The Marvel Cinematic Universe heads back to the 90s to introduce a new superhero in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel.
Avengers: Endgame is mere weeks away but in the meantime Marvel take the opportunity to introduce a character who will be important in that film. Marvel often excel in bringing characters to life and making them memorable in their own right. In general this is another example of their ability to do that though it doesn’t entirely succeed.
Carol Danvers -or Vers depending who you ask- (Brie Larson) begins the film believing that she’s a Kree soldier working with a special forces team in the ongoing War against the Skrulls, an alien race with the ability to shape shift. As the film progresses Carol learns more about the War, those around her and her own past before becoming the hero that audiences expect to see in a film like this.
There’s nothing technically wrong with Carol Danvers or her arc but there’s nothing that actually stands out. The biggest thing the film lacks is detail whether that be fleshing out the relationship between Carol and the other members of her team, exploring the past that she can no longer remember or the connection she has to her former best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch). All of these are touched on as if boxes needed to be ticked in order to make Carol a complete character but the lack of depth stands out. Individual moments exist to enhance parts of this such as the casual banter between Carol and her team or the clear familiarity in her interactions with Maria. The seeds of something interesting exist here but more work needed to be done to fully explore it.
Narratively the film is very clumsy because of that lack of detail in the storytelling. Priority is given to the mystery surrounding what caused her to be plucked from Earth and inducted into a Kree Special Forces unit. The answer to that mystery is far from interesting and most of the major twists can easily be seen coming. Focus on this means that a fully realised backstory is immediately lost as well as some other elements that could have been compelling with more attention. 90s nostalgia plays a major part through the song selection, gags about the tech of the time, props and a significant appearance by Blockbuster video. There are also references to 90s movies like Independence Day and Terminator 2: Judgement Day as well as 80s movies like Top Gun. Popular TV shows are alluded to both blatantly and subtle with The Fresh of Bel Air receiving some clear attention and deep dives alluding to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Since the film is set prior to many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films there’s a tendency to get bogged down in comedic foreshadowing especially where Nick Fury’s eye is concerned.
Brie Larson’s delivers a good performance but I had issues with how Carol was written. She has some great introspective moments where Brie Larson gets to tap into her range and show vulnerability but a lot of her dialogue was taken up by quips that might as well have been punctuated by a laugh track to solidify the impact they were supposed to have. I’m not saying Carol Danvers should have been humourless but the constant snappy comebacks became really tiresome after a while and could have done with being massively toned down. As with everything in this film the lack of detail means that Brie Larson doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to show off her range even in the more emotional moments.
Her strongest moments were with Lashana Lynch’s Maria. Even though Carol was entering into these conversations with no memory of her past there’s a casual familiarity to them that helps sell the fact that they are old friends who feel entirely comfortable around each other. Maria being Carol’s window into her lost humanity makes for a strong story that needed more time to really develop. Similarly, Carol’s relationship with Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) was really endearing and served as effective potential foreshadowing for what this character could become.
Another significant relationship with Carol is with Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg; one of her partners in the Kree unit she’s a part of. Jude Law doesn’t have an awful lot to work with her which makes the character less than memorable and he ends up going down a really predictable route that fails to fully resonate. As with most things there’s the suggestion of something much stronger here that isn’t given the time to take flight.
The absolute highlight is Carol’s buddy cop adventure with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who shows up de-aged thanks to the wonders of special effects. The work done on making Samuel L. Jackson look decades younger her is nothing short of remarkable. At no point did it seem in any way artificial and Jackson’s performance compliments this less cynical take on the character. Fury and Carol’s dynamic is a joy to watch; it’s comparable to the effortless chemistry between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in Men in Black without being an imitation of that. Carol takes on the “straight man” role while Fury acts as the window into her world as he learns that the universe is a much larger place than he first thought. Adding Clark Gregg’s Coulson as a young man was a nice touch even if his appearance was relegated to a cameo.
Stealing the show is Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos; a Skrull with a great deal of depth who takes on a significant role. His character makes for a surprising use of Ben Mendelsohn and his comic timing is absolutely spot on. Many of the biggest laughs are because of this character and his contribution to the story is narratively as well as emotionally satisfying. Another scene stealer is Goose the Cat. For the most part he does catlike things but many of the funnest moments are as a result of his antics and Samuel L. Jackson’s depiction of Fury’s attachment to him is best described as adorable.
This film struggles with the action sequences. It’s surprising to say this as Marvel normally excel in this area but there’s nothing here that particularly stands out. Carol’s power level certainly comes across which hinders the experience in the latter part of the film as she is so powerful that nothing can hope to threaten her. It’s an area of concern where Avengers: Endgame is concerned nobody can match her in terms of raw power.
In terms of action sequences they are all competently handled with the highlight being a sequence involving a train that is really well choreographed. The climactic battle by contrast is fairly bland spectacle and the others throughout vary in quality of execution. None of them are bad but they feel fairly typical for a superhero film and fail to stand out as a result.
Despite my misgivings Captain Marvel is a reasonable entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Strong performance can’t quite make up for a lack of narrative focus and easy to guess twists. More work needed to be done on Carol’s core relationships in a general sense as the development was very surface level. On a pure visual level the work done to make Samuel L. Jackson look decades younger is nothing short of incredible and is entirely supported by Jackson’s performance. Brie Larson’s performance is very capable but Carol’s arc needed a lot of work to really stand out and the character was written as too far on the snarky side. Ben Mendelsohn steals the show as does Goose the Cat who is responsible for many of the film’s biggest laughs. The action is competently handled but is almost entirely bereft of proper stakes or anything to make them stand out both in the film and in the superhero sub genre.
- the seeds of interesting plot threads
- incredible work done to de-age Samuel L. Jackson by decades
- the Carol/Nick Fury dynamic
- Carol and Maria’s strong and natural friendship
- the interactions between Carol and Monica
- Ben Mendelsohn stealing every scene he’s in
- Goose the Cat
- a lack of detail preventing any of the plots threads from standing out
- too much focus on a mystery with an obvious solution
- unmemorable action
- a waste of talented actors in some places
- Carol being a little too snarky
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