After 10 years and 20 movies, Captain Marvel had big shoes to fill as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-fronted film. With the highs of Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok in the recent past, the bar was set even higher than usual, but while the MCU’s newest hero doesn’t quite clear the bar, it does a serviceable job achieving many different goals at once.
The basic plot is as follows: Kree warrior Vers finds herself stranded on Earth after a mission against the purported terrorist Skrulls. Still struggling with a missing memory and tasked with finding Dr. Wendy Lawson before the Skrulls do, her search leads her to the truth of her existence: she is, in fact, a human named Carol Danvers who was kidnapped by the Kree after she absorbed the energy from Dr. Lawson’s light-speed engine, an invention she created to end the Kree-Skrull war once and for all when she discovered the truth about the Kree’s genocidal intentions.
Captain Marvel’s biggest issue is that it is narratively hobbled by appearing so late in the MCU’s canon. Instead of being able to function as a relatively standalone introductory film like the franchise’s other origin stories, its primary purpose is to act as a bridge to Avengers: Endgame. As with last summer’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, shifting the stakes after the end of Infinity War is a difficult task. It’s harder to care about lost mothers or lost memories when the literal fate of the universe hangs in the balance. Set in 1995, Carol Danvers’ first outing must necessarily move slower, catching viewers up to her story before her (presumably) critical role in Endgame. Captain Marvel was tasked with integrating a new character into a decade’s worth of pre-existing lore, while also making us care about her and understand why her arrival in the present will be game-changing for the Avengers. The result is a slightly muddled plot that feels like it’s pulling the audience in several directions at once. Every single one of the MCU’s heroes but Danvers will have appeared in more than one film by the time they all congregate to take Thanos down in April. This film’s chronological proximity to “the final battle” means it had to fit the same emotional growth into one film that the men before her had multiple films to explore. It’s not particularly surprising that it doesn’t quite get there; that’s a lot to pack into a two-hour runtime.
Despite the need to carry all that logistical baggage, the film still manages to find ways to charm and delight the audience. Larson and Jackson are fun on screen together, and their banter never feels forced or overwritten. Lashana Lynch, as Maria Rambeau, is both believably skeptical of the new information presented to her and willing to jump into the fray when needed. Ben Mendelsohn is a high point as the film’s Skrull antagonist turned ally General Talos. His dry wit consistently injects genuine humor into proceedings filled to the brim with moderately successful zingers. And Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg is an effective and entertaining villain, even if his true intentions are telegraphed a little too obviously. His smarmy demeanor is pitch-perfect for a role that requires him to spend two hours negging the heroine out of using her full powers.
Unfortunately, Carol Danvers is the least interesting character in the film that bears her name. Brie Larson does her best with the material she’s given, but there simply isn’t a lot of there there when it comes to the script. Because Vers/Carol doesn’t know who she is or where she comes from for a large chunk of the movie, her character is essentially neutered personality-wise; she is a cipher struggling to make her mind into the blank slate the Kree require. As a result, the first and second acts of the film lag very badly. The pacing is muddled (despite some expert and entertaining fight scenes from Larson), and more than half the movie is over before it clears that particular hurdle. But once the story gives Carol back her memories, things ramp up at a feverish pace and finally start to be… fun. As she steps into her powers, Carol is finally able to reconcile the doubts that have plagued her in the six years she’s been living as a Kree warrior on Hala with the human life she led on Earth.
The movie’s biggest and most successful swing, however, is its decision to humanize the actors on the other side of the Kree-Skrull war. Vers has been told that the Skrull are a race of terrorists who invade and destroy planets, and that the Kree Starforce are tasked with thwarting them and the threat they pose to the galaxy. But like Black Mirror’s affecting episode Men Against Fire, she later discovers that she is on the wrong side of the war. In rewriting her memories, the Kree have also obscured the fact that the Skrulls are merely refugees scattered across the galaxy in search of a safe home outside the Kree Empire’s reach. As a “shifty” non-humanoid race who shape-shift to survive, they are easy targets for a genocide. Their existence lends itself to bigoted tropes about the eradication of the other. By having the titular heroine change her allegiance to side with them and dedicate herself to helping them find a home, the film provides a blueprint for how the majority can acknowledge and make amends for the harms they inflict on the minority.
Expected as it is, there is some merit to comparing this film to DC’s Wonder Woman. Like Diana before her, Carol gets her epic moment in the sun, but while the former’s No Man’s Land scene felt like an emotionally resonant fulfillment of purpose, the latter’s is undermined somewhat by our heroine’s missing memories. There is little emotional resonance to her embrace of power because her purpose was as yet undetermined. Captain Marvel does, however, improve on her predecessor by not succumbing to the “born sexy yesterday” trope, a trap that would have been easy to fall into with her amnesia being so critical to the plot. But while Danvers didn’t need “the power of love” to truly come into her abilities, it’s hardly an improvement that the film opts instead for a queerbaity best friendship to Maria Rambeau, unsubtly suggesting that the two were raising Maria’s daughter Monica (the positively sunshiney Akira Akbar) together as a family before Carol was kidnapped by the Kree.
In the end, Captain Marvel is far from perfect and retreads a lot of the same ground as Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, but it makes small improvements along the way. The film is neither a masterpiece or a calamity; instead, it’s a perfectly fun, entertaining installment in a larger narrative arc that’s very clearly working to set up the MCU’s evolution into its next phase. It’ll be interesting to see what Carol Danvers can do when she isn’t carrying the weight of the world on her back.
Captain Marvel is currently in theaters.
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.