Perhaps more so than any previous film in the now 21-film-strong Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel highlights that these films are by-and-large defined not by their spectacle or even their stories, but their casts and characters.
The first film in the franchise to be led as well as directed by a woman (Anna Boden helms, alongside her usual collaborator Ryan Fleck) — a fact which has prompted no small amount of online temper tantrums from the usual set of man-children — Captain Marvel is otherwise a fairly traditional, almost archetypal, Marvel movie. Whereas Black Panther brought with its fresh perspective a truly alternative narrative and visual sensibility, this film seeks to integrate a female point-of-view while hewing to the established franchise framework, which it does in ways both fun and occasionally frustrating. However, it nonetheless stands a cut above many of its predecessors, owing in large part to the specifics of its leading woman and her superb portrayal by the excellent Brie Larson.
The film introduces us to Larson’s Vers (pronounced ‘Veers’), as an amnesiac soldier in the army of the Kree, a proud race of warriors at war with a race of reptilian shape-shifters known as Skrulls. A member of the elite Starforce under the command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers is a highly skilled and confident warrior, but she is plagued by mysterious visions involving an unknown female figure (Annette Bening), which lead Yon-Rogg to urge her to control her emotions — a familiar motif with action heroines which is taken in a pleasingly subversive direction here. After a rescue mission goes awry, Vers ends up in the captivity of Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn); she escapes, but ends up crash-landing in an unfamiliar location — California, Earth, circa 1995. Encountering then-rookie SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, downright uncannily de-aged by around twenty years from digital wizardry), Vers is soon forced to team up with him to thwart what she believes may be a Skrull plot — but she quickly discovers details about her own past that may re-frame everything she knows.
The space-set initial twenty or so minutes are the weakest stretch of the film, suffering from an excess of exposition — a common origin-story problem — and murky, overly-busy visuals. Things pick up significantly once Vers crash-lands on earth: while the film plays it a little too cute with the period detail (a lingering shot of a Blockbuster video and a reference to AOL are treated like punchlines in and of themselves), Ben Davies’ warm-coloured lensing gives the locales a lived-in feel: for the first time in a while, the ‘real world’ in a Marvel film feels tangible and textured rather than flat and plastic.
Best known for low-key, 70s-inflected character studies like Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, Boden and Fleck bring to the piece an uncommon willingness to linger in quiet conversations. There’s an early moment that makes rare-for-the-genre use of silence between characters, and a lovely scene toward the end where two people have an idle, friendly conversation while washing dishes. The best of these intimate moments are those centred on Lashana Lynch’s Maria Rambeau, a former Air Force pilot with a hidden role in Vers’ past. She’s perhaps the most truly adult, real character this franchise has yet featured, played with nuance and sensitivity by Lynch, and the interactions between she, her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), and Larson are the most affecting moments in the film.
The director duo also deliver one of the most formally innovative sequences these films have ever seen: when Talos searches through Vers’ memories, we see her life play out in a series of elliptical flashbacks, edited together through psychedelic screen-warps. It’s a genuinely surreal, disorienting moment, and a rare occasion where a mainstream blockbuster finds a way to deliver exposition in a truly expressive, engaging manner.
Captain Marvel’s core and its elevating factor, however, is Larson, whose commitment to selling every beat never falters. She brings to Vers a genuine sense of joy and confidence in her powers, while giving real emotional urgency to her search for identity — the film feels like a character piece arguably because Larson makes it one, playing the heroine’s swagger, earnestness, wit, conflict, and righteous anger with such conviction that our investment and belief in her becomes the epicentre of the film. There are numerous scenes that stick in the memory longer than they might due to the thoughtfulness of Larson’s line readings or facial expressions.
She’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast, too: after largely wasting him as an exposition machine for the last decade, Marvel finally remember what a compelling screen presence Samuel L Jackson is. He’s dryly witty throughout, the film is smart enough to not have Fury play the sceptic too long and quickly settle he and Vers into a Lethal Weapon/True Detective-style buddy dynamic, and, like Chris Pine in Wonder Woman, Jackson is evidently having fun getting to subvert his badass image and play a little out of his depth — his cooing over an adorable cat leads to the film’s best comic pay-off. Ben Mendelsohn also shines in the most rewarding role a Hollywood film has yet afforded him, initially bringing his usual dry menace but later getting to play some more unexpected shades. The only weak link is Law, who’s almost too recognisable a presence to disappear into the pulpy milieu and lacks the authority required to really sell his character’s trajectory.
The main problems are, as is so often the case, an overly knotty plot and a lack of imagination in the visuals. The film withholds too much for too long, in a way that hurts its momentum, and requires everything to grind to a halt for a protracted stretch so that the real stakes and story can be explained. In fairness, once laid out, Captain Marvel’s primary conflict is an interesting one, with clear feminist subtext (notions of gaslighting and manipulation loom large, while one climactic beat involves a male villain insisting Vers fight him on his terms) that gives the piece extra thematic heft — but it takes a needlessly obtuse route to this point, robbing certain characters and threads of full exploration. And the requisite action scenes are sadly bland, drowning in a barrage of competent-but-not-dazzling CGI and shot in a perfunctory manner. The customary shared-universe nods feel clumsy and crow-barred, and the film’s use of period-appropriate music cues is bafflingly arbitrary — sure, it’s novel to hear Garbage or Nirvana in a Marvel movie, but their use here is deeply inelegant, lacking any kind of tonal or thematic cohesion with their particular scenes or the wider film.
Overall, however, Captain Marvel stands as a rock-solid entry in its franchise, elevated to its upper tier by the occasional intrusions of Boden and Fleck’s indie sensibility and Larson’s truly marvellous performance. The mere fact of the film’s having a female lead helps it in places, making the self-actualisation material feel less like adolescent entitlement and the quipping seem less ‘frat-boy-ish’. It’s further proof that the superhero genre can stave off stagnation by embracing new voices — and maybe letting them speak over the standard tropes more often.