It seems unlikely that Captain Marvel is ever going to get a fair shake. The 22nd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the bridge between last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and this April’s “Avengers: Endgame” has become the latest lightning rod to consume the discourse of the seedier and more outspoken corners of the internet. Like the 2016 reimagining of Ghostbusters and Star Wars: The Last Jedi before it, Captain Marvel has been reduced to a punching bag, an opportunity to play dirty pool with identity politics straight out of the playbook of the alt right, railing against the property for embracing social justice and political correctness. Whether that’s a remotely accurate understanding of the situation is a moot point. All that matters is Brie Larson spoke out about her desire to see a more diverse pool of journalists covering the press junket for the film and the trolls descended with full force, enough to require Rotten Tomatoes to reevaluate their pre-release metrics in the face of incessant review bombing. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that this, the first ever MCU film to star a female superhero, is the one that has triggered the ire of this troll army, but that seems like a generous take on the situation.
It’s interesting that this is the film that will befall such a fate considering its pivotal importance in the climax of this current phase of the MCU. Granted, we’re not exactly picking up right where we left off at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, but Nick Fury’s page for backup during the post-credits stinger seems to indicate that Captain Marvel is the key to the survival of the universe, and it would probably be pretty helpful to know who she is. That’s what “Captain Marvel” sets out to do, introducing us to Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree soldier with some pretty impressive firepower in her fists. During a mission to recover an asset before he is claimed by their nemesis, the shapeshifting alien race known as the Skrulls, Vers is separated from her unit and crash lands on Earth in 1994. Her commander, Yonn-Rogg (Jude Law) launches a rescue mission while she runs afoul of some government agents who might look familiar, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). The Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) have followed her to Earth, making it imperative she track them down before they blend into the populace and wreak havoc.
Often when discussing these movies, they’re considered via the genre that they inhabit in addition to being a superhero movie. Ant-Man is a heist movie. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a 70’s paranoid conspiracy thriller. Thor: Ragnarok is a zany comedy and so on and so forth. But, as a general rule, these are Marvel movies first and foremost, and they are very much beholden to the formula that has made Kevin Feige one of the most important and influential figures in the moviemaking world. And Captain Marvel is all formula, hitting the beats you’d expect in roundabout the ways you’d expect it to, setting up its twists so they’re easy enough to predict without being so heavy handed, capping it all off with a flashy climactic CGI battle and some post-credits scenes to bridge it to the next inevitable car of the franchise train. In this particular case, it’s not necessarily aping a specific genre but a combination of previous MCU efforts. There’s a heavy Guardians of the Galaxy influence here, what with the importance of the Kree and slightly-above-cameo level roles for the likes of Djimon Hounsou’s Korath and Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser, but it also feels like that first slice of Marvel Cosmic in the way it zips from planet to planet, spewing Proper Names all over the place. But there’s also more than a bit of the first Thor, with Vers playing the fish out of water role in 1990s Los Angeles, though she’s far more adept at blending in than the Asgardian as she discovers she has more history with the blue planet than she thought.
It’s probably for the best that Captain Marvel doesn’t spend too much time on the fish out of water side of the equation; we’ve seen it before, and Larson presents as pretty normal beyond her green rubber space suit. Luckily, there’s plenty for her to focus on. She strikes up a quick friendship with Fury, de-aged to a youthful near Pulp Fiction level by some fancy computer work that has come a long way since the waxy looking uncanny valleys of the past (Clark Gregg seems to have gotten less of the de-aging budget, and has a couple of mannequin-looking scenes). She has some connection to the world, seen through some well-staged visions and flashbacks involving a mysterious doctor (Annette Bening) and an Air Force best friend (Lashana Lynch) that serve as the impetus for a crisis of identity, her proud history as a Kree soldier seeming incompatible with singing karaoke at a bar with her best friend. Much of Captain Marvel is about this, and Vers trying to come to terms with this Carol Danvers woman she may have been. Larson sells the internal conflict incredibly well, convincing both as this no-nonsense alien grunt and the free-spirited American fighter pilot with a wry smile and a twinkle in her eye that’s been lost to time. It’s a rather clever decision considering the presence of the Skrulls as adversaries; she’s searching for her true self while fighting a force that purposefully hides theirs.
Indeed, the Skrulls work as a very good foil here. There’s nothing quite like watching Larson throw down with a surprisingly spry old woman in a crowded train, and Mendelsohn (still super weird seeing him in all these Disney movies) is his usually wonderful self, even when covered in green makeup. But the Skrulls also aren’t simply a faceless malicious force; “Captain Marvel” makes it clear that war is rarely as simple as good guys versus bad guys. Mendelsohn has to bear the brunt of that dichotomy and does so beautifully. And the Skrulls existence in the MCU opens up all sorts of avenues for the future, whether it’s a full blown Kree/Skrull War (certainly referenced here) or perhaps a Secret Invasion. That intrigue is when the film feels its freshest. Well, that and whenever Goose, the adorable orange tabby who effortlessly steals the show, makes an appearance.
We get plenty of Goose, which is great (and enjoyably brings out the softer side of the grizzled Fury), but we also get plenty of indication that this is set in the 90’s, which is, well, less great. The continuing trend of peppering these movies with as many pop culture songs as possible to do the work for them, which worked exactly once (Guardians of the Galaxy) and has only served to annoy since (Suicide Squad, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II, Netflix’s new The Umbrella Academy series) rears its increasingly ugly head here. Sure, there’s never an actual title card that says it’s the 90s. And sure, we don’t actually get the dialogue that pinpoints the exact timeline until pretty late in the movie. But the preponderance of 90s music, whether it’s Salt N Pepa, Elastica, Nirvana or Hole (or an awful, awful No Doubt moment), makes it impossible that you’ll ever forget. The opening sequence, where she finds herself stranded in that ultimate relic from the 90s, a Blockbuster Video, is enough to set the scene (or the Nine Inch Nails shirt she wears for much of the film), and every moment spent rehashing that makes it all the less powerful. It makes directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (most known for the Ryan Gosling drama Half Nelson and Mendelsohn starrer Mississippi Grind) look rudderless and insecure, unable to just let the story and the setting speak for itself without beating its audience about the head with reminders. They’re not the best at directing action, but the Marvel Studios machine makes sure it all looks fine, if not particularly remarkable.
And, really, that’s the word that dominates the mind as the credits roll. “Fine.” We’ve seen so many of these movies, lived with the formula for so long, that it’s so hard to think of these things organically as their own pieces of art in their own light. Granted, Marvel and Disney really don’t want you to do that, and there’s no secret why these movies are built the way they are. Captain Marvel doesn’t have the energy that a Ryan Coogler brought to Black Panther or Jon Favreau brought to the first Iron Man. All the edges have been sanded off to ensure it fits comfortably into Kevin Feige’s vision. That’s a shame, because many of the individual parts are so strong. Larson is a born star, so confident and assured, the perfect paragon for the first female-led Marvel film, even if it’s taken way too long for us to get here. She’s clearly going to be a big part of the MCU moving forward, and we are all the better for it. Jackson’s having an absolute blast, clearly not just playing the Nick Fury we all know, but a younger and more naive version who has never seen an alien before (and reacts to it will full fervor) and doesn’t know the full breadth of the dangers he is going to face. Law is the other major piece of the puzzle, your classical military male chauvinist who’s far more concerned with molding Vers into the soldier he wants her to be instead of letting her be herself. Sure, the script (from Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet) too often falls into the Marvel Movie trap of undercutting every moment of gravitas with a clever quip (surely this is a requirement at this point, for better and for worse), but when they let their actors breathe and, you know, act, there’s tons to love about Captain Marvel.
As the sort of white male cis film critic who so dominates the discourse, it wouldn’t feel right to talk about how Captain Marvel works as both a character and a film to the female audience who has seen them play second fiddle in these movies for eleven years, so I won’t broach that subject. But it’s plain that she is an inspiring presence even within the framework of the film itself. Look no further than young Monica Rambeau (Marvel comics fans will know that name), who is so awed by the power and poise of this woman. That’s obviously the aim, though from my perspective, I’m left wishing we got a little more from her, left wishing she could break free from the rigid formula that makes all of these movies watchable and so few of them memorable. As a long time fan of Marvel Cosmic, it’s still super surreal seeing famous actors like Annette Bening (who could have been given much more to do here) and Jude Law talk about the Supreme Intelligence with such gusto. But as a movie itself, Captain Marvel seems held back, shackled to the “fine-ness” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its wings clipped and a rope tied to its leg so it can’t soar too far from the nest. It’s fun, and it’s rousing at times, but it always feels like something isn’t quite there. It does the job it needs to do; we’ll know who Captain Marvel is and what she’s about leading into her pivotal role in “Avengers: Endgame,” and for Marvel and for Disney, that’s what matters at the end of the day. Mission accomplished, I guess.