There’s a moment in the midst of Marvel Studio’s latest superhero spectacular Captain Marvel in which Brie Larson’s space warrior character Vers (her name at that point in the story; she has others) is running down a hallway and comes face to face with a Skrull, a race of shapeshifting, alien terrorists that she and her fellow Starforce team members have sworn to defeat. When the Skrull sees her, it growls at her, and in an act of pure bravery and defiance, she growls back at it before knocking it senseless. The moment completely threw me because it’s wonderfully unexpected and a perfect encapsulation of what Captain Marvel does differently than many of the other 20-plus Marvel movies that feed into the Avengers films.
So before talking about story or characters, I want to address the loose, fun tone of Captain Marvel. While there are a great many moments of humor in the film, it’s not jokey in the same way the Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man movies are. As a result, the vibe is more naturalistic—as much as an intergalactic space adventure film can be. Truth be told, a great deal of the film is rooted on Earth, circa the mid-1990s, so we’re able to visit with younger, easier-going incarnations of Nick Fury (a flawlessly digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson, with two healthy eyes) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, with a digitally restored full head of hair), both agents of SHIELD but ones who have never met a super-powered person or an alien at this point. Not surprisingly, meeting Vers in her amped-up superhero form, Captain Marvel, changes the course of Fury’s life in several ways.
But we also get to see other Marvel characters in earlier iterations as well, including Djimon Hounsou’s Korath (when he was a member of Starforce as well) and Lee Pace’s Ronan (both from the first Guardians). And while their presence in this film isn’t necessarily vital, it’s a great nod to the interconnected fabric that holds these movies together.
Back to my point about the tone of the film: there are relaxed conversations between Larson and Jackson that are so engaging that I could have watched a 30-minute short of the two of them just gabbing about the universe and Skrulls and photon blasts and music and all of the things they touch on throughout the movie. But there are also magnificent touches like pretty much all of Ben Mendelsohn’s performance as Talos, the Skrull leader, who subverts all expectations about how a bad guy behaves and is performed, including a hilarious moment when someone asks Talos if shapeshifting is difficult, and he boastfully answers that it isn’t but doing it right requires a certain skill level. An artist can never resist telling you he’s an artist.
Co-writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) come out of the realm of smaller, art-house works like Half Nelson and Sugar, and they use that desire to dig a little deeper into their characters and look for moments of intimacy even on such a grand scale. They haven’t quite perfected the action sequence yet—none of the action set pieces here really took off for me—but there is more to this story than splashy fight scenes. They aren’t afraid to include morality lessons about such things as refugees and fearing the unknown simply because we don’t understand it.
There is a very strong message in Captain Marvel about thinking for yourself and breaking free of the way your elders or superiors taught you. Our heroine represents youth culture taking a fresh look at an age-old situation and ripping up the playbook on how the universe works. It’s a glorious, freeing moment that’s as impressive as any CGI-created battle in this movie. I’d even go so far as to say that those themes ring louder than the more feminist-based ones that have so many people with their jockstraps in a bunch. The empowerment moments are most definitely there, especially when we meet Carol Danvers, an Air Force pilot and her best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch, my vote for the film’s VIP), the good captain’s human persona before she lost her memory and became Vers. It’s basically impossible not to be impressed by both of them as individuals and as best friends, both of whom serve as strong role models for Maria’s young daughter Monica (Akira Akbar).
The film moves among several timelines in Carol’s past, including moments when she is knocked down by life at ages 6 and 13, as well as when she was in USAF basic training. At a certain point in her career, Carol is mentored by a scientist played by Annette Bening, who has apparently invented a light speed engine powered by a mysterious source, which ends up being the link between the earthbound Carol and the part-human/part-Kree alien (thanks to a lifesaving blood transfusion from her Starforce mentor Yon-Rogg, played by Jude Law) Vers—and eventually Captain Marvel.
There are things about Captain Marvel’s timeline-shifting storytelling that are sometimes unnecessarily confusing. I’m still not exactly sure what the point or purpose of something called the Supreme Intelligence (also personified by Bening) is, and lifting the character out of the movie would not have been a chore, as much as I enjoy Bening’s presence in just about anything. The film’s soundtrack is filled with an eclectic array of ’90s needle drops, including a genuinely cool use of a Nirvana song in one key moment, that only adds to the casual-cool vibe of the entire movie. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just how vital a cat named Goose is to the proceedings. By now you may know that he’s more than just a cat, but even as simply a cat, he’s exceptional and important to the success of the movie.
If we buy into the overall timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel is the first of the modern-day line-up of superheroes (I’m excluding Captain America, since he would have still been on ice at this point), and like many of the origin-story movies in the MCU, there are a few rough patches in Captain Marvel that I think will be dealt with moving forward into Avengers: Endgame and beyond (think of how much more interesting Doctor Strange was in Infinity War, for example). At a positively brisk two hours, the film has an old-school action movie vibe that is a long-overdue introduction to a character who holds great promise in years to come.
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