Think about this: two of the last three Marvel movies weren’t just great action films, but landmark events in modern cinema. Black Panther was a Best Picture nominee that set off a cultural celebration and addressed social issues that dug far deeper than the film’s subject matter would make you think. Avengers: Infinity War was the insanely successful, daring, and incredible culmination of ten years of development, the beginning of the (ahem) end game for this crazy MCU ride we’ve all been on. Hell, even Ant-Man and the Wasp had a key role to play.
That’s a lot of weight for Captain Marvel to carry through with even without the fact that it is the first Marvel film with a female hero in the lead role. Does the film have to be as groundbreaking as those two movies to succeed? Is it cultural touchstone or bust? In a world where Marvel films are now Oscar contenders and we’ve seen nearly every Avenger onscreen in the same movie, how do we set the baseline for what a good Marvel film is? Captain Marvel doesn’t stand with its two lofty predecessors, but does that really matter?
Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Release Date: March 8, 2019
Are you ready for a recap? Tough, there’s not enough space on the Internet or time in the universe to catch us up on the last ten years of MCU action. Luckily, you don’t have to know everything. In fact, except for a few nods to previous films and a strikingly young Samuel L. Jackson, you don’t really have to know anything. See, Captain Marvel is a prequel, set firmly in the 90s, and thus everything that’s happened in nearly every other MCU film hasn’t actually happened yet. It’s a brilliant move that allows the movie to function on its own while still informing the rest of the MCU and retconning Captain Marvel into the story before Avengers: End Game.
We find Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) awakening on the Kree homeworld of Hara where she’s been training with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to be an elite Kree warrior in the battle against the shapeshifting Skrull. When a rescue mission for a Kree spy goes wrong Vers finds herself stranded on earth, teaming up with a young Agent Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and, to a lesser extent, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Things are not as they appear, as anyone who has seen the Kree in previous films can easily figure out, and so adventure ensues as our hero struggles to uncover her forgotten past and save the universe.
Make no mistake, Captain Marvel is a girl power, fuck the patriarchy, #MeToo, feminist film. It wears its female superhero badge like a pink vagina hat in a sea of red MAGA baseball caps. If any of that triggers you then you’ll be ranting online in no time (or already have been). At times this all feels bold and wonderful, but at other points, it feels a little too on-the-nose, like someone trying to be woke without actually being woke. It’s probably not fair to compare the film to Black Panther but it doesn’t feel like it has the same cultural importance as that movie despite the potential to.
This isn’t to say that Captain Marvel’s feminism is a bad thing – any girl power is better than no girl power. It nails it at moments, including a fantastic montage at the end that’s part pitch-perfect moment for the #MeToo era and part heartwarming Super Bowl commercial. Then again, when No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” starts blaring during a fight sequence it feels a little forced. Then again… again, I wouldn’t say the same thing about a more male-driven song like “You Shook Me All Night Long” playing over an action sequence in Guardians so maybe it is my inherent bias playing up here.
I’ll use this an excuse to jump subjects quickly and discuss the soundtrack, which is just full of 90s hits of epic proportions. It’s very clear that the movie is attempting to create a female-driven version of the insanely popular Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, and for the most part it works. Hell, I wouldn’t even be talking about it if it didn’t work. The entire film plays with its 90s setting for some spectacular gags and throwbacks, but it’s the soundtrack that really grounds the whole thing in the decade. Whether the songs are being used to pull laughs or emotions, it’s strong throughout and nearly entirely built around female artists. The aforementioned use of No Doubt was the only time the music really feels out of place.
One of the reasons Captain Marvel‘s feminism can feel forced is that it doesn’t actually seem to inform the rest of the movie. Where a film like Wonder Woman wore its feminism on a subtle sleeve that challenged the structure, themes, and ideas of superhero films, Captain Marvel paints it over an otherwise standard Marvel film. It’s a good origin movie and a total blast to watch, but there’s definitely a feeling of normalcy to the whole thing that’s a bit of a letdown. That raises the question again of whether or not Captain Marvel really needs to be anything more. Is another solid outing for the MCU enough for their first female-led project? I don’t know if I have the answer to that one at the moment, but it’s something that’s going to get dissected in the future.
Brie Larson’s performance will also be dissected. She seems to be getting into her groove for parts of the film, her comfort with playing a superhero growing as shooting went on. Maybe that’s just how they wanted it, the story is about a woman finding herself in a world that’s repeatedly telling her she’s not good enough, but it definitely feels clunky at first. Her character doesn’t take off until she’s throwing barbs back and forth with Jackson’s Nick Fury. By the end of the movie, however, it’s hard to imagine anyone else tackling the role as well, especially during her “awakening” as Captain Marvel, which seems to strengthen her previous performance by tieing its awkwardness into the film.
Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, as he has been since the first Iron Man. The real star of his performance is the de-aging technology used to turn a 70-year-old man into someone 30-40 years younger. There isn’t a moment in the film where the CGI hits the uncanny valley and looks awkward on him. We’ve climbed out of the valley and we’re on the other side and I’m pretty sure we’ll see Captain Marvel scoop up a ton of tech Oscars when the time comes for the work they did to make a character who is onscreen for most of the film look good enough to be on screen for most of the film.
While Jackson and Larson play off each other wonderfully, the clear standout performance for the film is Goose the “cat,” of course. It’s also cool to see Clark Gregg back in action on the big screen and, hopefully, it means more folks will turn into the woefully underrated Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. now. The rest of the cast is basically there to advance the plot and develop Carol Danvers into Captain Marvel by the end of the film. Probably the only letdown is Annette Benning as the Supreme Intelligence as her performance seems disinterested on the whole.
The action, which is one of the most important characters in almost any Marvel film, is strong. Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck keep things fast-paced and coherent, which is impressive given their background is mostly in indy films. Where Ryan Coogler had some growing pains in Black Panther with his action, these two seem to be able to handle the job admirably. Even the limited hand-to-hand fight sequences are surprisingly well cut, though they do fall into the over-editing trap every so often. Still, there are some very cool and iconic action moments throughout the film that will make any superhero fan happy and once again elevate the film to Marvel’s high standards.
Captain Marvel is a high standard, it’s a good movie, through and through, based on the proven formula that Marvel established to make good movies. The tone and humor are there, the action is solid, the performances are strong. There’s a throughline that builds to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame and of course the standard end credits sequences. It isn’t special, though, and that’s where my internal struggle comes in. Should a feminist superhero movie stand out as a beacon or is it being a good movie enough? Does placing the double standard on it of needing to be more mean I’m just compounding the already present issue of women needing to work twice as hard to get half as far? I honestly can’t give you answers on that as I’m still working them out myself both in terms of this film and society as a whole.
I can, however, reiterate with the utmost confidence that the cat is awesome.