‘Captain Marvel’ Review: A Hero Takes Flight, Eventually

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It took twenty-one movies, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally has a female-led superhero film. Captain Marvel could have settled for being just that, a superhero movie headlined by a woman, but it instead folds that theme into its hero’s narrative and character arc as a message of empowerment. The film could have also settled for being a mostly middling entry in the MCU, but it instead — oh, wait, scratch that. It actually does settle for formulaic entertainment with weak action before finally finding its footing and coming to life in the third act.

Our hero’s journey starts roughly as Vers (Brie Larson) deals with hazy memories of a forgotten life while trying to impress her adoptive civilization, the Kree. They’re self-appointed intergalactic heroes fighting a seemingly endless war with a shape-shifting species called the Skrulls, and Ver has been training under Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to become a fierce fighter with or without her photon-blasting fists. The key, he says, is controlling her emotions, and it’s something she has a problem doing. When a rescue mission goes sideways Vers is abducted by the Skrulls who attempt to search her memory for information they desperately seek, but their efforts also begin to jostle her amnesia in the process. She escapes to Earth, circa 1995, where she finds more answers to her identity, discovers the strength necessary to stand tall between the Kree and the Skrulls, and even plays a pivotal role in jump-starting Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) Avengers Initiative.

Like most initial standalone superhero films, Captain Marvel is an origin story. Rather than meet her as a “normal” person, though, we’re introduced to her as a scrappy and sassy hero shooting electric blasts from her hands and struggling to remember life before six years ago. Her journey takes her across the galaxy and through some very specific memories, but it’s a clunky ride initially as viewers are bounced around early on without context or a grasp on the lead character. We open in a dusty dream, we spend a brief moment on the Kree capital planet of Hala, we jump to another alien planet with competing species and a shape-shifting enemy that makes discerning differences moot, and then we’re off to Earth.

It’s a lot to take in, and very little of it is all that interesting at first as amnesia specifics aside the pieces fall into familiar place with good guys, bad guys, and an elusive truth Vers aka Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel needs in order to unlock her full potential. The script — by co-directors Anna Boyden & Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet — seems intent on subverting the normal origin direction by looking backward instead of forward, but it’s only as that experiment ends that their film finds its own potential and future. The answers eventually pile up, and the film’s weight finally begins to reveal itself. The “stand back up” montage used so well in the marketing works even better in the film itself as a collective response to the moments — and men — in this woman’s life who’ve knocked her down and/or told her that’s where she belongs. The film’s not subtle about its pro-woman stance, but it delivers both satisfying beats and laughs on the topic without ever feeling antagonistic.

Some story turns in the back half will surprise more than others depending on your degree of comic character knowledge (or in spite of it), but it’s here where dramatic turns actually deliver drama and engaging character beats. Unfortunately, they’re mostly with characters not named Carol. There’s no denying that Larson is a talented actor, but she’s tasked with breathing life into a character who seems to change in name only. Sure she discovers truths along the way, but she’s the same snarky, self-satisfied fighter at the end as she is at the beginning — albeit with a little more pep in her step. Rather than learn new things about herself she’s remembering old ones, and instead of an arc, Larson settles for a smirk. (She left Earth in 1989 so it’s feasible one of the last things she saw was Bruce Willis’ mug smirking it up in the Moonlighting finale.) To be clear, she’s an entertaining presence, but the film’s most powerful moments are steered by other characters.

Those around her fare much better starting first and foremost with Ben Mendelsohn‘s Skrull leader Talos. His motivations and antics mark him as one of the MCU’s more interesting and charismatic villains, and Mendelsohn’s performance nails the character with a balance of relaxed humor and desperate intensity. Jackson’s clearly having fun as well, and while he’s been brilliantly de-aged to look decades younger he does good work pairing that visual youth with a more casual, less embittered Fury than we typically see. (Clark Gregg‘s de-aged appearance seems to have taken a detour on The Polar Express, but yes, Agent Coulson is here too.) Carol’s best friend on Earth, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), delivers a much-needed jolt of heart along with her own hero moment, Law convinces as a man who really wants to help a woman as long as it’s on his terms, and we’re also gifted with brief turns by Annette Bening, Gemma Chan, and a few more returning faces.

There’s fun to be had here with the banter and physical interactions, but the film stumbles with its fight/action sequences. Choreography shows hints of energy and life, but it’s shot too close (or cropped) and edited to death. And while we usually know who’s involved in a given fight there’s no clear sense of the action or space around them. It’s quick movements and quicker cuts leaving viewers without an “ahh!” moment like Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s (2014) elevator fight or Wonder Woman‘s battle across the No Man’s Land. Marvel typically handles the action apart from the film’s director with second unit teams and such, but they should really just put Fight Coordinator James YoungThe Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) — on permanent retainer for all of their movies because the difference is clear when he’s not aboard.

The MCU is no stranger to characters who underwhelm in their standalone debut but then go on to shine in sequels and group efforts — I’m looking at you The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011), Ant-Man (2015), and Doctor Strange (2016) — and both Captain Marvel and Larson show that same kind of promise. For as long as it took to reach the screen the film underwhelms some in its drama and action, but there’s still a clear vitality in its hero making her necessary in more ways than one. It’s no secret that her next appearance will be in April’s Avengers: Endgame, and — spoiler (but not really) — the brief tease we’re given in this film’s mid-credits scene packs an emotional punch. I expect we’ll care more about her moving forward because she seems to care more now too.

Rob Hunter: @FakeRobHunter "Rob is great. He likes movies. He writes about them. And he's a good person."