Wahey! Twenty-one films later and Marvel finally did it – we finally have our first female-led superhero film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Captain Marvel tells the origin story of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) a.k.a. Captain Marvel. When we first meet her though, she’s going by the name Vers (pronounced “veers”) and is living on the Kree homeworld of Hala. Having arrived there six years ago with no memory of her past, Vers was given superpowers by the Kree, and has trained to become an elite warrior under her mentor, Yon Rogg (Jude Law). After a mission goes south, Vers is captured by the Kree’s sworn enemies, the shapeshifting Skrulls. Led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), they uncover some of Vers’ forgotten memories, leading Vers, the Skrulls and the Kree to Planet C-53 (a.k.a. Earth) in the mid-90s. Not knowing who to trust, Vers teams up with S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) to find a light-speed engine developed by Carol’s former mentor, Dr Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), and uncover the truth of Carol Danvers’ past.
Due to various reasons, I’ve now seen Captain Marvel twice, and can honestly say that I enjoyed it both times. Much like DC’s Wonder Woman back in 2017, this film has a lot to prove, namely, that a female-led superhero film can be successful. Considering that, as of the time of writing, Captain Marvel has made over $450 million worldwide, I’d say that they’ve done that and then some. This comes in spite of all of the trolls that have been review-bombing Rotten Tomatoes, attacking Brie Larson online, and so on.
This is great news for a variety of reasons, primarily that (hopefully) it will encourage studios to consider more female-led (and directed) films. DC seem to have taken this on board with their female-led 2020 slate (Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984), and although it’s not been dated yet, a Black Widow film is finally in the works over at Marvel. Captain Marvel is unabashedly feminist in its themes, placing a particular emphasis on not holding back; watching Carol become Captain Marvel in the final act of the film is especially satisfying after watching several characters telling Carol throughout the film told to keep her emotions and powers in check. All things considered then, Captain Marvel has definitely made some headway for women in superhero franchises, which is great to see.
The story of Captain Marvel bears some similarities to its predecessors, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, with its fish-out-of-water angle, but is at least attempting to be slightly different, if not ground-breaking. The film tended to repeat certain pieces of exposition, whilst not providing enough in other areas; for example, the film doesn’t really expand on this history of the war between Kree and the Skrulls (I suspect this is being saved for the almost guaranteed sequel). This is largely due to the fact that Captain Marvel is in quite a hurry, albeit a slightly manageable one.
The film is often juggling several things at once including Carol’s amnesiac storyline, establishing the two alien races at play, ‘90s nostalgia and various MCU references, among other things. Generally, I found the pacing to be fairly solid, as I didn’t really notice the two hour runtime, despite how convoluted the narrative could have become. The pacing then, helps to balance out what could have devolved into a confusing and convoluted narrative, but ultimately, and unfortunately, detracts from character development. For example, instead of a straightforward “here’s the story of Carol’s life”, the audience is left to fill in some of the blanks, which can sometimes be to the detriment of Carol’s character development.
Throughout the film, Brie Larson presents Carol Danvers as both a smartarse and a tough warrior in equal measure. Although perhaps not as overtly funny as some of her MCU predecessors (which I attribute more to the film’s writing that Larson’s performance), she brings an understated glee to the role. For me, this was one of the most enjoyable aspects of Larson’s performance; from the joy she clearly gets from using her powers, to the complete inability to hold back a smart-alecky response (particularly to her superiors), Larson’s performance is generally quite solid. What I think lets her down though, is the film’s writing, as moments where more depth could have been brought to Danvers seem to have been left to the wayside. In particular, the aforementioned flashbacks are shown as flashes largely during interactions with the Kree’s A.I. leader, the Supreme Intelligence (also played by Annette Bening), and when the Skrulls are digging through Vers’ memories.
While these often bring some more imaginative editing to the fore, they aren’t really expanded upon beyond these almost-literal flashes, leading to Carol’s backstory being surprisingly thin and, dare I say it, underdeveloped. I would have liked to have gotten to know what Carol was like pre-powers, rather than simply being told. At the end of the day, this is a fundamental storytelling error, particularly in filmmaking, and prevents the film from making that jump from good to great. Ultimately, it’s largely thanks to Larson that she avoids becoming too wooden in her performance; the film is determined to emphasise Carol’s strength, but in the process, comes close to missing the mark when it comes to highlighting any insecurities or internal struggles she may be experiencing, leaving Carol Danvers a well-rounded, if frustratingly underdeveloped character.
The supporting cast meanwhile are generally solid overall, if also suffering from some underdevelopment, here and there. Larson has a great rapport with both Lashana Lynch’s Maria Rambeau and Samuel L. Jackson’s younger Nick Fury. With the latter, Danvers and Fury have a playful buddy cop banter to their scenes, and it’s refreshing to see this younger, less cynical and world-weary Fury. The de-aging effect is fantastic (for both Jackson and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson (RIP)) and aside from these characters’ initial appearances in the film, I didn’t really notice the effect for the remainder, which is probably some of the best praise we can give to special effects. Lashana Lynch is great as Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau, Danvers’ fellow Air Force pilot. As Carol’s link to Earth, Rambeau provides an emotional grounding to the film, with a notable monologue shortly after her introduction (in the present day) serving this purpose, without going over the top in the process.
Again though, while Lynch (along with Akira Akbar as Rambeau’s daughter, Monica) has a comfortable and warm rapport with Larson’s Danvers, the lack of development for Danvers’ past means that we are once again being told how close these characters are, instead of being shown. I found Annette Bening to be cunning and smug as the Supreme Intelligence, whilst her performance Dr Lawson also suffers from this flashback pitfall. Jude Law is crafty as the leader of the Kree’s Star Force, clearly caring for his comrades, yet utterly devoted to the Kree. Ben Mendelsohn, meanwhile, continues to charm as the film’s primary Skrull antagonist, bringing humour and charisma to the table, in spades. In terms of the wider MCU, Clark Gregg, Lee Pace and Djimon Honsou are all back as Phil Coulson, Ronan the Accuser and Korath (the latter two from 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy). For those hoping for further expansion on these characters, I’m afraid you’re mostly out of luck, with the three essentially delivering glorified cameos. Likewise, the other members of Star Force are barely fleshed out, with the slight exception of Gemma Chan’s Minn-Erva. By making the audience invest more in Carol’s relationships with these characters, the stakes and underlying tensions within the film could have been heightened.
Finally, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both of whom come from an indie filmmaking background, with previous features including Half Nelson (2006), Sugar (2008), and Mississippi Grind (2015), seem to have successfully balanced their style with Marvel’s in-house tone and style. Unfortunately, although there are some brilliant shots scattered throughout the film, the majority of the film felt like it was playing it safe stylistically, with conversations largely framed in static, set shots. One break from this comes during a moment between Carol and Maria, where the camera switches to handheld, during a scene that felt unapologetically emotional and indie in its cinematography.
Overall, I found the direction and cinematography helped Captain Marvel feel tonally like its MCU siblings, but lacking that stylistic flair that can be felt in the likes of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, or even Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. While this isn’t inherently wrong in itself, it’s another element that, for me, limits the film from being something more memorable and less of a standard Marvel affair. I’ll admit that I’m unfamiliar with Boden and Fleck’s previous work, but I’m guessing it’s safe to say that their action chops are somewhat lacking. With the exception of an escape sequence set on a spaceship near the start of the film, and the aerial dogfights, the more elaborate action sequences are undermined by choppy editing and in one particular third act sequence, poorly lit; with the exception of Captain Marvel (courtesy of her light, energy-based powers), it’s difficult to tell who’s who in the scene. In addition, the film incorporates ‘90s music to differing levels of success, and for some this, in addition to the other incorporated ‘90s references, become a bit on the nose. The score meanwhile is also what I’d expect from an MCU film, as it sticks to standard beats, seemingly trying to break away with the occasional synth.
Overall, although it might not seem like it, I really did enjoy Captain Marvel and as a spectacle-heavy blockbuster, it’s a good time, fun for the whole family and so on. I genuinely believe that it does its job well as a big-budget blockbuster with a feminist message, and while it’s far from terrible, it doesn’t quite manage to rise to the top of the MCU’s output. Certain narrative choices underserved Larson’s Captain Marvel, and much like with Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange, I’m curious to see how she’s handled in her next appearance.