Last year’s bite-size post-Infinity War digestif Ant-Man and the Wasp – which, in fact, unfolds shortly before the Avengers’ doomed confrontation with the Mad Titan Thanos; do try to keep up, people – was the first clear sign that the feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) might be teetering away from “good enough” and into “forgettable.” Granted, there wasn’t anything overtly dislikable about AM&tW, which did a fine job of replicating the comparatively small-scale storytelling (pun intended) and playful action of its predecessor. Less than a year later, however, one is hard-pressed to remember anything substantive about the film, or even what the central conflict might have been. (Something about Michelle Pfeiffer being shrunk down to the size of a Higgs boson?) Summer blockbusters that cost well north of $160 million typically emerge as either beloved pop events or utter fiascos. There’s something oddly disheartening about a film made on such a scale attaining little more than functional, ephemeral blandness, especially given the MCU mega-franchise’s track record. (The studio nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nomination early this year, after all.)
Which brings one to the much-anticipated Captain Marvel, which is rather unbelievably the first MCU film to feature a female superhero protagonist (following a whopping 20 male-dominated entries). The better-late-than-never significance of this moment from a representation standpoint has focused attention – mostly from excited comic fans, plus a handful of the usual fragile manchildren – on this inaugural MCU appearance of Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers, who is a sort of intergalactic living superweapon. (Both the title and Carol herself have convoluted Marvel Comics backstories that are not worth delving into here.)
Accordingly, the most immediately disappointing thing about Captain Marvel is how dispiritingly middling it proves to be, and how palpably desperate it is to establish its feminist-but-not-y’know-too-feminist credentials. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold the MCU’s latest feature up alongside the first woman-led film in the rival DC Extended Universe, but a comparison to Wonder Woman (2017) is nonetheless instructive. Where Patty Jenkins’ film expressed its unabashedly female worldview through burning conflicts and graceful characterization, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) – who co-wrote Captain Marvel’s screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet – seem content to sneak fist-pumping girl-power bromides in between the lines of a generic imperial space-war plot. Perversely, while Captain Marvel has been positioned as a vital moment for pop-cultural gender equality, it sometimes feels as though its feminism is almost incidental, an accessory affected in the same manner as the nostalgia-stoking nods to its 1990s setting.
The film’s story revolves around the conflict between the authoritarian Kree and the shape-shifting Skrulls, both alien space-faring civilizations that have evidently been battling each other for millennia. Vers (Brie Larson), pronounced “veers,” is a member of Starforce, a kind of Kree special-forces wing that focuses primarily on battling the Skrulls and other threats to their intergalactic empire’s expansionist ambitions. Vers – who looks an awful lot like a human woman, blue-green blood excepted – has the mysterious ability to project devastating energy blasts from her hands, but her training under the tutelage of her humorless commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), has focused on keeping both her powers and her emotions in check. The Kree prioritize imperial glory and cold-hearted collectivist action, and after a pyrotechnic outburst during an early-morning training exercise, Vers is sent to commune with the Kree civilization’s AI potentate, the Supreme Intelligence, for a bit of re-education. In the virtual world of this entity’s electronic brain, the S.I. supposedly takes the form of a familiar face, but Vers doesn’t recognize the smartly dressed woman (Annette Benning) who appears before her.
After reprimanding Vers, the S.I. sends the Starforce team to rescue a Kree spy, whose cover has been blown and is now pinned down by Skrull terrorists on a backwater planet. There, the squad is ambushed and Vers is captured, at which point she is whisked off through a wormhole for high-tech interrogation by a slippery Skrull leader, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). The Skrulls are looking for something very specific buried deep in Vers’ memories, which inexplicably look a lot like the recollections of a human Air Force officer, not an alien warrior. No one is more surprised and distressed by this than Vers herself, who has no memory of her life before the Kree found her hovering near death some years ago. Vers escapes, only to discover that she is being held on a starship in orbit over “shithole” planet C-53, also known as Earth. Both she and her Skrull pursuers disembark to the planet’s surface, and Vers is quickly swept up into the mainline MCU continuity. When reports come in that a superpowered woman has fallen out of the sky and through the roof of a Blockbuster Video in suburban LA – Get it? It’s the ’90s! – S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) show up to contain the situation. (The digital de-aging of Jackson is, admittedly, pretty damn flawless.)
Everything prior to Vers’ fish-out-of-water arrival on Clinton-era Earth is essentially prologue, and largely generic prologue at that. The Kree-vs.-Skrull conflict is a long-running and vitally important aspect of the Marvel Comics universe, but in Captain Marvel the film it largely comes off as bland, off-brand Star Wars goofiness, comparable to the least memorable “cosmic” plot elements that run through the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy films. (Quick: Who was the villain from Thor: The Dark World? Can’t remember? Don’t worry: No one does.) There’s far too much awkward exposition in the service of idiot-simple world-building, including some painfully clunky “As you know ...” exchanges between Yon-Rogg and Vers.
Things improve substantially once Vers and Fury team up, and not only because the latter becomes the eager vessel into which Vers can pour quick-and-dirty explanations for what the hell is going on. Larson and Jackson make for an enjoyable odd couple, and while the MCU has leaned into buddy-comedy humor before, the vibe of Captain Marvel isn’t quite the same relentless deadpan quippiness that has come to dominate the franchise. After some initial wariness, Vers and Fury strike up an unexpectedly warm alliance, one characterized by equal parts respect and low-key teasing, a mixture that lacks the prickly, dick-measuring edge of the series’ intra-Avengers posturing. (Conversely, there’s not even a hint of romance in the relationship, which is a welcome absence.) Initially, Larson’s strait-laced acting style seemed like it might have been a poor fit for the MCU, but it arrives as something of a mellow balm, allowing the actress to focus on Vers’ earnest crisis of confidence and identity without the need to wedge in a sarcastic jibe every five seconds. What's more, one of the distinctive pleasures of Captain Marvel is the sight of a less put-upon and abrasive iteration of Nick Fury, at this point a canny 40-something field agent who trusts his instincts and rolls with whatever sci-fi weirdness he encounters.
The story’s conflicts shift about halfway through the film, sometimes in unexpected directions but usually along entirely predictable lines – e.g., the amnesiac Vers previously had a human life on Earth as “Carol Danvers,” complete with an illustrious Air Force career and a best friend (Lashana Lynch) who thinks she is dead. Suffice to say that Carol uncovers some startling truths about, among other matters, the origin of her potent abilities, the MacGuffin that the Skrulls are seeking on Earth, and the ugly side of her adopted Kree family. Whatever dramatic and emotional resonance these comic-flavored story beats possess is attributable primarily to the film’s performances, which are uniformly solid and occasionally even stirring. The uncanny yet effusive reunion between Carol and her fellow USAF pilot and BFF Maria (Lynch) is quite affecting, for example. The same can’t be said of the screenplay, which is hamstrung by its own commitment to those aforementioned plot twists. Keeping the truth from both the audience and the heroes demands a frustrating, characterization-starved caginess for the first third or so of the film, during which there’s not much for the viewer to engage with other than some generic space-opera visuals and typical MCU to-and-fro action. (Captain Marvel has one of those exasperating plots that could be deflated if characters would simply stop and explain themselves.)
The filmmakers lean into the story’s period setting in the most pandering and superficial way possible, as though simply showing a thing that existed ca. 1997 is enough to inspire Millennial glee. Accordingly, the viewer is subjected to endless sight gags that amount to a “Remember this?” wink-and-nudge, from the knotted flannel fashion to the agonies of dial-up Internet. It makes the 1980s-humping in Netflix’s Stranger Things seem seamless and nuanced by comparison. In truth, Captain Marvel’s approach isn’t all that different from Ready Player One’s (2018) more gonzo and shameless nostalgia-prodding, although a better parallel might be justifiably forgotten indie “period” comedies like The Wackness (2008). Captain Marvel is on firmer ground when it simply alludes to other films at the plot or motif level, as in its nods to Superman, The Last Starfighter, Starman, Top Gun, Terminator 2, and, improbably, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It goes without saying that the soundtrack is chock-a-block with Elastica, Garbage, Salt-n-Pepa, and the like, although the only truly groan-worthy moment is the non-diegetic use of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” during a climactic fight scene.
It’s a choice that reflects not only the film’s skin-deep 1990s infatuation but also its lip-service feminism. On the one hand, Larson’s amnesiac space warrior is one of the more agreeably understated and human protagonists in the MCU’s run to date, her tabula rasa qualities notwithstanding, a hero whose arc borrows elements from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Loki’s backstory in the first Thor feature (2011). However, when the screenwriters attempt to use Carol’s story to highlight the universal tribulations that women encounter – the barriers, the underestimation, and the never-ending condescension – their efforts come off as timid, shallow, and vaguely tin-eared. There are, undeniably, some authentically rousing girl-power moments in the film, especially a trailer-spoiled montage of Carol at different ages, rising again and again from defeat. (A feminist-flavored Raiders of the Lost Ark-indebted gag at the film’s tail end is also a highlight.) Mostly, however, the feature’s gender politics feel like a bit of a pose: too superficial to convey the source material’s fiercely feminist mythology – again, the Wonder Woman film makes for a sharp contrast – and too desperate for applause for it to be regarded as sincere.
None of this is to say that Captain Marvel is a failure as work of escapist entertainment or as a revelation-packed chapter in the never-ending MCU saga. The filmmakers do manage to answer some nagging questions and ostensible plot-holes that have persisted since the first Avengers film, at times with a cheeky sense of humor. For Marvel aficionados, the sight of an unflappable pre-eyepatch Nick Fury tooling around in a boxy American sedan or belting out a Motown standard in cracking falsetto is practically worth the ticket price all on its own. However, only MCU completionists and pre-minted fans of Carol Danvers will likely have much in the way of durable enthusiasm for Captain Marvel, especially as it becomes apparent that the film’s visuals, action, and storytelling are simply “good enough” — albeit just barely.