The latest offering from Marvel is yet another thoroughly enjoyable two-hour romp that introduces us to one of the cinematic universe's most powerful heroes and advances other background threads in interesting and intriguing ways.
It’s interesting that, given that she’s the first female hero to out-and-out lead a feature film in 10 years and 20-or-so installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Carol Danvers’ (Brie Larson) gender is never really discussed in Captain Marvel. Instead, she’s given the same sort of unisex treatment as Aliens‘s Ripley, playing the role of a badass whose gender never really impacts the story or the actions of those around her. What we have is still an insatiably enjoyable two-hour action fest that takes us from intersolar outposts to downtown L.A., but that kind of lack of thematic depth is indicitive of what holds Captain Marvel back from being a truly “great” superhero movie, and instead keeps it merely as a “good” one.
Set in the mid-1990s, Captain Marvel acts as a precursor of sorts to everything that would happen in Phase 1 and beyond (Captain America: The First Avenger notwithstanding). Given that Carol Danvers exists as one of the most powerful players in the whole Marvel roster (a fact that will probably be key to undoing Thanos’ trail of destruction in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame), much of the movie is spent waiting for her to realise her greatness, as opposed to simply obtaining it. This sets up an interesting premise, in which we are introduced to the already-superpowered Danvers (or “Vers” as she is known by those around her) as she suffers from a heavy case of amnesia, unable to remember her life before her superpowers but well-established as a warrior for the Kree alien race.
It’s a fast start, with Danvers plunged into an off-world mission within the first 10 minutes, and from there the pace of Captain Marvel rarely lets up. We’re quickly introduced into the interplanetary conflict between the Kree and yet another alien race, the shapeshifting Skrulls, who – according to the Kree – use their powers to infiltrate and take over planet after planet, before finding out that a group of Skrulls have specific intentions on Earth. It’s an insidious concept, and one that’s been used to terrifying effect in the comics, so it’s a shame that it’s not used to its full potential here. There are reasons for that, which are satisfying when they become apparent (and which I won’t spoil), but it leads the movie down a more straightforward route than it otherwise could, with fewer far-reaching effects on the MCU than hardcore fans may have hoped for. That said, when directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck do choose to use the Skrulls’ eerie shapeshifting abilities, they do so to gleefully shocking effect. More than once you’re left wondering who’s Skrull and who’s genuine, a real guessing game that keeps you on the edge of your seat for the first half of the film as Danvers slowly works out her real identity and past.
She’s aided, of course, by Nick Fury – a brilliantly de-aged Samuel L. Jackson having the time of his life with his largest Marvel movie role since 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The de-aging effects are startlingly realistic; aside from the first scene where we are introduced to the younger Fury (still with both eyes intact), I hardly noticed the effects at all and simply saw Jackson as a younger version of himself. It’s a consistent theme throughout Captain Marvel that the technical effects are brilliant. The alien races of Kree and Skrull are astoundingly brought to life with terrific makeup and hairstyling, Marvel continues its run of superb CGI with epic space battles and believable special effects whenever Danvers uses her photon blasts, and oh my word the sound. Watch this in a cinema if you can, for the sound editing and mixing alone.
But no matter how good Captain Marvel is technically, it is its script that unfortunately holds it back from being something truly special. Make no mistake – Captain Marvel is yet another exhilerating film in the MCU roster, and probably its funniest alongside both Guardians films and Thor: Ragnarok, but too often it feels like head producer Kevin Feige held Boden & Fleck back from creating the kind of wacky, outlandish tale that Captain Marvel is known for throughout the comics. Instead, we get Ronan the Accuser from the first Guardians of the Galaxy turning up halfway through the film’s final act to provide a far weaker threat than that of the Skrulls or the film’s other villain, revealed shortly before Ronan turns up, alongside some fairly generic set-pieces and heavy-handed expositional theming. Captain Marvel also suffers from the Solo effect, in setting up story elements from later films in order to please fans rather than to necessarily advance its own plot or themes, though to a far lesser extent. Then there’s far too little on Danvers’ place as a female hero; for all its final-act miscomings, DC’s Wonder Woman did at least dive into how gender can affect how you are percieved, and how it’s entirely possible to be femine and a hero.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. For what she’s given, Brie Larson delivers exceptionally as the often stoic but sometimes wisecracking Captain Marvel. Those around her also bring plenty of quality to their roles, notably the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson as well as Ben Mendelsohn, continuing his role as the most in-demmand villain in blockbuster film right now – this time playing the leader of the Skrull invasion on Earth. Most of the action set-pieces are also, as ever in a Marvel film, thrilling, whilst the ’90s aesthetic elements (especially the soundtrack) are used to crowd-pleasing effect. And, for what it’s worth, the current most powerful hero in the MCU (and its likely leader post-Endgame) is now female.
But I really wanted this film to be great. As the first of Marvel’s female-led superhero blockbusters, and only the second by any studio after DC’s Wonder Woman, I wanted a captivating movie that was unafraid to go a little bit crazy in the vein of Guardians or Ragnarok and which discussed gender and heroinism in a thoughful, nuanced way. Black Panther achieved the same with race and was a resounding global success. It does occassionally slow down the breakneck pace for detailed, emotional dialogue (with one notable scene involving Danvers’ former co-pilot Monica Rambeau, played by Lashana Lynch, standing out in particular). But, for whatever reason, Captain Marvel mostly plays it safe. It’s still fantastic fun to watch – more popcorn-muncher than snooze-fest – but the overwhelming feeling I got leaving the cinema was not how inspiring women could be, but how much I wanted to go and rewatch every MCU film ahead of Avengers: Endgame (especially after those two post-credits scenes). In the end, it leaves me hoping more for the future than celebrating the past as Brie Larson takes her first steps as Marvel’s leading lady.
Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, certificate 12A.