Captain Marvel

Director: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Screenplay: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story by Nicole Perlman & Meg LeFauve and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet)
Stars: Brie Larson (Carol Danvers / Vers / Captain Marvel), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Ben Mendelsohn (Talos / Keller), Jude Law (Yon-Rogg), Annette Bening (Supreme Intelligence / Dr. Wendy Lawson), Lashana Lynch (Maria Rambeau), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), Rune Temte (Bron-Char), Gemma Chan (Minn-Erva), Algenis Perez Soto (Att-Lass), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), Lee Pace (Ronan)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2019
Country: U.S.
Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel

It took nearly a decade, but Marvel Studios has finally produced a film headlined by a female superhero with Captain Marvel. It has been a long, depressing road, littered with many failures (1984’s Supergirl, 2004’s Catwoman, 2005’s Elektra) that unfortunately gave rise to the perception that female-led superhero movies were inherently bound for disaster (of course, anyone who has actually seen any of those movies will recognize that they failed not because of the gender of the protagonist, but because there were lousy movies). While there has been no dearth of female action heroes in the various Marvel franchises, from Avengers, to Guardians of the Galaxy, to X-Men, there has not yet been a female hero standing front and center. And, although Captain Marvel has been in some form of development since 2013, it is hard not to imagine that its production wasn’t accelerated to some degree in response to the critical and commercial success of DC’s Wonder Woman (2017), a true game-changer that remains a superior film in virtually every way. This is not to say that Captain Marvel is not solid entertainment, but it lacks some of the moral and thematic clarity and visual elegance that made Patty Jenkins’s film such a stand-out—not just as a female-centered superhero film, but as a superhero film, period.

Based on the Marvel comic book character that was originally introduced in 1967 and has been through more than half a dozen mutations and reinventions over the ensuring years, Captain Marvel features recent Oscar winner Brie Larson (Room) as the eponymous super-charged hero, who we first meet on the distant planet Hala training with her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). At this point known as Vers, Larson’s character is an outsider living among the Kree, a humanoid alien race that is at war with the Skrulls, a shape-shifting lizard-like alien race. Vers has been with the Kree for six years, and she has no memory of anything prior to that. A brief, evocative opening sequence gives us some hints of a violent event that changed the course of her life, but it will take much of the film to reveal the details of her human origins. It is on Earth where most of the action takes place, as Vers finds herself back on her home planet where she teams up with young S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson)—the story is set in 1995—to fight against the Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). Along the way, Vers discovers her true past as a human named Carol Danvers, which then leads to her fully embracing her extraordinary powers (which begin with glowing, photon-blasting fists that can punch holes in pretty much anything and eventually lead to galaxy-crossing powers of flight). Lashana Lynch plays an old friend of Carol’s who helps fill in her back story, while Annette Bening shows up in both flashbacks as a mentor to Carol and in the present as the embodiment of the Supreme Intelligence, the A.I. system that leads the Kree.

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Tomb Raider) from a story partially conceived by Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Meg LeFauve (Inside Out), manage the interpersonal drama much better than they do the big action sequences, which should come as little surprise since their background is in dramas like Half Nelson (2006), Sugar (2008), and Mississippi Grind (2015) and television series like The Affair (2014–2015) and Billions (2016–2017). They cannily embed some here-and-now political issues, particularly with one group of characters that are labeled “terrorists,” but see themselves as displaced refugees (there is a consistent subtext about the nature of identity and how others seek to define us, which will resonate particularly with women and minorities, who are particularly susceptible to others’ self-serving definitions and labels). The big action sequences are generically hectic, although there is a nicely sustained bit in an enormous government records facility in which the characters’ attempts to remain unnoticed is undone by the automatic lights in each row that crank on with a loud bang. Boden and Fleck are effective in conveying the enormity of Captain Marvel’s eventual powers (which are Superman-like in their breadth and depth), and the movie retains interest largely because she is constantly learning what she can do. The narrative is a journey of self-discovery, not just about Carol’s past, but also about what her future holds.

The mid-’90s setting doesn’t hurt, as it creates space for jokes about slow-loading CD-ROM drives and allows for the inclusion of all manner of Clinton-era rock and pop music (I have to admit that I admire any superhero movie in which the hero spends at least half of her screen time wearing a faded Nine Inch Nails T-shirt). The fact that Carol is a woman gives the film an edge that it uses wisely (for the most part); there are some cathartic moments in which she is allowed to directly kick the patriarchy where it hurts, particularly when she slams her former mentor and assures him that she doesn’t have to prove a thing to him, an assertion that will ring joyously in the ears of so many girls who have been told that they have to earn what is usually handed to boys. Sometimes the filmmakers lay it on a bit too thick, as when a climactic action sequence is scored to No Doubt’s “I Am Just a Girl.” But, you can’t fault the film’s ambitions, and enough of it works—particularly the engaging friendship that develops between Carol and Fury—that we can forgive its excesses and lapses.

Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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