This review contains as few spoilers for Captain Marvel as possible.
In October of 2016, a full year and five months before directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck got behind cameras and lead actress Brie Larson in front of it to begin principal photography on Captain Marvel, the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige made a momentous promise that awakened the slumbering masses: Larson’s Captain Marvel, the United States Air Force officer who turns part-Kree following an explosion with alien-DNA-mixing consequences, would become the most powerful character in the storied film franchise — stronger than Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, or Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, or any of the three Chrises and their respective heroes, and evermore relatable, too.
“It’s very important to us that all of our heroes do not become silhouette-perfect cutout icons. All of the Marvel characters have flaws to them, all of them have a deep humanity to them. With Captain Marvel, she is as powerful a character as we’ve ever put in a movie,” Feige said. “Her powers are off the charts, and when she’s introduced, she will be by far the strongest character we’ve ever had.”
That day came on Friday, March 8, when Marvel Studios launched Captain Marvel stateside to a legion of adoring (and, in certain corners of the community, angry) fans.
Captain Marvel was — as Larson herself assured — intended to make us laugh (“she’s really funny!”), show that heroes aren’t all brawn and butt-kicking boldness (“she’s fighting between the flaws that are within her and all this good she wants to try and spread and make the world a better place”), and allow us to take her exactly as she is (“she can’t help but be herself.”) She was — as Feige vowed those two and a half years ago now — meant to wing her way into cinemas, a streak of white-hot cosmic power streaming behind her, and into our lives — with a leather jacket on, a bit of blue blood trickling from her nose, her tongue firmly in her cheek, and her heart on her sleeve.
So, did she?
In the indelible words of one Walter White, you’re goddamn right she did.
There is a difference between walking into a theater hoping to love a movie, and entering a screening feeling like you should love it, like if you experience anything other than unbridled joy at the cinematic story splaying out across the silver screen, you’ll be denounced as a Bad Film Critic — or, worst yet, a Bad Feminist. The latter is an emotion I’ve experienced a hundred times over. I wanted to love The Favourite (I did, very much, thank you). I wanted to love Bad Times at the El Royale (I did, mostly). I wanted to love Serenity (I extremely did not, kittenish blonde Anne Hathaway and a deeply-invested-in-this-project Matthew McConaughey be damned to hell and back). With Captain Marvel, a tingling in my chest told me that Larson would sweep me up into the stratosphere and beyond — using all the natural charms with which her homeschooled California girl-next-door upbringing has imbued her, all the finesse and artistry she’s acquired as an Oscar-winning actress, all the lovability and warmth and crackling mirth of Carol Danvers to completely beguile me. Captain Marvel is a superhero whom I’ve long admired; her solo story should be one I adore, too.
And I did.
That I am a female film critic and feminist does not guarantee from me a glowing review of a female-led superhero flick. Neither does my open love for Larson’s talents as an actress (she has been to me, like she has to so many others, a superhero for far more time than she has worn the Captain Marvel suit), or my penchant for films that place women at the helm to steer the ship toward hoped success. That Captain Marvel is an exuberant, ebullient film that rings loud, clear, right on pitch, and with a Nirvana-and-Riotgrrl-laced soundtrack within the Marvel Cinematic and works on its own even without the blueprint of its predecessors to follow does.
Set in 1995 Los Angeles, Captain Marvel opens in a place as dissimilar from the City of Angels as they come. We meet Vers — the name given to half-human, half-kree Carol Danvers post-plane crash and super-power-granting explosion — on the planet Hala. She’s having trouble sleeping, she tells her superior, a no-nonsense warrior named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). He argues that the dreams and nightmares of her past life that haunt her are holding her back from realizing her full potential as a member of the Starforce, an elite unit of Kree mercenaries tasked with hunting down their shape-shifting alien foes, the Skrulls. Yon-Rogg suggests a swallowing of emotion, or, for you John Mulaney fans out there, the Irish approach of dealing with discomfort: holding feelings inside until, one day, you die.
After a round of fisticuffs with Yon-Rogg and a meeting with the Supreme Intelligence, the A.I. leader of the Kree who manifests as the figure one admires most, Vers is confident she can carry out a search-and-rescue mission to bring back Kree spy Soh-Larr (Chuku Modu). Unfortunately, things don’t go nearly as swimmingly as the Starforce crew — which includs Yon-Rogg, Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan), and Korath (Djimon Hounsou) — hope.
Vers winds up in the hands of Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who extracts from her subconscious memories he intends to use to carry out his own secretive plans. With Photon blast-enabled fists, Vers escapes Skrull detainment and heads to Earth, crash-landing into a Blockbuster video store and later meeting up with S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (and not yet director) Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, who was impeccably de-aged for the film). She relays to him the ongoing war between the Krees and the Skrulls, punches out an old lady (a Skrull in disguise, calm down) on a bus, and steals a misogynistic dude’s motorcycle and the clothes off a parking lot mannequin.
It’s a bit of lead-up to get to the meat of the story — Vers discovering she’s Carol Danvers and learning the truth about what happened to her before she landed on Hala and joined the Kree Starforce — but when Boden and Fleck, who wrote the script with Tomb Raider scribe Geneva Robertson-Dworet, bring us to that place, Captain Marvel blooms beautifully. While Boden and Fleck do go big with Captain Marvel’s action, they also dig deep into scaled-down moments — something the filmmaking duo had done in their past works (Mississippi Grind and Half Nelson, namely). Scenes interspersed between knock-down, drag-out alien fights and space-faring travels through the stars and flips through the out-of-order Rolodex of Carol’s mind are little wonders that stick to your ribs. Carol and her closest friend and fellow pilot (who’s more like a sister and a beacon of light in the darkness) Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) embracing in the soft Louisiana grass, and a smattering of moments involving Talos are but a few of these treasures.
Captain Marvel, the film, exists as Captain Marvel, the hero, does: with duality. It is both an epic adventure that swings for the stars and an intimate journey of a young woman rediscovering her identity, her morality, her strength — then running free with it, letting it unfurl behind her in wide, wondrous ribbons. It is both fiercely funny, maintaining a current of humor that rises at just the right time every single time, and earnest without being saccharine. It is as big as the universe and as down-to-earth as Planet C-53 itself. But the film never fights against itself, not like the woman for which it’s named; it unravels with aplomb, allowing for Carol to brush the cobwebs out from her mind, dust off old photographs that reveal to her her forgotten identity, and make major, life-altering, whoop-whoop-inducing choices. And those yelps of joy do come, believe you me.
That’s majorly thanks to Larson, who turns in a first-rate performance as Captain Marvel, tapping into the moxie of her Short Term 12 role and melting away the hardened nature that won her an Academy Award for Room. As if she’s been walking a tightrope her entire life, Larson rides the line between the woman other people have taught her to be — Vers, the Kree warrior learning to reject her emotions and fight for the betterment of the alien race who took her in — and the woman she is — Carol, a confused former Air Force pilot who loves karaoke, her best friend, Top Gun, and doing the right thing even when it’s scary. Larson, a pick for Captain Marvel some have disagreed with from the get-go, silences naysayers as she dissolves into the role, never once asking, “Marvel, may I spread my wings? Unleash my power? Kick some ass?” The actress and the hero simply do it — no permission required.
Her interplay with Jackson’s Fury is fantastic, capturing a very “Buddy Cops in a Comedy Pic” vibe; her dynamic with Lynch’s Maria (who deserves praise aplenty) is heart-rending and emblematic of the kinds of complex relationships women everywhere have; and her determination to prove her worth to no one but herself is, funnily enough, what will likely turn former skeptics into brand-new believers. In a word, Larson as Captain Marvel is sublime. She is someone many will want to know, and even more will want to be.
On the topic of shining performances, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn is a powerhouse in Captain Marvel as the green-faced, grimacing Talos. He steals seconds from every single scene he’s in, and it’s near impossible not to love it. Annette Bening, too, is phenomenal, though fear of spoiling the film’s twisty plot keeps me from divulging the full scope of her brilliance (and Mendelsohn’s as well).
Jude Law is positively Jude Law-y here (and I mean that in the best of ways), with Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, and Gemma Chan offering their own sparkle to the celestial hero’s coming-into-power tale.
If this were a game of the now-defunct @midnight, points would be doled out in abundance to:
- Goose, a rare cat adorable and unpredictable enough to make even the staunchest of dog-lovers question their stance on the canine-versus-feline debate
- Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, who isn’t in Captain Marvel as much as a Phil Phan (I said what I said) would like but does spin sweetness and sincerity in the scenes in which he’s featured
- the weaving-in of commentary on and exploration of refugees (yes, really) that feels particularly timely and resonant in the Year of Our Lord 2019 and in Trump’s America
- all the nods to girl- and woman-hood
- the terrifyingly dead-on mirroring of a mentor-mentee relationship to that of a manipulative man and his partner
- a tribute to Stan Lee that brings the house down before things even get started
- Pinar Toprak’s tasty, synthesized score that evokes Doctor Who phantasmagoria
- the post-credits link to Avengers: Endgame
- and That Use of No Doubt’s “Just A Girl.” (If you’ve seen Captain Marvel, you’ll know the one. If not, anticipate magic.)
Tally-marks would be taken away for:
- the dipping and dropping into genre conventions
- the oddly frantic feel that stains the first 20 or so minutes of the film (the mental puzzle-piecing sequence is a little hard to keep up with and isn’t delivered with as much confidence Boden and Fleck are capable of)
- and one particular quip from an ultimately meaningless character that will be a little too on-the-nose for most people’s tastes.
When stacked up next to the MCU movies that came before it, Captain Marvel gleams with a high shine. It isn’t as zany as Thor: Ragnarok. It isn’t as dark and serious as, say, Captain America: Civil War. It isn’t as campy and quirky and relentlessly silly as either of James Gunn’s Guardians installments. And it’s better for it, feeling much like a the super-charged, spunky sister of Ant-Man and Spider-Man: Homecoming rather than coming across so larger-than-life and august as Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther (though both the latter and Captain Marvel do expertly and effortlessly examine sundry social themes).
The film is exactly what it’s intended to be and what the creative team ventured to craft — an origin story that zizzes with wit, action, ‘90s nostalgia, and grrrl power — and a rock-solid addition to the already incredible, double-digit-old cinematic universe it’s now a part of. At every turn, Captain Marvel feels unique to what Marvel has done in years past, despite rocking along to some of the same beats and, well, being the studio’s 21st superhero movie released in 11 years.
When Captain Marvel wins the war in her first solo outing in the MCU, it feels like she’s also won a battle raging in the real world, taking on spiteful review-bombers and incels and Men’s Rights Activists who misconstrued Larson’s remarks about inclusivity and diversity and who seemingly don’t want a woman at the forefront of the movie world they feel they must protect. She faced off against gate-keepers, and grabbed the torches from their hands. And that’s not just saying something — it’s shouting it.
On this International Women’s Day 2019, the air is thick and sparkling with voices of female-identifying people shouting out the women they admire and illuminating the accomplishments they’ve made. It’s particularly fitting that Captain Marvel — a film that displays its heart and humor and girl-power message of strength and self-confidence in times of uncertainty out in the open — should debut into the peachiness of it all, into the celebration of femininity in all forms.
In loving Captain Marvel, I can recognize it may not rouse the same emotions in others as it did in me, that not all women will love it in the manner or with the intensity I did, and that those who were underwhelmed or unimpressed by it aren’t exclusively men.
But from my vantage point, even with the kind of tears in my eyes only extra-special films inspire, I see Captain Marvel soaring — taking me, women and men of all kinds, young girls and boys who will grow into the next generation of trailblazers and groundbreakers, and the whole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe exactly where she promised she would: higher, further, faster.