Watching Captain Marvel, a line from the song “Me and the Sky” kept running through my head. The song recounts the travails of Beverly Bass, American Airline’s first female pilot and the sexism she faced getting to that point. It’s at a point where she’s reached the point she always hoped to be, exclaiming, “Suddenly it’s not no one saying you can’t or you won’t or you now you’re not anything ‘cause you’re a girl.” That feeling of bucking against feminine expectations sits at Captain Marvel’s core. It’s a film about the challenging of expectations, and if it doesn’t take as many risks at it could have, it still works as an incredibly fun, female empowerment piece of cinema.
I’d love to talk about Captain Marvel without referencing her importance as an aspirational figure for young girls or the feminist significance of its position as the MCU’s first female-centric film. Unfortunately, a loud, angry, I’m assuming girlfriendless minority threw quite the temper tantrum leading up to the film’s release. I guess having double-digit examples of male MCU heroes just wasn’t enough and giving a woman her own vehicle was a slap in the face to their fragile masculinity. Whether it’s Brie Larson’s noted advocacy or just the presence of a girl in a previously all-boys’ club, pre-release reviews threw about the term “SJW” with abandon and led to Rotten Tomatoes eliminating its prelease audience review option.
The online trolling hasn’t hurt the film’s success. It’s performed well at the box office and serves as a warm-up before a scrappy little underdog film called Endgame hits the big screen.
If there’s one thing Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, understands, it’s the annoyance and anger women feel when they’re told to “smile more” or that they’re “too emotional.” The film makes an admirable point that emotions actually enhance power and strength rather than serving as a hindrance. Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) might have powers, but she’s a hero because of the tenacity and strength she had as a human woman.
After all, Carol Danvers only becomes Captain Marvel (initially known as Vers), because she was not allowed to fly combat missions and working for Mar-Vell (Annette Benning) was her chance to do something important.
The film is a zippy, exuberant Marvel popcorn film, but it is unapologetically feminist in a way that deserves championing. If I didn’t feel quite the same sense of elation to Larson’s “Just a Girl” scored fight scene that I felt when I watched Wonder Woman throw off her disguise and tear a path across “No Man’s Land,” it’s likely to Wonder Woman beating Captain Marvel to the punch rather than the quality of one versus the other.
For of Captain Marvel’s strengths, the film begins in underwhelming fashion. The space scenes feel a bit by the numbers after the giddy kaleidoscopic, whirligig of candy colors that comprises the Guardians of the Galaxy films. There’s nothing wrong with it, and it features Jude Law and Djimon Hounsou so it’s not all bad, but it feels slightly underwhelming.
Beyond that, the film tips its hand about the malevolence of the Kree Empire a little faster than it should when it shows that Ronan (Lee Pace), last seen acquiring an Infinity Stone and trying to wipe out a planet in Guardians of the Galaxy is the one giving the orders.
However, just when you think Marvel may have finally struck out, Vers, as she’s initially called, crashes through the roof of a 1995 Blockbuster, and the film finds a new sense of energy and fun.
The film is a nostalgia-drenched, scenic tour of 90s rock songs, beepers as cutting-edge technology, and computers take far too long to load files.
Vers also finds herself paired with a pre-Avengers Nick Fury (an effectively de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), complete with an intense, two-eyed stare. Honestly, the Hot Tub Time Machine-esque gag of waiting for Fury to lose an eye is one of the film’s best, with a payoff that is absolutely perfect and directly connected to a delightful cat named Goose.
Captain Marvel then becomes something of a buddy-cop, detective story, as Vers and Fury attempt to figure out what happened to Dr. Wendy Lawson and why the young pilot with whom she’s photographed looks so much like Vers who supposedly dies in the same crash that killed Lawson.
It leads to a resolution that has a bit more political bite than expected, as the green-skinned, shape-shifting Skrull initially seen as the primary antagonists are merely refugees displaced by the imperialistically minded Kree.
It’s refreshing to see a group that could be labeled the “other” reveal themselves to be the victims, while the species that appears most humanoid is, in fact, the monster.
The cast is uniformly strong. Larson nails both Danvers’ fiery determination and grit, while also proving adept at with the film’s comedy. Lashana Lynch does fine work as Carol Danvers’s old friend, Maria Rambeau, who finds herself faced with the friend she believed to have died. There’s even a nice Easter egg, as her daughter Monica Rambeau (a delightful Akira Akbar), another potential Captain Marvel.
Annette Benning has enough screen presence to imbue Mar-Vell with maternal warmth and her Great Intelligence counterpart with detached menace.
Law is clearly having fun, as is Jackson, and it’s always nice to see Clark Gregg’s non-impaled Agent Coulson onscreen. Everyone is game and seems to be having fun.
It’s strange to say for a film that is simply the latest installment in a multi-billion dollar franchise, but Captain Marvel has a scrappy charm that infuses the entire proceeding, meaning its faults are more forgivable because the film is too infectiously entertaining to dismiss. It’s willingness to be comfortably feminist and a rah-rah, girl power extravaganza only makes me like it more. It may be part of the Disney assembly line, but it doesn’t feel built by committee and should please everyone who’s still riding on the Marvel train.