Synopsis: Look, by this point, you either already know what this is about or you don’t give a damn about the monstrous leviathan that is the MCU, so let’s just move on.
1. It’s aight.
2. Ok, fine. If I sound flippant or glib, it’s because talking about the MCU at this point is a fool’s errand. It’s too culturally important to dismiss, so anybody who is even slightly interested in ‘the movies’ has no choice but to be a Marvelogist. However, what is there really worth saying? The movies themselves are too high quality to sneer at, too divorced from most wider social issues to analyse as art (aside from one Best Picture nominated entry), and too perfectly calibrated as a monolithic entertainment machine to criticise. Sure, there are critics who claim that the MCU heralds the death of film-as-art, but to hold that opinion is almost wilfully ignoring the fact that four quadrant escapist entertainment movies have existed (and will continue to exist) since Jaws and Star Wars changed the entire business of motion pictures. If blockbusters are to continue existing (and they will), then frankly, the MCU is as close to a best case scenario as we can get, a steady stream of high-quality entertainment arriving in theatres every quarter. As a moviegoer, it’s a pretty great situation. As a wannabe critic, it is boring as fuck.
3. So, onto Captain Marvel, the second-last movie of Marvel’s Phase Three, and a throwback in more ways than one. First, the obvious throwback. Captain Marvel takes place in the 90s, and it goes appropriately over-the-top with 90s signifiers without ever devolving into camp. A Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and Blockbuster Video have special prominence, along with payphones and a pager. The soundtrack is stuffed with alt-rock hits and R&B jams, from ‘Come As You Are’ to ‘Waterfalls’ to ‘Celebrity Skin’. There are several posters of Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness in one shot. The other, less obvious throwback of Captain Marvel is how it feels like a Phase One movie.
4. The ‘Phase Oneness’ of Captain Marvel lies not just in the fact that it is an origin story, but in how generic it is. The title could not be more apt. It is basically Marvel House Style: The Movie, for good and for ill. Flat lighting? Check. Quipping? Check. Competent-but-never-better-than-that action sequences? Check. That ugly-ass washed out colour palette? Check. Solidly structured screenplay? Check. Unmemorable score? Check. No trace of directorial signature at all? Check and check and check. No offence to the directorial team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, but beyond a few lovely shots of an aircraft hangar opening and a number of bucolic scenes in Louisiana (which harkens to their indie heritage), much of the film seems to lack the firm directorial stamp that somebody like, say, James Gunn provided. I seriously doubt this is on the filmmakers themselves, for reasons I will explain in the next paragraph.
5. The movie Captain Marvel reminded me most of was the first Thor. Like that entry, Captain Marvel introduces in its first act with alarming (and ineffective) speed a raft of exposition on a whole bunch of cosmic mumbo-jumbo, before placing its protagonist on Earth in a (much better) fish out of water comedy and ending with said protagonist having to defend Earth from alien threats. Also, like Thor, Captain Marvel is content to simply be ‘aight’. No higher ambitions here. To some extent, I get it. Like the other origin stories, the goal here is to introduce the character and get her accepted by audiences with the bare modicum of fuss. Considering that Carol Danvers is expected to be a key cog in Endgame and in Phase 4, it makes sense that Marvel would not want to take unnecessary risks. And the best movies for Captain America, Iron Man and Thor are the second, third, and third respectively. So fine, I get it. But after the one-two punches of Thor Ragnarok and Black Panther, which were proofs of concept that the MCU could open up enough to include individual vision, to go back to this cannot help but feel disappointing.
6. Not disappointing, however, is Brie Larson. It’s interesting how doubtful so many people were about the casting of Carol Danvers, considering that the MCU has never once messed up its casting and, oh yeah, they cast a bloody Best Actress winner. Much of it, I suppose, is down to Larson’s look. She’s more a Ruffalo than someone like Johansson or Evans, and does not have that immediate ‘yep alright that’s a superhero’ reaction that accompanied the casting of Gal Gadot. It’s more of a girl-next-door thing that Larson has*, which is one reason she has been so effective in the indie pictures that she has starred in so far (including Room). After watching Captain Marvel, the casting now makes more sense. Carol Danvers, to some extent, is intended to be an Everywoman in a way that none of the other MCU heroes (give or take one Peter Parker) are. There is a montage at the end that sells this concept beautifully – conveying the idea that there is nothing ‘special’ per se about Captain Marvel beyond sheer grit and determination, and unsurprisingly, it is also one of the best parts of the whole movie. While I still think that the characterisation of Danvers is not quite as strong as some of the other heroes in their first outing, the writing and Larson bring more than enough to the table to convey who she is – brash, cocky, and resilient. I have enough faith that further instalments (including Endgame) will do more to flesh out the more than solid skeleton established in this movie.
7. On the less surprising end in terms of performances is Samuel L. Jackson. The man’s a legend literally playing a character that was based on him, so as expected, he is a hoot and a half as the young Nick Fury. It’s also a great deal of fun to see Jackson play a Fury who has not yet been inducted into all the weird superhero shit yet, and he has plenty of wonderful reaction shots and one-liners. The CGI to de-age Jackson is also quite amazing. While it looked a little weird on RDJ in Civil War, it has been honed to perfection by this point, which does give Marvel quite a bit of room to play with prequels in the future. And oh yes, the chemistry between Larson and Jackson is electric, and one of the best parts of Captain Marvel is just how much the two of them seem to enjoy being in each other’s company.
8. On the purported feminist aspect of the movie … eh, sure, I guess? I have (mansplaining alert!) my issues with pop feminism as a whole, and the movie never aims any higher than the ‘girl power go!’ surface level of Wonder Woman**. There are moments, however, like its portrayal of sneering and/or catcalling men (and in the very cleverly written ‘mentor’ character of Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg) where it strikes a note of realism, and I give Boden/Fleck and the screenwriters a great deal of credit for never overplaying its hand in the feminism stakes***. Carol Danvers is badass neither because of nor in spite of being a woman. She just is a badass woman, and I very much appreciate how the movie portrays her (and Lashana Lynch’s Maria Rambeau) with a quiet confidence without ever overstating their gender, as though it is a plain and obvious fact that women can be strong and intelligent and capable – because well, duh, it is.
9. And yeah, that’s basically it for Captain Marvel. It’s fun, quippy, and a good time. It’s also paint-by-numbers, bland, and has kiddy-pool depth. As a movie, it’s aight. As a cog in the MCU machine, it keeps the wheels spinning as smoothly as ever. The hero is well-cast and charismatic, it stands on its own while setting up future instalments (shout out at this point to Ben Mendelsohn for his fine portrayal as Skrull leader Talos), and it’s a fun way to spend 2 hours in an air-conditioned room. You are also likely to forget about it after a week or two, unless you’re the hardest of the hardcore fanbase. So go ahead and watch it, because since you’re already this far in to the MCU (sunk cost fallacy for the win), you might as well, but just keep in mind that in terms of the product served by our corporate overlords, this one certainly ranks among the most average. Hopefully the next one (and there will be many next ones) does better with the potential of Larson and the character.
*Important to note here that Larson is still inhumanly beautiful, because it never ceases to amaze me how so many male critics can talk about Hollywood actresses being ‘plain’ as if they somehow had a shot with them.
**Though as the unfortunately predictable Internet troll brigade has proven, even this mildest of notions can somehow send so many insecure menchildren into paroxysms of impotent rage.
***Besides, given Marvel’s past issues with its portrayal of women and how long it took them to come up with a female-fronted movie, it would be extremely hypocritical of them to play themselves up as a standard-bearer for female empowerment.