Minor spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy and Memento
True be told, I think Captain Marvel might be the first female-led superhero film I’ve seen since 1984’s Supergirl. To be fair though, it’s not as if there’s been a lot of choice. Out of the dozens of live-action Marvel and DC films theatrically released since 1944, a grand total of four have been led by women (five if you want to include V for Vendetta).
So it’s obvious that the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has a lot riding on it, at least from a political and sociological point-of-view. Whether that’s fair or not, I’ll leave it to people far more educated that I am. Thus the question that remains is whether or not Captain Marvel is in fact a good film. The answer, however, is a little more complicated.
As a member of a Kree taskforce, Vers (Brie Larson) is fighting the good fight against Skrull terrorists led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). Though she does her best, with suitable encouragement from taskforce leader, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law); and the leader of the Kree Empire, the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening); Vers’ lack of emotional control always threatens to upend the situation.
During a mission to rescue a Kree informant, Vers is separated from her team and crash-lands on the planet designated C-53 (i.e. Earth). But the Skrull threat is not eliminated; and Vers is forced to team up with a two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson); an Earth fighter pilot (Lashana Lynch); and an acronym-acclimated Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Only together can they defeat the Skrull threat and save the planet.
Back in 2012, when Kevin Feige announced at San Diego Comic-Con that Guardians of the Galaxy would be the 10th installment in the MCU; I confidently assured myself that this would be the moment where the the overall Marvel franchise had gone too far. Of course, I said the exact same thing about Thor, The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War. So really, what the hell do I know? But my hesitancy to the Guardians franchise came from a belief that the concept would be too difficult. That the need to introduce bizarre ideas and unfamiliar concepts would ultimately stop audiences from connecting with the story or the characters.
That lack of connection ends up being a major stumbling block in Captain Marvel; and unfortunately it all happens in the opening moments. Unlike the beautiful emotional moment between young Peter Quill and his mother in the first Guardians; Captain Marvel throws us into a world we know (almost) nothing about. By spending nearly 20 minutes delving into multiple alien concepts with minimal explanation; it’s hard not to miss that broad sense of inclusion that Marvel traditionally excel at. It may not be impossible to follow, but when you need to spend a good hour on Wikipedia to fully get to grips with the plot and backstory; you know Marvel could have done better.
That said, once Vers arrives on Earth, there is a strong improvement on the situation. The introduction (or is that re-introduction?) of fan favourites such as Nick Fury and Agent Coulson; and their interactions with the marooneed Vers, helps the film start to imbue a more traditional sense of Marvel fun. In fact some of the best scenes in this movie echo the simplicity of the party scene in Age of Ultron. Sometimes just watching likable characters merely talk to each other around a table can be far more entertaining than the most intense of action scenes.
Not that said action scenes are anything to be sniffed at. Though directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck don’t have the same visual signature or distinct voice as James Gunn or Taika Waititi; there’s still a sense of epic wonder, especially in the film’s climatic moments of Vers fully embracing her Captain Marvel identity.
But the intricacies of the visual effects sometimes only shine through due to the unsatisfactory aspects in other areas of the film. For example, the choice of the 1990s setting means that narrative and stakes are minimal at best for several of the characters. You know Nick Fury is going to be fine. As is Coulson and an oddly underused Ronan (Lee Pace). Likewise, the nature of being a prequel means that much time is spent on explaining future events. Indeed, it’s hard not to think of last year’s Solo and its grand obsession with giving answers to questions no one in their right mind had ever asked.
Ironically that approach to storytelling doesn’t extend to the lead character. While Brie Larson does amazingly with the script she’s been given, believably presenting us with a women whose beliefs are torn asunder in the face of male oppression; the choice to keep most of her backstory secret until the third act prevents her from portraying a fully formed character. Sure, that style of storytelling works in a movie like Memento; but here, being that Captain Marvel isn’t a mystery film, it doesn’t quite work.
In terms of cosmic balance, Captain Marvel does not succeed on the same level as the first Guardians of the Galaxy. But to say the film fails or is bad would be highly misleading. Rather it plays it “safe”; never truly doing anything particularly amazing or egregious. For a film whose tagline is “Higher. Further. Faster”; Captain Marvel probably should have done exactly that.