“Am I the only one who’s confused here?” asks the offscreen voice of an alien probing the thoughts and memories of Carol Danvers, aka Vers, aka the eventual titular Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), trying to find crucial information in the pausing, jumping, reversing, and replaying of a few scenes of her past. But really, he’s unintentionally speaking for the audience, as the long-awaited Captain Marvel, teased in the post-credits scene of Avengers: Infinity War finally hits our screens. If this were truly a stand-alone superhero origin story/franchise starter, I’d argue it was pretty good. Nothing all that special, but good. Instead, given the 10-month wait and the crucial nature of Captain Marvel’s role in saving the (Marvel Cinematic) universe, it felt more like an afterthought, a misplaced thud in the overall narrative.
After a semi-touching redesign of the Marvel Studios logo, where every hero is replaced by Stan Lee before a heartfelt thank you to the creator, the film launches into an odd stream of consciousness, as Vers has nightmares about being a kid, being an adult, crashing a plane, and being shot at by reptile-like aliens. She awakens on Hala, the home planet of the Kree Empire, where she serves as a member of the Star Force. She trains with her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), trying to control her powers, particularly the high-powered concussive heat blasts she can shoot from her arms. Before she can go into the field, she must get the approval of the Supreme Intelligence, an AI that governs the planet and takes whatever form the other person wants to see. In this case, it’s a mysterious pilot from Vers’ dream, later identified as Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening). Their first encounter is a striking experience, mostly because between the two of them, only one has an Oscar, and somehow it’s not Annette Bening.
After an ambush on a distant planet, Vers is kidnapped by a Skrull (lizard people) commander named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who probes her mind to try to find a particular set of coordinates linked to Dr. Lawson and the possibility that she might have discovered light speed travel. Vers overpowers the crew, sabotages the Skrull ship, and takes an escape pod down to Planet C-53, otherwise known as Earth. There she meets S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, sporting hair, two eyes, and CGI de-aging technology on his face) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg – the audience cheers his non-dead form). At that point, the hunt is on for Vers’ memories, her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), Dr. Lawson’s tech, and a resolution between the Kree and Skrull. Also, there’s a cat named Goose. Goose is the true star of the film, hands down.
All of this would be extremely compelling if it weren’t for some major creative misfires. For one, given that Captain Marvel was called for just as Fury disintegrated in Infinity War, we’ve spent this whole time thinking that we were going to see the origin of a legendary badass who was going to stop Thanos and put everything back to normal. And I’m sure she will when Endgame comes next month. However, for most of the film, she’s reduced to one half of a buddy comedy alongside Fury. This is the longest we’ve gotten to see Nick Fury in a film, and all he’s doing is dishing out cheesy jokes? It’s jarring to say the least.
Second, and most infuriating, the film is set in 1995, and it will not let you forget that it’s in the 90s. Seriously, there are so many outdated references and jokes, it feels like half the movie was a discarded episode of VH1’s I Love the 90s narrated by the Member Berries from South Park. “Member Blockbuster Video?” “I member!” “Oh, member Des’ree?” “Sure, sure, I member.” “Ooh, ooh, what about Radio Shack? Member that?” “Yeah, I member!” We get it! The 90s happened! The internet was slow back then, hardy har har! MOVE ON! What should have felt like a nostalgic – and maybe even inspired – trip into the recent past to inform the character is reduced to a clichéd soundtrack of 90s hits (including Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” over the credits, despite it being released in 1998) and Brie Larson walking around in a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt. If there’s a deleted scene where she tries on Zubaz pants and a Starter jacket, I will not be the least bit surprised. The one truly great 90s gag is on an LA metro train (the scene from the trailer where Captain Marvel infamously punches an old woman in the face), where Stan Lee gives what we can all assume is his final cameo. Appropriately, it’s as himself, reading the script for Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, which indirectly started the tradition of Stan Lee cameos.
On the surface, none of this is truly bad, but it is misplaced given the gravity of Captain Marvel’s role in the MCU. This film plays more like a comic diversion (where sadly the only jokes that land revolve around the cat), with a tone more akin to Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy (in more ways than one, it turns out) than, say Iron Man or Captain America. That’s not to say it can’t work, just that it doesn’t work in this grander context.
On a technical level, the special effects are pretty much standard issue MCU. In her final, almost god-like form (which is a 0-to-60 transition that is nowhere near earned by the end), Captain Marvel looks like a silly cartoon, almost like something out of the actual 90s X-Men shows than an actual person. There are some cool bits, like Annette Bening coming and going in different directions in Vers’ memory, and the Skrulls’ shapeshifting abilities are well done, but apart from that, nothing special.
As to the performances themselves, Larson does well enough in the role, and works with the material she’s given. She’s able to balance her frustrations and tenacity with a sense of humanity, with occasional lightheartedness. Jackson is game for this much sillier version of Nick Fury, and occasionally the pair have chemistry, but it’s fleeting. Jude Law and Annette Bening are basically cashing checks and marking the box on their career to-do list to be in a major franchise. The cat is a cat, and it’s very cute and funny.
From a thematic standpoint, the film kind of shoots itself in the foot. I’m sure you’re aware of Rotten Tomatoes changing its system when it comes to pre-release user reviews, because trolls and incels were trying to bomb the film before it even came out, because how dare Marvel put out a movie with a lead what’s got boobies? Those people can all go to hell, but the movie doesn’t do itself any favors. Sure, there are some easy feminist targets on some toxic males, like Danvers’ Air Force colleagues taunting her that she’ll never fly (“They call it a cockpit for a reason, you know.”), but beyond that there are more contradictions than anything else.
For example, in her moment of triumph, she declares to her foe (and to the audience), “I don’t have to prove myself to anyone.” But, yeah, she does. She’s had to prove herself the entire film. She proves herself to her colleagues, her allies, her enemies, and to the memories she has of Dr. Lawson. When she makes her final decision with regard to the Skrull, she’s proving to the right people that she’s a person of her word, and not a threat to peace. Similarly, one of the major through lines she gets from all sides is that she has to control her emotions in order to be an effective hero. This is delivered with no hint of irony. They’re all but literally saying, “If you want to be successful, stop being so emotional, woman!” Not only is that insulting, but in reality it’s her sense of empathy that truly makes her capable and strong enough to save people. The fact that she cares is why she’s able to accomplish her goals. That’s never acknowledged. But hey, they licensed “Just a Girl” to play in the background during the climactic fight, so who cares, am I right?
I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, especially given the excitement of the cast during the buildup. Even Larson herself said on camera during an interview that this is the high point of her career (remember, she’s won a fucking Oscar), but this was just a dud. I’ll still recommend seeing it if you’re an MCU completionist and want to make sure there are no missing parts when Avengers: Endgame resolves at the end of April. But otherwise, leave this in the dustbin of history, right next to the standee of True Lies that gets blown up in the Blockbuster. Don’t go chasing waterfalls, y’all.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What makes you nostalgic for the 90s? What form would the Supreme Intelligence take for you? Let me know!