There has been an unfortunate change in the conversation upon the release of Marvel’s 21st film and the first female centric in their cinematic universe (I know it should’ve been way sooner than this). Rather than discuss the film in question, debate has switched to the role of loser internet trolls lambasting the film and more importantly the fact that it stars a woman. Now I’m not planning on discussing this much further, one, because these are nothing more than pathetic man-babies and two, talking about them and giving them valuable media oxygen is exactly what they want. It is ironic really because at the heart of Captain Marvel lies the message that we should not have to prove our value to individuals who don’t respect you anyway. Yes the film does frame this conversation within the context of a man challenging a woman, but the message grows beyond that. Far be it from me to discuss this films place within the female perspective, but for all the outside conversations Captain Marvel focuses on grander messages. Outside of a couple of off the cuff exchanges about gender roles within the workplace (in this case the US air force), there is little of the gender politics at play that say Wonder Woman had at its forefront. Instead the theme here is finding oneself and the power that lies within knowing who you really are.
This idea exists within the very heart of Captain Marvel, and it is this that allows the film to steer things away from the usual superhero origin stories we’ve seen over the years. It’s been oft repeated that the MCU origin tales tend to follow a pattern, hero is born through pain, learns to harness their powers and must fight a darker version of themselves. Captain Marvel does have some familiar weaknesses within its craft but narratively it goes for something different. Mystery lies within not only the titular hero herself, but in how the film keeps her from us too. You see Captain Marvel opens with her already set and flush with power. Going by the name Vers (pronounced Veers) on the planet Hala, she is a member of the elite Starforce. A covert ops team that seek to protect their fellow Kree civilisation from the shape-shifting Skrulls. Troubled by confusing dreams of a past life that she cannot remember, Vers looks to her leader Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for guidance. It is a dizzying opening sequence, thrashing us through reams of exposition, introducing us to such foreign concepts as the Supreme Intelligence, the Kree/Skrull war and much more, without stopping for breath. There is fun to be had, with the banter between the members of Starforce and some solid, if hastily edited, action keeping you hooked. But you’re left feeling a bit lost. The film never easing its audience in.
It certainly doesn’t help that Hala is frustratingly ill-defined. Lacking the garish colours of Guardians or Ragnarok, nor the absorbing world building of Black Panther. Marvel have probably earned the right at this stage to feel more brazen in their settings, after all 20 films and billions of dollars means most are onboard, but introducing new worlds needs time. Still Captain Marvel moves with a brisk pace, and soon gains a strong footing when it drops Vers (literally) onto Earth. Well not quite Earth, rather the planet in the midst of the 90s. An era the film leans heavy into in regards to its music cues, even if some are rather obvious, and some on point internet jokes, but little actual depth. Most of it feels like any generic time period, especially as half of it is set in either underground bases or giant hangars. Still Captain Marvel has chosen its time period for more story specific reasons. Thrusting Vers into the hands of one Nick Fury. Green around the gills and far from the stoic secret loving spy we know him for, Samuel L Jackson steps in looking just like he came from the set of Pulp Fiction. Owning both his eyes (the film playfully teases at his ultimate one-eyed fate) and de-aged using some quite frankly stunning CGI. Although it has been used in the past, albeit sparingly, here he is basically the second lead so is prevalent throughout. Yet at no point do you question that this isn’t what he actually looks like, probably also helps that Jackson in real life is seemingly ageless. His loyal lackey Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) also gets a nice de-aged cameo, and their relationship is warmly conveyed setting up where we know them to later be with very little effort.
Throwing Vers and Fury together results in the rest of the film acting as a quip filled road trip, and oh boy does it work. Their lively, barbed but affectionate interplay is a joy to watch. In fact what makes Captain Marvel work so well is the bountiful character interactions, full of emotion, carefully judged humour and energy. It might well contain some of the best exchanges of any MCU to date. The narrative offering plenty of twists and turns but always rooted in engrossing pieces of character work. I’ve not mentioned Brie Larson up to this point but she is just brilliant in the role, and one of the main reasons these interactions work so damn well. She bounces off everyone with extreme dexterity, whether sharing heightened rage towards the villainous Talos (more on him later), charged emotion with an old friend or humorous jabs at Fury. Owing to the mystery surrounding her past, and the fact she doesn’t even know it herself means we don’t get to see the strongest internal life. There are only so many slow motion moments of Larson standing heroically clenching her fists you can take before you sorta need more. However she wears the pain of not knowing her identity with subtlety, gradually building herself up into a woman with immense power. And what power, Larson ably fighting her way with gusto. There is a stubbornness also which only adds to her dimensions. Her eventual realisation of who she is and what she can do is hugely satisfying, the film honing it for all the fist pumping effect it can conjure.
Surrounding her is a bevy of fine performances, but equally so some very smart writing. Scripted by directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck alongside Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Marvel continues the MCUs tradition of light deft tonal balance, but with some nice twists in the road. I don’t want to talk about its villain too much for fear of spoiling said surprises, but Ben Mendelsohn is given terrific material and gobbles it up for all its worth. His Skrull general morphs and diverts into fun unexpectedly heartfelt territory, allowing audiences to see the talent a number of other big blockbusters have sadly squandered. Also a huge standout, on the human side at least-wait until you get a load of Goose the cat, is Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau. A woman with ties to Vers (let’s just call her by her real name, Carol) their chemistry is believable and touching. Lynch wearing the sadness of a woman who’s lost her friend with convincing pain. A quiet scene between the two of them might be one of my favourite scenes in the entire MCU, carrying with it a potent emotional kick and importantly one never defined by a man. (This film blasts the Bechdel Test into little pieces). Add into all this a kick-ass Annette Bening and you have a cast to die for.
Calling the shots on this are relative newbies Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), Marvel continuing their run of giving indie directors a chance at a larger scale. They do a sterling job, keeping things at a brisk pace and allowing their cast room to flex. The tonal balance is also deftly struck. However it is hard to see who they are as directors. Possibly owing to the importance of the heroine at its centre, still it’s a shame the film lacks a distinctive voice. Not just in the rather flat visual palate (much can be said of the MCUs oft repeated dearth of varied cinematography), but the overall character of the piece. No Coogler universe building or Waititi surrealness here. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the film strong enough in its message to keep you anchored, but you can’t quite argue that the film wouldn’t still work as well without them. The action is serviceable but marred by choppy editing and occasional dips in CGI quality. A strange consistency in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how forgettable their action sequences are in their origin stories. Despite all that there are a few nice visual touches. A memory invasion as we journey through Carol’s past is a trippy, fluid flight of fantasy, and a couple of beats in the final act amp up the feeling of triumphant empowerment.
None of these weaknesses take away from the sheer entertainment value on offer here. Marvel have honed their films to a fine art now, maximising the journey for audiences with utter confidence. Captain Marvel may represent a much needed step forward in the representation of female characters in mainstream entertainment, but it never feels weighted down by that pressure. Drawing strength from its lead figure and the woman who plays her to offer something earnest, passionate and inspiring.
Verdict: Captain Marvel is flawed in places, notably with a rough opening act, but settles into a groove blessed with joyful character interactions and terrific performances, ultimately delivering a message of real power.
(Oh and the opening title tribute to Stan Lee is just perfect. Bravo Marvel, Bravo!)