Film Reviews

We Were Promised a Captain Marvel Movie. We Got a Mediocre MCU Prequel Instead.

Lite Spoilers Ahead.

20 movies. 807,449,100 tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada. $17.5 billion in global box office receipts. 8 different movies led by a white guy named Chris. Only two movies directed by people of color, none by women. Only one with a female at least sharing space in the title role, Ant-Man and the Wasp. Last I looked, only two confirmed full-time female members of the Avengers and two for the Guardians of the Galaxy, although after Infinity War half of them are dead…for now.

After all of that, Marvel Studios and the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally has its first female-led superhero movie (Captain Marvel) and first female director, er, co-director (Anna Boden, directing with longtime partner Ryan Fleck). However, rather than give Carol Danvers – U.S. fighter pilot turned intergalactic badass – her own movie they shoved her into a glorified prequel for the entire MCU.

If you’ve ever wondered, for example, how exactly an eye-patched Nick Fury ended up in Tony Stark’s living room with a message about something called “The Avengers Initiative” or if you still have some questions about the plot holes in the first Avengers, this is the movie for you.

If, however, you just want an inspiring story about a woman overcoming great adversity and realizing emotion and strength go hand in hand, especially when you can shoot photon blasts from your fists, you can still get something out of this, but it could have been so much more.

It’s not all bad

The Marvel Studios machine is too fine-tuned at this point to release anything which doesn’t at least entertain. The period setting – 1995 California and Louisiana – leads to plenty of cheap, but effective jokes about the era. (Remember Radio Shack?) The cat everyone fell in love with in the trailer is cuter, yet more surprising in the movie. Once Carol realizes the true extent of her powers, hold on to your butts. Thanos clearly ‘bout to get his ass whooped in Endgame.

Two directors consumed by the Marvel machine

However, after the unmistakable stylistic touches directors Peyton Reed, The Russos, Ryan Coogler, and Taika Waititi brought to Ant-Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnarok, Captain Marvel rings as the first MCU title in quite some time to lack a real identity of its own. It’s hard to use the word “generic” in relation to a movie in which Annette Bening, playing something called the Supreme Intelligence, briefly dances to Nirvana, but, it applies here far more than it should.

That’s not how this is supposed to go. Marvel hires people who have a strong vision and grasp for story and character even if they don’t know anything about making blockbusters or working with visual effects. Their job: make sure the movie has humor, heart, and characters worth caring about. Everything else will work itself.

Not this time. Boden and Fleck, known for humanistic indie dramas like Mississippi Grind and Half Nelson, seem buried under a sea of MCU easter eggs, 90s nostalgia/soundtrack choices, and run-of-the-mill Marvel action scenes.

A performance betrayed by a bad script

Not helping matters is Captain Marvel herself, played by Brie Larson like she’s constantly posing for an action figure. The script she has to work with – credited to Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet – does her no favors, giving her a series of groan-inducing one-liners which seem intended to evoke the blockbusters of the era. The actors back then knew how to deliver those kinds of lines with the right balance of irony and sincerity. Larson’s stab at it just falls flat. Plus, The Long Kiss Goodnight banter/vibe they try to build between Carol and a (convincingly) de-aged Nick Fury is only marginally successful.

Allergic to origin stories

Really, the whole thing seems flawed in its very DNA. The storyline so clearly wants to break from the tedium of traditional origin stories while also still ultimately doing a traditional origin story. It’s a common problem in an age in which superhero cinema has become so ubiquitous it’s already been satirized in multiple live-action (Deadpool, Deadpool 2) and animated movies (Teen Titans Go to the Movies!, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Lego Batman Movie). When everyone already knows the tropes, how do you still surprise them?

Captain Marvel’s answer: tell the familiar in a jumbled order.

The plot

So, Larson opens the movie already powered up and living in outer space, with complete amnesia as to what her life was like longer than six years ago. She doesn’t even know her name is Carol Danvers, going by Vers instead. She lives among humanoid aliens called Kree and works in an elite military united called Starforce. Her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), preaches discipline during very Morpheus-Neo Matrix training sessions, though it sure seems like he might also be trying to simply contain her.

When a Starforce mission against an enemy race of shapeshifters known as the Skrulls goes wrong, she ends up on Earth where she runs into early-era SHIELD versions of Nick Fury and Phil Coulson. With their help – ok, mostly just Fury’s help – a race against Skrull leader Talas (a marvelously scene-stealing Ben Mendelsohn) for a MacGuffin turns into a search for the truth about her identity.

The least interesting part of her own movie

That means an awful lot of other characters, like old Earth friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), simply telling Carol who she is as she sits and tries to make sense of it all. This kind of identity crisis isn’t new in the MCU. See also: Star-Lord, Winter Soldier. Here, however, it prevents us from ever truly getting to know Captain Marvel as a character beyond broad strokes – barely controlled soldier following orders turned unstoppable hero following her conscience. Beyond that, it means we spend most of the running time simply waiting for her to catch up with what we already know.

She’s a soldier who definitely has a love for the fight. She has a temper and can be sarcastic, but authority figures have taught her to suppress that. She’s spent her whole life being told she couldn’t do things simply because she was a girl, but that just inspires her to get back up and try even harder.

It’s quite impossible to miss that last part. Captain Marvel’s feminist message is loud and proud, but due to the inherent deficiencies in the script we never really get a full sense of Carol’s moral outrage or call to action. Instead, in the end, the whole thing serves as an aggressively unsubtle metaphor for women breaking the chains of their oppressors and owning their own power.

Still, it’s enough to bring a smile to the face of anyone who takes their daughters or nieces to see this movie. In fact, my niece already has a Captain Marvel poster on her wall and I’m sure she’ll soon be flying around her living room, punching through pillows and blankets she sets up to stand in for Carol’s enemies. If so, Captain Marvel will have done its job and all my criticisms will have evaporated into the ether. I’ll be back for the inevitable sequel and will again love watching it through my niece’s wide-opened eyes. I’m just hoping next time around they combine the empowerment messaging with a more clearly told story.

THE BOTTOM LINE

As a jumbled origin story, MCU prequel, Avengers: Endgame set-up, and feminist torchbearer, Captain Marvel has a lot of masters to serve. It’s too much to ask of any one movie. The script puts an amnesiac on a journey of self-discovery but gets a little lost along the way. The lack of tension or a singular, easily defined villain simply adds to the litany of problems.

But the central, feminist metaphor is undeniably powerful. The jokes, as always in any Marvel movie, are there. Jackson and Larson have their moments together, and Mendelsohn can do no wrong. When Captain Marvel finally turns into a glowing, mohawked Superman it looks pretty damn awesome despite feeling a tad unearned.

In short, as a piece of female empowerment, Captain Marvel absolutely works; as a superhero movie, it’s a mixed bag but not so much that it’s going to keep anyone from wanting to see it.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

  1. Gemma Chan, Djimon Hounsou, and others are completely wasted in their supporting roles as Starforce members. We barely get a sense of Carol’s relationship with them, and by the end, they might as well be anonymous henchmen.
  2. Post-Credits Alert: There are two. The first is a mid-credits scene which can’t be missed; the second comes at the very end and is in the “cute, but skippable” category.
  3. I have a seen a plastic human and his name is CGI de-aged Phil Coulson.
  4. Fun With Publicity Stills: This much-debated shot is not in the movie:

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11 comments

  1. I watched this today. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t as bright as the other Marvel entries. The hook for me was the foreshadowing to which there is a lot. Nick Fury’s bad eye was on par with Hot Tub Time Machine’s Crispin Glover’s arm loss. It also made me hate the 90s. Slow dial up and returning videos or facing a fine. The beginning was a stark reminder of Green Lantern movie (yes I said it) but it got more interesting when they got to earth and Fury comes in. Nothing wrong with Marvel or her character in my view and I think she has a charm about her. But I m more memorised by all the de-aged characters. If Jackson wasn’t so well known I would never know it was CGI. Coulson less so. Not sure if they just poured more money into Jackson rather than Clark or just his face more suitable. Not since Rogue One have I seen so much CGI on an actor’s face. I mean t was only a couple of years ago we were all talking about Paul Walker then Carrie Fisher looking ropey. But then Marvel surprises us with a glimpse of Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jnr in their prime. Amazing but brief. So I assume i is expensive. Yet here Jackson is n so many scenes and that must cost a lot. I dd wander is the beginning of a new era for actors to replay roles in sequels though unfilmable because the actor has aged. Could we get Escape from New York 3 or Sean Connery back as Bond? I mean it must be more affordable or they would have given Jackson a hair peace and girdle.

    1. Re: The 90s. If I’m not mistaken, if you look closely behind Captain Marvel in Blockbuster there is a copy of Long Kiss Goodnight on the shelf alongside other movies of the era. It briefly messed with my head in a meta kind of way, because minutes after being reminded of that 1996 Samuel L. Jackson movie I’m looking at him digitally de-aged to his 1995 self. I kept wanting Vers/Carol to ask him, “Were you not just on one of those rectangular boxes in that strange store?”

      Re: Green Lantern. I’ve seen that argument made a couple of times now. I see it, but honestly, my first thought was The Matrix (the training sequence) and then Guardians of the Galaxy (they use the same font for the text spelling it out for us every time the movie dares to change locations). Except, like, really crappy versions of those two movies. The opening felt to me like maybe what Guardians of the Galaxy could have been with some anonymous whoever behind the camera and script instead of James Gunn. I might have gone there instead of GL, though, because I’ve seen Matrix and GotG multiple times whereas GL was a one-and-done for me.

      “I did wander is the beginning of a new era for actors to replay roles in sequels though unfilmable because the actor has aged.”

      As much as it can or cannot be trusted, Marvel reports the official budget for Captain Marvel at $152m. That seems pretty reasonable for a movie where the face of one of the main characters has been CGI de-aged. Then again, lots of Marvel movies have multiple major characters who are complete CGI creations and those all end up carrying bigger budgets than CapM. So, by comparison, maybe the work of de-aging someone like that isn’t as expensive as we’d guess. Then again, there are so many other variables that go into budget costs.

      I just know this: there is only one company in town that does the CGI de-aging process. Marvel outsources the work to them, and with each new project, it keeps getting better. CapM is easily the biggest test so far. We’ll have to wait and see how it turns out for Scorsese’s The Irishman, a decades-spanning mob story that will begin with de-aged versions of Pacino, DeNiro, Pesci and the rest. CapM had to do it for two characters and it only really works for one of them. Even then, it’s enough to convince the eye, but if you look at Jackson in this and then Jackson in Long Kiss Goodnight you see the difference between almost-human and human. It’s a minimal difference, but it’s there. The Irishman is going to have to pull that off for multiple major speaking roles. If it works then I agree with you – the possibilities of older actors re-playing their younger selves will stretch as far as a studio’s budget will allow.

      1. The irishman sounds very tempting. To be able to see those guys in the their prime. Although it needs to be more than just look, those guys have got a bit lazy with their acting with age (im still cringing at that rocky and bullwinkle film Robert DeNiro starred in). I remember they were going to make a film called 7 years with Mel Gibson as a retired hitman who then gets hunted by a younger clone of him. it got scrapped as too expensive to make and now Gibson would need 37 years. I suppose Logan tried to replicate that a bit and their is the potential of Vanne Damme’s Replicant that missed the opportunity. the CGI does get better but it does date badly too. I was impressed with Peter Cushing in Rogue One and my partner who didnt know him as an actor had no idea he was a bit of trickery. But he looks ropey now already. Likewise with Paul Walker at the end of FF7. So Im guessing Sam L Jackson will go the same way in years to come. Re your point on meta with Long Kiss Goodnight. Halloween H20 trumps that for me with them watching Scream while in Scream they watched Halloween on the TV. Somewhere there virtual kitty has exploded.

      2. “I remember they were going to make a film called 7 years with Mel Gibson as a retired hitman who then gets hunted by a younger clone of him. it got scrapped as too expensive to make and now Gibson would need 37 years.”

        What, they couldn’t have just cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt, given him a prosthetic nose, and called it good? worked well enough for Bruce Willis in Looper.

        Except, of course, it doesn’t. You go with it because of the conceit of the film, but the entire time you’re watchig you know that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t really look like a younger Bruce Willis and vice versa. A CGI de-aged version of him would work so much better. If only they had the technology.

        Oh, wait, they do!

        But as you point out – and as is true with most CGI – give it a couple of years and it will show its age. That’s forever been the risk with computer animation. The tactile might not look as good, but it doesn’t age quite as poorly.

        And speaking of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who everyone always forgets is actually in H20…

        “Halloween H20 trumps that for me with them watching Scream while in Scream they watched Halloween on the TV. Somewhere there virtual kitty has exploded.”

        I agree. That is an all-time meta moment. It’s kind of a horror tradition, though. Scream has a nod toward Halloween. So, Halloween has a nod back to Scream. Years before that, Hills Have Eyes nodded toward Jaws by including a torn movie-poster in one scene, and then Evil Dead one-upped them by including a torn Hills Have Eyes movie poster.

        https://bloody-disgusting.com/news/3417253/long-history-wes-craven-sam-raimis-communication-film/

      3. All very true. Apart from Looper which sucked because of that pairing. Cheaper wluld have been to cast actors who look like older and younger father and son types. Eg harrison ford and Anthony Ingruber.

  2. I loved it…my only point of criticism is the use of music and I wish they had lingered on some more emotional scenes a little bit longer. But overall I enjoyed it because it was so unpredictable (I am a sucker for unpredictable plots) and I can’t wait to see more of Carol Danvers with her cheesy humour and her little smirk!!!!

    1. My main issue with the movie comes down to character. Because of the way the amnesia plotline is structured, I feel like we end the movie not completely knowing Carol. The most effective emotional moment might not even belong to her but instead to Maria as she details everything she lost when she thought Carol died. Maria is pouring her heart out, and finally, Brie Larson has something interesting to play in response. But the movie can’t linger on it or fully explore it because it has to head right into the final action setpieces. Even if the lesser Marvel movies, I felt hooked by the characters. Captain Marvel just didn’t quite have that for me.

      But over the weekend after seeing the movie my niece and nephew played “superhero” in their basement. The niece, of course, was in her Captain Marvel costume and her brother was pretending to be Ronan. Now my niece wants to be buy some Captain Marvel comic books and read them to her. When I talked to her about how her soccer team lost this weekend and what Captain Marvel would do in response, she confidently told me, “Get back up and try even harder.”

      So, my quibbles over story structure don’t matter much when I see the impact the movie has on a little girl like that.

      I have looked at other reviews online and on YouTube channels like Screen Junkies. I see a lot of people echoing my own thoughts about the movie. Others who disagree. However, everyone seems to agree on the following point: now that the origin story is out of the way, we can’t wait to see Captain Marvel’s next adventure. That’s usually when these superhero movie characters truly hit their prime.

      As for song choices, I agree, but, damn, I still can’t Elastica’s “Connection” out of my head.

      1. Oh, that is easy: Carol is stubborn and has a tendency to take life “lightly”, tackling dangerous situations and constantly testing herself out.

        But that is not why I liked the movie. I liked it, because it was “feminism the movie”, and I mean that in a good way. I don’t quite get why people don’t see it, but I’ll try to explain.

        I loathe to use Wonder Woman has an example, but I was largely disappointed by the movie. I hated that she got settled with a chosen one backstory, and I hated that her big moments were basically posing and looking cool, with little in it which is actually related to gender issues (which would have been okay if not for the movie undermining the theme it tackled in the third act).

        Carol on the other hand, she has agency. SHE decides that she wants to be a fighter pilot, SHE decides that she would rather take the risk of flying experimental planes than doing nothing “meaningful” at all, SHE decides to go on this mission and SHE decides to cause the explosion which gives her her powers. The movie itself is largely about her reclaiming her agency instead of trying to please the Kree.

        And in this story, there is something buried a lot of woman experience, often without realizing it. See, when woman enter the workplace, especially in a male dominated field, they enter an environment which is designed by men for men. And often they are told that they have to adjust to this environment: Be careful to not act to emotional, dress as unassuming as possible, don’t make any smart remarks, the boys can get away with it but you should always be professional, play the game by their rules. But by playing the games after the rules set, women basically bind one of their arms to their back figuratively speaking, because they don’t play to their own strength (woman often tackle problems differently than men, but different isn’t necessarily worse…it even can be better).

        That’s why nowadays the recommendation for women in the workplace is to get away from those restrictions, to dress professionally but with a splash of colour/personal style to stick out, to NOT supress emotions.

        And now keep all that in mind when assessing Captain Marvel. You know, the movie about the professional pilot who is told that she has to supress her emotions to be the best version of herself, and who ends up changing style and tell the guy who pressured her into being a specific way that she doesn’t have to proof herself to him anymore after tapping into the true strength.

        THAT’S why I love Captain Marvel. It might not be as fun as GotG or Spider-Man or Ant-man. It might not have deep emotional moments you can only get once you have been with the characters in question for a while. It might not tackle big political questions like the Captain America franchise does. But thematically it sends a message which I think NEEDS to be send, even if only a few people really understand it. (Which kind of proofs Brie Larson’s point about diversity in film criticism. Because I doubt that many males – no offense there – would even have the chance to pick up on it on an emotional level).

      2. I understand it being a feminist movie, and I get what you’re saying about all the ways Carol fits that model versus Wonder WOman. It’s just the way the story is structured that blunted the impact for me. It puts us on a path of discovering everything about her at the same exact time as she is rather than letting us actually get to watch her natural evolution. By consigning all of the key feminist moments of her youth and adulthood to, basically, montages, I felt it was trying way too hard to avoid being an origin story. By the time she’s kicking ass while No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl” plays, I fully understood the message. It’s impossible to miss. I just didn’t totally feel its impact because of the way they treat Carol as a plot device to be solved instead of a character for a good chunk of the film.

        I have sought out female critics to see if this is just a “well, I’m a guy and I don’t get it” thing. From what I’ve personally read (online), seen (on YouTube), and heard (on Podcasts) pretty much everyone, men and women, have mixed feelings about the film, but the harshest criticism I’ve seen has come from men. So, Larson’s still not wrong.

      3. I certainly won’t claim that all woman would love it automatically. But I do think that there is something about the movie which especially speaks to those who have experienced or are aware of male dominated work culture.

      4. The way a lot of women have responded to the “I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back” moment certainly speaks to that unique power.

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