True to its name, Captain Marvel is pure Marvel. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily a top-tier entry to the now twenty-one film franchise (it is however a worthy middle entry) but the film perfectly sums up what the Marvel brand is: a family-friendly blend of sci-fi and action adventure, led by postured heroes in colorful spandex, lit up by busy, expensive CGI and regularly relieved with whip-snap jokes. It’s an origin story of somewhat common degree, one familiar with the storytelling roots of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America before it, that encapsulates the highs and lows of the superhero series in equal measure.
Harkening back to the Phase One days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel provides an interesting spin on the origin story formula in the run-up to a conclusion of sorts in Avengers: Endgame. The film, not unlike The Bourne Identity, revolves around a trained agent unsure of who she is. There’s no shortage of differences – she’s a Kree warrior (a blue-tinted advanced alien race) with glowing hands and intergalactic peacekeeping duties – but she too is haunted by dreams of a life not remembered.
The first female-led Marvel film designs to tell the story of Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel backward, starting on an unfamiliar planet and connecting dots back to a former life on Earth. Larson is stoic but sunny as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, a woman who shoulders a great sense of responsibility but doesn’t shelf the snarky comment should it befit her mood. This is the MCU after all. As a symbol though, she’s immutable – the fitting vestibule of feminine perseverance and strength, of sarcasm and cunning. There’s little radical in the telling of her story and the film is rarely the subversive punch to the patriarchal establishment it might have been were it truly freed from the muzzle, though its existence alone has apparently been enough to provoke some underdeveloped man-babies into fussy spasms.
Captain Marvel isn’t just a notch for gender equality in front of the camera, as the film marks the first female writer-director (Half Nelson’s Anna Bowden sharing responsibilities with longtime co-writer/director Ryan Fleck), who is joined by a second female screenwriter in Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Tomb Raider). Also of note is composer Pinar Toprak – the first woman to score a film within the MCU – who tactfully noted in a Music for Screens Summit, “The world only changes by example. It doesn’t change by preaching.”
Captain Marvel doesn’t bother preaching. It just exists. Sadly that might just be construed as insurrectionary in itself. Carol Danvers is different from her male predecessors in gender alone – she’s cut from the same ethical cloth as Captain America, sharing his somewhat blowhard stance on moral absolutism and his push towards heroics at his own expense. Trolls be damned, this is not the portrait of a vengeful feminist shero pushing supergirls into the spotlight at the expense of the men around her. Feminism is about equality and that’s all that Captain Marvel asks for. She’s not the face of the future. She’s the face of the now. The then. The always. The fact that it’s taken this long (20 frickin’ films) for a lady to lead a Marvel movie isn’t only insulting in the wake of Captain Marvel – it’s plain stupid.
There’s a sense of congratulatory course correction in the fact that Captain Marvel takes place in the 1990s, as if we could rewind time and pretend legitimate female superheroes have been sharing the screen all along (RIP Catwoman). The time jump allows for #nostalgia in the form of Blockbuster Video Rentals, dated grungy outfits, and a soundtrack that rocks out to Nirvana and No Doubt but the biggest get from the prequel-esque nature is getting a chance to fill in the blanks on Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and his rookie partner Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg.)
Through the magic of digital de-aging, the head honcho of S.H.I.E.L.D. and initiator of the Avengers sees his own origins play out and Jackson effortlessly charms in the role, shading the formative years of the weathered leather-jacket-clad hero and finally answering how his eye ended up in a patch. Jackson slips into Fury’s shadow with ease and provides an amusing fulcrum for Larson’s Carol, who isn’t nearly as natural with comic relief and grounds the otherwise esoteric aspects in familiar Earthly form. Other characters, such as Djimon Honsou’s Korath and Lee Pace’s Ronan (both borrowed from Guardians of the Galaxy) make appearances but their roles are little more than superfluous cameo that add nothing to the greater fabric of the feature.
Finally a movie that doesn’t waste the hugely talented Ben Mendelssohn, who plays a lizard-man shapeshifter known as a Skrull and is privy to the film’s bulk of laugh lines. The actor, who previously worked with Bowden and Fleck in Mississippi Grind, showcases an excellent sense of comic timing and is the film’s brightest comedic spot. After a handful of thankless baddie roles in high profile blockbusters, Mendelssohn once again is back on top. The role of thankless villain goes to another actor who won’t be named here (though it won’t be hard to guess whodunnit), with Marvel’s track record for underwhelming villainy going for the bunt once more. Likewise, the action set pieces as staged by Fleck and Bowden are rote and vanilla, rarely worth marveling at.
As Carol readies herself for a battle that will define who she is and the extent of her powers, we see her character carpe the diem and shape up into what may be the MCU’s most overpowered hero – and for good reason. That Thanos needs an ass-whooping. Larson exudes an old Hollywood charm and steps into the mantle of Captain Marvel nonchalantly. Though her comfort with Marvel’s signature snark doesn’t always connect, the heart of her character does and she’s sure to be an overnight icon in the households of little girls and boys alike. Even though the DCEU’s Wonder Woman already seized hearts and dollar bills, the stakes really could not have been higher for Captain Marvel and Brie Larson, Anna Bowden, and Carol Danvers prove that great responsibility demands great power and Captain Marvel jettisons in with extra to spare.
CONCLUSION: Though it takes few creative risks, ‘Captain Marvel’ is the MCU’s first big step towards gender equality and makes the blending of its first leading female superhero into its male-dominated stable seem as natural and effortless as it ought to have always been. With all the spectacle and heart you’d expect, Marvel’s latest runs on the star power of Brie Larson, Sam Jackson and a scene-stealing Ben Mendelssohn, who make the whole thing more-than-serviceable blockbuster entertainment with positive real-world side effects.
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