Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Stars: Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, Clark Gregg
That the Marvel machine has taken 11 years and 20-ish films to get to a female-centric superhero movie is such a glaring and conspicuous oversight that Captain Marvel arrives with a hideously unenviable burden. It has to mean something. It has to be a statement. All of this and – thanks to timing and release sequencing – it also has the equally unenviable task shared by the lacklustre Ant-Man And The Wasp; it has to satisfyingly bridge the gap between two colossal Avengers films. That’s a lot of weight for a movie which also needs to tender its own unique voice within the series.
It doesn’t go well. Captain Marvel – written by committee (seemingly under the proviso that, no matter the trench you’ve found yourselves in, there’s no turning back) – stumbles awkwardly out of the gate with far too much to unpack. It really doesn’t help that the film’s cadre of writers have chosen to kick things off on another planet, in another galaxy, with an entire fantasy culture to establish and propel forward in a matter of minutes. As we’re thrust into the middle of a galactic war between alien races we couldn’t possibly care about, Captain Marvel quickly comes to feel like Bumblebee. That film opened with dense and distancing sci-fi nonsense, before gratefully settling down to a more humanised story on Earth.
Captain Marvel follows this trend; with its Kree warrior/hero Vers (Brie Larson) crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster store circa 1995. Even right after watching the movie, the events that led to this are too stupefying and banal to waste time on here. She’s at war with some shapeshifting aliens. She has some repressed memories of Earth (aka C-53). Something something Annette Bening. The event calls the attention of a pair of S.H.I.E.L.D agents; Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Coulson (Clark Gregg). Fury ends up on the road with our intergalactic hero, pursued by Ben Mendehlson’s chameleonic little green man Talos.
At its best, the film finds a groove similar to a gender-swapped Starman. The middle of the picture is its most successful stretch, as it adopts a road movie persona and Vers gets to coolly and knowingly one-up Fury on their mission to find a secret laboratory. Larson – an actor posessing considerable talent – is immensely likable in the lead role, and her interactions with Jackson imbue the film with a warmth and connectivity that is so glaringly lacking in its VFX-driven opening (or any time Jude Law turns up). As Captain Marvel tries to step out of the knotty plot loops it has tangled itself in, this good will is tested. The film’s structure necessitates a number of about-turns and role reversals. Characters – and their relationships to one another – pivot frequently. And every time this happens it all has to stop and explain itself.
There are some token nostalgia moments here (mining the 90’s just as Guardians Of The Galaxy has played on the 70’s and 80’s) but they do feel exactly that; token, expected. The soundtrack choices, initially quite fun, come to feel like irksome distractions. The use of No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” is particularly on-the-nose and jars with the sequence it is used to choreograph. On the subject of choreography, it is sadly worth noting that the action sequences in Captain Marvel are sloppy, horribly edited and, when No Doubt are playing, lost in a dimly lit murk.
I really didn’t want to rag on this picture. I’ve felt a sense of growing superhero fatigue since Infinity War ended on a cheap cliffhanger, but I wanted Captain Marvel to bring me back. I wanted it to feel fresh and vibrant and inclusive and defiantly thrilling in its own right. The way Black Panther felt. Larson can’t quite save it, though, superb as she is. She hasn’t been handed the material she deserves. Most of the time Captain Marvel has the feel of a Phase One Marvel film, but one laden with cumbersome obligations. You didn’t need to rewatch a handful of other movies to enjoy The First Avenger. I sat in the audience of this movie frustrated that I hadn’t done my homework and revisited half a dozen prior Marvel films that I had no reason to assume I’d need to have fresh in my mind for this one (psst, rewatch Guardians Of The Galaxy).
The third act does bring it all together. As distracting as a lot of very silly-looking alien make-up prosthetics are (poor Ben Mendelsohn), once Captain Marvel has finally got all its cards on the table, a perfectly serviceable conclusion is mounted (given that you’ve decided to go along with a really ridiculous story when all’s said and done). The evolution of Vers is the narrative’s greatest asset, and seeing her ratchet up her badassery is worth the journey to get there.
But, when the dust settles, this is a frustratingly muddled and uneven entry in the long-running series, with plenty of ink on both sides of the ledger. It’s a fairly graceless opening salvo for Larson, who one can readily foresee fronting better sequels down the road (and presumably adding a lot to the imminent Avengers: Endgame). For now, this is Marvel’s bumpiest ride in some time, albeit one that still manages to pay tribute to the late great Stan Lee in note-perfect style.
Female superheroes are overdue. Brie Larson is exceptional. Captain Marvel is… okayish?