As Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige stated last year, setting Captain Marvel in 1995 allows Marvel “to play in an area that we’ve never played in before,” creating an opportunity to depict a nostalgia-filled era that has largely gone unexplored in Marvel Cinematic Universe films to date. Audiences got a taste of that fun leading up to the movie’s release, from its goofy interactive website to its video-store-style pop-up shops and its killer soundtrack. But the film could have gone much farther in making the decade essential to the actions and character development of the titular superhero.
Captain Marvel features an array of in-world references to the decade, such as the presence of Blockbuster and Radio Shack stores, Stan Lee’s Mallrats cameo, and having the most memorable fight sequence of the film set to “Just A Girl” by No Doubt. These moments ultimately accomplish exactly what Feige suggested; they offer that pang of nostalgia when necessary and allow the folks playing along to blot off new squares on their “I understood that reference” bingo cards. Yet, these references barely tie into Captain Marvel’s themes of empowerment and overcoming adversity. That lack, in turn, places the film in contrast with other superhero origin stories, in which the setting makes itself essential to a given hero’s journey.
For example, Wonder Woman’s setting during World War I brings Diana’s black-and-white perceptions of war into question, as she must contend with the harsh realities and complexities of one of the largest-scale conflicts in history. She is also forced to operate under a social context that devalues her identity, emerging from a land where only women rule into a world that requires the efforts of the women’s suffrage movement to assert the value of female voices.
The situation is similar for Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, in that we see him butting up against the culture of World War II both on and off the battlefield. Even outside of wartime environments, there’s something to be said for how Peggy Carter must contend with the workplace climate of the 1940s in Marvel’s Agent Carter series, or how Star Lord’s obsession with the music and pop culture of the 1970s and 1980s connects him with his parents and past within the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. These eras, ultimately, are all inseparable from these characters’ identities and establish direct obstacles for them to challenge and rise above.
That said, Captain Marvel does include a singular reference that fits that more complex description. Before 1993, women in the Air Force weren’t able to fly in combat missions. This is what motivated Carol and her best friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) to go to work with Dr. Lawson (Annette Bening) on her energy core project — in the late 1980s — as it offered the pair a chance to overcome a limiting circumstance of their time. However, that reference also went as quickly as it came and occurred in a flashback to a different time. And we don’t get to see how the Air Force culture directly impacted Carol in her past. We only learn about it through word of mouth.
Indeed, Captain Marvel’s unique structure with time gets at why this particular origin story can’t more fully engage with the culture that surrounds it. After all, much of the adversity that Carol faces happens in a past that she — and thus, by consequence, we — can’t quite remember.
There’s something exciting about films that take risks and go at an established formula with a non-traditional approach, but the risk being taken here ultimately hurts the film, as the audience becomes less privy to how the unique time and place of our protagonist affects her as a person. As a result, we don’t get an “ahh!” moment that’s the perfect mix of setting and character and theme all coming together, something that people can point to as the crux of why this particular journey, told at this exact moment, matters.
Ultimately, the ‘90s offer little more to Carol Danvers than a VHS of The Right Stuff and a painfully slow dial-up connection. At least we still get to see her rocking a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt.