You’re going to hear a lot of Marvel patting themselves on the back in the coming weeks about the fact that ‘Captain Marvel’ is their first film centred around a female lead and with a woman as part of the main directing team. Putting aside for a second how weird it is to be congratulating themselves on something they took over a decade to do and often spoke against, and the fact that DC beat them to it years ago, it is a nice change to see women at the centre of a Marvel film. Mostly this ends up being the overriding aftertaste of ‘Captain Marvel’ - while certainly nothing special, there is something fresh about it.
The film centres around Kree warrior Vers (Brie Larson, ‘Room’), who possesses unusual powers but no discipline to control them. When she is separated from her unit and commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law, ‘Vox Lux’) during a battle with their enemy, the Skrull, and stranded on Earth in the early 90s, she is forced to team up with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, ‘The Hateful Eight’) to stop a rogue band of Skrull from wreaking havoc. But being on Earth starts to awaken memories in Vers, suggesting she may not be who she thinks she is.
What strikes most about ‘Captain Marvel’, especially in comparison to most Marvel films is how cohesive a film it actually is. The screenplay is clear and mostly crisp, the direction is strong and it has a consistent, sometimes striking look. That’s not to say that this hasn’t been the case before, but there’s an ease to this film, with no need to show off or be more than it needs to be. Directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck establish parameters for themselves and the film - a clever move considering this is their first major studio film, and stay comfortably within them, much to their advantage.
‘Captain Marvel’ isn’t as epic as other entries, but this allows it to focus on developing character, giving them room to breathe, and to let the focus properly be on its protagonist. Vers, whose full name we eventually learn is Carol Danvers, is one of the most rounded and instantly likeable players in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not hampered by male angst or a heavy backstory. It’s actually quite a lovely device being able to discover who she is as she does, especially when the expositional device Boden and Fleck employ is a mostly visual one. It’s also the only time, apart from Captain America and Spider-Man, where a new title character has been introduced into the Marvel universe and hasn’t started as arrogant and self-serving, and it isn’t until you quickly grasp how genuinely likeable Carol is that you realise how much this has been missing from the series.
The film follows many of the usual origin story tropes, but finds ways to play with them or move them along with more ease. ‘Captain Marvel’ has a genuine and wholesome energy to it, never feeling too rushed or too slow, and allowing its humour to (mostly) come from naturally from the characters, (mostly) circumnavigating the dumb humour we associate with these films now. It also doesn’t suffer from the weighty Shakespearean drama that often gets in the way of the more serious Marvel films. In many ways, ‘Captain Marvel’ feels singular within the universe, working nicely as a stand-alone adventure film and a piece within the puzzle. The visual effects are slick, the set pieces are well executed, and there are even a few twists and turns to take you by surprise.
It also benefits greatly from the innate charisma of its cast. Brie Larson is really a slam dunk as Carol Danvers, erupting with her natural charm and integrity. This doesn’t feel like a female hero written like a man, and is as affecting and impressive a performance as Gal Gadot was in ‘Wonder Woman’. There’s a gorgeous irreverence and twinkle to Larson’s performance, and she’s able to navigate through problematic narrative territory that a lesser actor would have drowned in. The same can be said for Samuel L. Jackson, who has honestly never been this delightful in a Marvel film. He looks like he’s having a ball being able to let his guard down, and he and Larson make a fabulous team. Everyone else is pretty much fulfilling expected duties, including Ben Mendelssohn as Skrull hunter Talos. Marvel also continue their tradition of casting incredible female actors in thankless roles, with Annette Bening joining Glenn Close and Michelle Pfieffer in being a screen legend woefully underused in a Marvel film.
In many ways, ‘Captain Marvel’ feels singular within the universe, working nicely as a stand-alone adventure film and a piece within the puzzle.
There’s so much that ‘Captain Marvel’ does right, and the better moments certainly embrace the positive cultural possibilities of a female superhero being at the heart of the film. Ultimately though, it’s still - just like so many films in this endless franchise - a good film instead of a great one. With (barely) a handful of exceptions, the films in the Marvel universe continue to be simply adequate rather than genuinely special, and it’s all starting to feel really tired. There’s nothing inherently cinematic or revelatory about them (the casting and design of ‘Black Panther’ the only exception), and not a single one (even the good ones) feel like a film that will last the test of time. It doesn’t even feel like they’re trying to be. How can it possibly be that, after so many films, not one could be considered a classic. I can’t even see how future generations of audiences are ever going to be that interested in them, how our kids are going to seek them out the way we do Star Wars or Indiana Jones. These films feel like they’re being made for right here and right now, to be consumed immediately in order to prepare you for the consuming of the next one. And who can blame them when audiences gobble them up ravenously regardless of their quality, encouraging more laziness and lack of bravery on their part (perhaps the reason it took over ten years to even get a female lead in one of these damn films). This has nothing to do though with the properties on which they are based on, which are considered classics and will stand the test of time. It’s the adaptation to the screen that shows no imagination and all noise. With every Marvel film, I go in praying to be blown away, praying to be thinking about it for years to come, but apart from maybe one or two, that’s never the case, and even ones that I enjoyed at the time turn sour on repeated viewing. Even while I was enjoying ‘Captain Marvel’ for all the things I genuinely liked about it, I couldn’t help being disappointed. Once again, despite all its hype and resources, despite this franchise now running like a well-oiled machine, there’s just nothing special about it. In fact, maybe being a well-oiled machine is the problem. These films don’t feel crafted. They feel manufactured. And the design is getting really dull.
That isn’t to say though that ‘Captain Marvel’ doesn’t do what it says on the packet. It’s slick, enjoyable, funny and charming, and does have a touch more character than most of the middle-middle-tier films in the franchise. It’s just a pity that, considering how great a character and lead it has, it couldn’t find a way to be something genuinely more than all the other puzzle pieces in the box.