Even casual Marvel Cinematic Universe fans remember how the latest Avengers movie ended. Thanos snapped his fingers, something not so good happened and all looked quite dire. Until a 90s era pager from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) connected with a mysterious hero called Captain Marvel who, we hope, can save the day. Zoom forward and we finally get to meet the mysterious Captain in the new film Captain Marvel.
Opening with a bang, we meet “Vers” (Brie Larson) on an alien world. She’s a Kree fighter, still in training with her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). She has speed and power, but no memories of her childhood and is constantly challenged by the need to rein in her emotions during battle. The Kree are controlled by a central AI known as the Supreme Intelligence, who, like the Boggarts in Harry Potter, takes on the appearance of the most feared person in someone’s life. With Vers, however, that person is personified by Annette Bening, a character Vers doesn’t remember at all.
The hated Skrull, galactic enemies of the Kree, are spotted heading to Earth, so Vers is dispatched along with Yon-Rogg and some other Kree warriors to find and kill them. But heading to Earth circa-1995 brings back lots of fragmentary memories and soon Vers realizes that she’s actually Carol Danvers and from Earth. As the story unfolds, we learn about her backstory as she does, a typical “hero’s journey” we’ve seen dozens of times on screen.
Things aren’t as they may seem, however, and without adding any spoilers, loyalties are tested as Danvers meets up with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, here digitally made 25 years younger) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, also digitally made younger) of SHIELD. She also reconnects with her Earth BFF Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s cute-as-a-button 11yo daughter Monica (Akira Akbar).
When the Kree vs. Skrull war comes to Earth in the person of Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of the Skrull Earth invasion force, all chaos breaks out. The Skrull are shape-shifters, able to take on the exact identity of anyone they meet, down to identical DNA. This leads to a fantastic train chase and fight sequence that spotlights LA rapid transit in a rather, well, aggressive manner.
Captain Marvel turns out to be imbued with great powers, so great that she is basically unstoppable when in a full rage. Clearly, she’s the Marvel get-out-of-jail-free, deus ex machina solution to be called in whenever there’s an otherwise overwhelming crisis. Like that pesky and uber-powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin) guy in the Avengers storyline.
There’s also a wonderful cat named Goose that shows up part way through the movie and steals scenes and Fury’s heart with its feline wiles. Or is Goose a Flerken? Either way, keep an eye on the cat, she’s cute as can be and a welcome heart-warmer for anyone who loves pets.
Which brings us to the critical part of my review, because there’s no way around it, Captain Marvel is not up to snuff with the best of the MCU films. Brie is unquestionably vivacious in the lead role of this first female-led Marvel cinematic outing, but she lacks the acting chops to really command the screen or even exhibit a full range of emotions. The first portion of the film where she’s learning about her history on Earth (reminiscent of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy) is dull and rather boring. In fact, the entire production falls somewhere between a big budget Netflix sci-fi movie and a Marvel tentpole like Avengers: Infinity Wars.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the DC universe female-led Wonder Woman. Except Wonder Woman is better in so many ways, from the fierce performance by Gal Gadot in the title role to the fast pace of her backstory to the spot-on CGI that pulled us right into her world (and then her into ours within the film too). My college-age daughter agrees that Wonder Woman was a much better film, by the way. I know, MCU fans will roast me for saying this, but go see Captain Marvel then come back and let’s debate relative cinematic merits in the comments section!
Marvel also has a hard time finding exactly the right note for its humor and it’s telling that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his snarky sarcasm has worn thin even within the cinematic universe itself, let alone with us fans. The best balance has been with teenage Peter Parker (Tom Holland) as he appears in the Avengers movies (prior to Holland in the lead role, Spider-man writers couldn’t quite nail it in the earlier films, making Peter too serious or an idiot who needed someone to just say “Shut up already!”). In this film, it’s Danvers who is saddled with most of the comic lines. Some deliver a good chuckle, but others are just cringe-inducing and should have been edited out of the final film. Note to MCU writers: Just because a character is young, they don’t have to be a smartass every single time they open their mouth.
From a technical perspective, it’s great fun to see both Agent Coulson and Nick Fury digitally made young again, and the tech has come a long way since the clumsy plastic face of Jeff Bridges in the entertaining 2010 Tron: Legacy. Even digitally processed, Jackson has so much charisma that he owns the screen every time he’s present and his interactions with Goose the Cat are unquestionably some of the highlights – and most amusing moments – of Captain Marvel.
Setting the story in the mid-’90s also gave the writers a lot of chance to poke fun at now defunct companies like Blockbuster and technologies like pagers. Inspiring but a tricky balance to not have the film itself feel like it’s actually a movie made in the 90s, just with better special effects.
Overall, though, I did enjoy Captain Marvel. She’s certainly a likable addition to the increasingly enormous Marvel Comic Universe and within the context of her origin story, she’ll definitely be a force to reckon with when Avengers: Endgame comes out in a few months. Is the film a great addition to the MCU? Not really, but as a character, Marvel is certainly an important addition to the Avengers storyline and will show up again and again from this point forward, just as Wonder Woman now seems to appear in every DCU film since that film did so well at the box office.
See it? Yes, if you’re a die-hard Marvel fan or want to learn more about Captain Marvel before she inevitably saves the day in Avengers: Endgame this summer. Otherwise, this is one you can safely wait to see on pay TV or a subscription movie service.