain Marvel is really special. There's no one like her in the Universe. Finally we had a real comic book origin - an experimental hyperspace engine explodes in her face. BAM you got superpowers now, girl. It's a totally un-recreatable accident. Because it actually doesn't matter how you get your powers, what matters is how it pushes the character underneath. Carol is manipulated, lied to, shackled, and space hypnotized or something. She also loses her space alien woman mentor, just like Steve and Tony. There's not really much re-inventing the wheel here, but nice to see Annette Benning playing a role worthy of her talents, as well as women helping women.
This film plays with what is good and evil in really interesting ways. You get the sense that Carol would be on Cap's side in CIVIL WAR (2016), trusting individuals and independence rather than shady government oversight. The comic nerd in me kept waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Skrulls, though. The Skrulls are like the ultimate bad guys! They're never good. Real jerks. Super-skrull is actually one of my all-time favourite supervillains. We can hope and dream about him fighting a Marvel Fantastic Four one day. I just don't think his powers would make much sense otherwise...
But we ARE actually now set up for a Secret Invasion. That's a thing. And there were all sorts of Super-skrulls with like, combined powers of Dr. Strange and Iron Man for some reason. This nerdiness actually took me out of the movie because I got so caught up in waiting for the moment that Ben Mendolsohn betrays Sam Jackson and Brie Larson again. That never came, which I thought was super weird, but everyone else enjoyed it because it's just a good movie. The sneaky Skrulls matching up against the might of the Kree reminded me of the only other Marvel movie to actually have the villain's powers complement and nullify the hero's, which was Iron Man 3 (2013). See? I told you we couldn't do this without context of the 20 other marvel films.
As far as Marvel films go this is solid, but not completely mind-blowing. Everything largely works and it's fun to see more of the cosmic side of things from a non-completely insane perspective. Brie Larson ought to have a large role in the upcoming Endgame and we'll see how all this crap sorts out!