I have had a lot of mixed feelings about the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. None of them are bad or anything, but I don’t feel like most of them are particularly great. With a few exceptions, most Marvel movies seem to live in this realm of utter mediocrity. They follow the same formula each and every time, with frequently underdeveloped villains, weak third-acts, and humor that tends to undercut the more serious moments. Recent Marvel films have continued to find themselves unable to buck this trend – even some films, like Black Panther, that have managed to have well-developed villains, still can’t quite get the other elements right. So, my expectations for Captain Marvel were pretty low. After all, it’s a film that takes place prior to all of the events in the MCU, existing only to introduce a hero who will, presumably, be important in Avengers: Endgame, but with a plot that takes place so far in the past that it can’t possibly connect to the overarching MCU storyline in any meaningful way. To be honest, the part of the film I was most looking forward to was the opportunity to see Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in a role that was larger than a glorified cameo. I wasn’t particularly interested in or excited by anything else about the movie. So, with all of that baggage, how is Captain Marvel? Well, it’s another bog-standard Marvel film that has some really nice moments, but ultimately falls victim to many of the problems most Marvel movies exhibit. (There will be spoilers for Captain Marvel in this review.)
Set in the 1990s, Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel (Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (with additional writing by Geneva Robertson-Dworet) is an all-new adventure from a previously unseen period in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that follows the journey of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as she becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes. While a galactic war between two alien races reaches Earth, Danvers finds herself and a small cadre of allies at the center of the maelstrom.
Captain Marvel is a flawed movie. Frankly, it probably bites off more than it can chew as it juggles a fish-out-of-water/buddy comedy alongside a pretty standard superhero origin story happening in the context of some generic “epic galactic war”. Ultimately, the film has two big problems: an unfocused script and a lead character whose only real flaw, as she starts the film, is her missing memories. From the get-go, you feel like Carol Danvers doesn’t have much room to grow. She starts off the film showing some pretty solid mastery of her powers and then never seems to struggle with them at all as the film progresses. The script pays lip service to the idea that she doesn’t quite have control over them yet (because of her emotions or some nonsense), but visually, she seems to have a pretty good grip on them. Sure, there’s this sci-fi thingamabob preventing her from using her powers to their fullest, but that’s not all that interesting; it’s not an emotional obstacle for her to overcome or something that can give her character some development. It’s something that will, eventually, be resolved for plot reasons, not for character development.
Instead of the usual origin story featuring a hero trying to come into their powers, we see a hero who’s pretty much fully-formed right out of the gate. The character’s single struggle is her missing memories – which, obviously, impacts her sense of identity – but, again, that’s not something she can overcome all on her own. Something external has to happen to trigger those memories to return to her and when it does, she pretty much just goes with it. Much of the first half of the film is spent with her struggling with her sense of identity and her missing memories, but then it’s pretty quickly wrapped up after she – extremely coincidentally – learns what, exactly, happened in her past. No time is really spent with her as she grapples with this new knowledge; it just happens and then the movie moves on. This doesn’t make for a character who’s particularly engaging or relatable or even interesting to watch. I don’t want to use the term Mary Sue, but out of all the characters who have recently been accused of being one, Carol Danvers is probably the best candidate. Brie Larson does her best to bring some kind of life to the character, but it’s really hard when the character is so lifeless on the page. With no room for character growth, how good a performance can an actress realistically give?
The movie’s other major problem is its massively unfocused script. It’s as though the film can’t decide what it wants to be. On the one hand, you’ve got a fairly standard superhero origin story where the hero has to overcome some obstacle – in this case, Carol’s missing memories – in order to defeat a villain who ends up being someone you didn’t expect to be the villain. None of this is all that interesting. The film opens up on some planet ruled by the Kree where Carol is training with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) – a character who seems so generic that his name feels the need to make up for his lack of personality. From the first frame, we’re thrown headfirst into all of this galactic war nonsense that we know very little about and care even less about. The entire plotline about the Kree and the Skrull being at war or whatever was so generic and uninteresting that, for the first twenty minutes of the movie, I just sat there waiting for Carol to get to Earth so she could start interacting with Nick Fury and the movie could actually get going. The same rings true for the final act of the film, especially as you learn – in a very predictable twist – that the Skrull aren’t really the bad guys of the story after all and someone that Carol Danvers intimately trusted is actually the massively underdeveloped villain, segueing into an uninspired climactic battle that makes you long for it to end. It’s a shame, because, for much of the movie, the Skrull are actually pretty fun villains. Led by the always wonderful Ben Mendelsohn, the Skrull are proper 90’s-feeling sci-fi villains with bright, colorful makeup and a healthy amount of cheese. As the film goes on, they’re given some actual development which might have made them feel satisfying as villains had the film decided to go that route. But, nope. Marvel had to do their standard twist and give us the Kree as villains without really developing them at all. It’s predictable and boring and Jude Law even looks bored as he is forced to turn in a performance as the ultimate bad guy of the film without the script having done anything to build him up as such. I mean, the climax is literally a knockoff of a Star Wars climax, complete with spaceship battles in space and on Earth and a whole lot of CGI lasers. It’s the definition of uninspired.
Conversely, the film is at its best when it drops the pretense of being some epic story and just focuses on the smaller moments between Carol and Fury. While so many of these origin films for Marvel characters are just fish-out-of-water stories, this one throws in an extra element by also being a pretty entertaining buddy comedy, showing us how Nick Fury first got introduced to all of the crazy elements of the Marvel universe. Carol and Fury’s interactions are, easily, the best part of the film. They’re well-written and even better acted by Larson and Jackson. The two have such great chemistry together and each of their interactions pops in a way that immediately draws you in. I really wish that the film had just started with Carol arriving back on Earth, sent there on a mission by the Kree just prior to the film beginning or something. She could still be struggling to remember her past life, but we could just skip over all the uninspired nonsense about a galactic war or whatever and get right into the good stuff. Keep the Skrull as the antagonists and have the plot just be a simple story where Fury and Danvers have to team up to stop this shapeshifting alien race from invading the Earth. Have Carol slowly get her memories back over the course of the film – instead of all at once – and have her actually struggle with the impact of regaining those memories and make her struggle with how she uses her powers. Then, use that development you’ve already given the Skrull in order to fully establish them as interesting villains and you’ve got a pretty solid film. All of that would make for a really fun, really entertaining introduction to Captain Marvel. Instead of something like that, we got a pretty generic Marvel movie that tried to stand apart from the MCU while also being slavishly devoted to serving it – a particular annoyance is the reappearance (or, should I say, the first appearance?) of the Tesseract. How many damn movies is that stupid thing gonna be the MacGuffin in?
All in all, Captain Marvel is another Marvel film that is squarely mediocre. Buoyed by fairly strong performances by Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, the film is mostly enjoyable, though frequently bogged down by its own weight. None of the worldbuilding is particularly interesting, the villain is woefully underdeveloped, and the whole “galactic war” thing is never explored in more than a surface fashion. The film is at its best when it ignores all that other stuff and focuses on the interactions between characters like Carol Danvers and Nick Fury. Unfortunately, too little of the film does that. I will say that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck do a pretty solid job directing the film. Once it gets to Earth, it’s a pretty nice-looking film. The design of the Skrulls is really fun, as is the recreation of 90’s pop culture. They do a nice job executing the various fight sequences throughout the film; I just wish that those sequences had some kind of narrative weight. The acting is fairly solid throughout the film, but it’s hard for Larson or Law to give particularly good performances when their characters are so poorly written. Captain Marvel is an enjoyable-enough movie, but it’s not particularly memorable. I suppose it does an adequate job at introducing Captain Marvel to the MCU, but I can’t help feeling like there are more entertaining ways to do so than this.
3 out of 5 wands.