It’s fair to say that “Captain Marvel” – the 21st entry in the franchise to rule all franchises, and in many ways its most pragmatic – is arriving at a bit of a crossroads for this ever-blossoming superhero saga 11 years after it began.
More accurately, it itself is the crossroads; another origin story for another superbeing whose name hadn’t been uttered in over 40 hours of films, and yet the story of a hero with pre-ordained expectations of the highest order, thanks to a post-credits stinger, a pager and a logo that sent the Internet into a frenzy last April.
With “Captain Marvel,” our MCU overlords ask us to forget, if for a couple hours, about half of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes being reduced to dust, and instead shift our gaze to Kree and Skrulls, a disorienting story that feels three steps ahead of the audience in the worst of ways, and Carol Danvers’s introduction as already one of the MCU’s most charismatic figures in spite of it. The miracle of overcoming one of the more ill-advised MCU narratives in recent years isn’t quite achieved, but the superhuman strength on display in the last bits of the movie by its titular hero should have Thanos sweating.
It speaks to the MCU’s complex timeline that it’s as tempting as it is plain wrong to allege that “Captain Marvel” takes place earlier than anything else we’ve seen in the films. While that isn’t the case, the important thing to know is it unfolds two decades or so before the fateful Snap Felt Round The World, and before the Avengers Initiative was realized by a one-eyed Nick Fury. Signs of superheroes walking among us have been few, if there have been any at all, and Earth has yet to be subjugated to alien invasion. Or so we think.
Keeping in lockstep with the MCU’s recent fascination with the cosmos, we first meet Carol on the Kree homeworld of Hala, where she is referred to as Vers. Clearly unaware of where she is originally from and haunted by what may or may not be memories of a much different life, Vers already has some semblance of the powers that would deem her a protector on Earth; on Hala, they reinforce her as a military grunt in the war against the Skrulls, albeit one who will unlock her true potential once she lets go of her emotions.
Or so she’s told by her male superior, a mansplaining Jude Law. “Captain Marvel” wears its subtext on its spandex sleeves.
But you’d be forgiven if you don’t catch all that in the first act of “Captain Marvel,” the first 45ish minutes firing off bits of exposition in rapid-fire fashion. One of the ways the MCU has matured over its 11-year life is its resolution to be more patient when building up the worlds and individual circumstances of its characters, particularly in their debuts. But that patience isn’t a thing “Captain Marvel” takes care to exercise. We meet several characters we’d like to believe are important in a matter of minutes, but we’re on to the next so fast that we’re unable to render judgement or make any sort of connection. It’s an issue that remains consistent over the film’s two hours (and it feels much, much longer).
And as much as Brie Larson feels great for the role, the script doesn’t do her any favors. For nearly a year we’ve been asked to buy an apocalypse-reversal’s amount of stock in Vers, or at least who she will become, but “Captain Marvel” barely gives us time or reason to discover who she is at the start.
Things takes a turn for the surreal (and nonsensically jumbled) when Vers is captured by the enemy Skrulls on a mission. They begin dissecting her mind, obviously searching for something we can’t quite put our finger on while flashing through fragments of a life on Earth, where Vers eventually crash-lands after blasting her way through the Skrulls, as superbeings do.
Discoveries are made, one-liners quipped and blurry action orchestrated as Vers begins to piece together fragments of a life she’s starting to believe was real, sparking an Easter egg hunt of a plot that loves to mistake twists for basic story beats. “Captain Marvel” isn’t so much an origin story as one of rediscovery and enlightenment, one whose narrative and characterization are working in retrograde, for better or worse.
It turns out it’s much more of the latter. The movie’s several writers construct a puzzle of a movie, but it seems like only they know what the final image should be. “Captain Marvel” assumes we’ll sympathize with characters we’ve only just met, be surprised by story developments we couldn’t have foreseen and be charmed with a mid-90s pop culture aesthetic manifested with surface-level reverence. It smells like cheap spirit when blatant musical cues and iconography don’t necessarily go anywhere; if it wasn’t for them, you’d be hard-pressed to remember “Captain Marvel” doesn’t unfold in the land before online time.
At least, until Vers crosses paths with a de-aged (to spectacular effect) Nick Fury, still with both eyes and displaying even more of that trademark Samuel L. Jackson wisecrackery than we get later in the MCU chronology. For how underwhelming “Captain Marvel” is in its suspense, the buddy-road-trip movie that runs simultaneous is endearing, fueled by comradery between Jackson and Larson that immediately makes for one of the MCU’s best pairings with its enticing chemistry. Larson is able to match every bit of what we already know SLJ will bring to the table.
Larson herself, despite Vers’s core essence feeling strangely shunted for much of “Captain Marvel,” is – I apologize – a marvel. She goes through the gamut over the course of the movie, a fish out of intergalactic water that endures an arc of discovery so large other characters might experience it over the course of an entire trilogy, and Larson makes an all-encapsulating performance – the humor, the steely resolve, the charisma that netted her an Oscar – wholly believable. Is it the best leading performance in 11 years of the MCU? The argument could be made.
It’s a testament to Larson’s performance that, despite how rough the journey is, the eventual emotional climax is a clear high point, somehow pulled off in stunningly satisfying fashion. “Captain Marvel” may serve as a $150 million puzzle piece maximizing excitement for “Avengers: Endgame” to overzealous levels, but the core of its pathos hits home—a nice reminder of the universality of strength, and an even more subtler testament to how much more women have to endure every minute. “Captain Marvel” feels like the MCU’s most democratic entry so far (leaning on 20-plus films of precedent will do that), and it can be argued that Carol is arriving either too early or too late in this universe. But she nonetheless is arriving at the perfect time in our own.
What ends up being “Captain Marvel’s” most disappointing bait-and-switch should also probably be its most predictable. You don’t realize how welcomingly low-stakes Carol Danvers’s story has been until it becomes one of immediate intergalactic consequence. Right when the MCU might have us believe that it’s avoided the same temptation that nearly led its story to crush an actual continent or enslave entire metropolises on Earth, it reminds us that this is still the MCU, meaning spectacle will (usually) triumph over character.
The reason is clear, even if the justification isn’t: To show the full extent of Danvers’s powers, checking off the MCU-mandated eye candy requirement with expendable fire and fury. But trusting our capability to infer the extent of what Danvers can do by film’s end would have been a much more confident choice by the movie—certainly one more worthy of its heroine.
“Captain Marvel” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck