Brie Larson’s lead character in Captain Marvel, who goes by several names in the film (none of which, incidentally, are Captain Marvel), is told early and often by various bosses and mentors that her decision-making is too frequently based on emotion instead of intellect. It’s the kind of instantly recognizable and utterly condescending remark that women have been receiving in workplace performance reviews since time immemorial. In the movie—the first of three in the moneymaking behemoth known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be released this year—the assessment is based on no real evidence, which also generally the case in real life. In both instances, it says more about the evaluator and their discomfort with powerful women than it does about the woman herself.
No one can accuse Captain Marvel, a cerebral jigsaw puzzle of a film about piecing together one’s identity and overall purpose in the universe, of being overly emotional. It would have been well served by a bit more of the outsized feeling the super powered heroine at its center is told to tamp down. Instead, it is a solidly constructed and engaging bit of scaffolding that, while fitting neatly within the overarching storyline of the Marvel movies, only occasionally reaches the Pop Art delirium of the best of those films. (Several of those moments come by virtue of a cat named Goose.)
That said, it has several things going for it that those movies do not.
For starters, it’s set in the 1990s. In addition to allowing the filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (2006’s Half Nelson) to wax nostalgic about the age of Blockbuster Video, Rock the Vote and the Altavista search engine, this means the film takes place some 15 years before Tony Stark first took flight as Iron Man. As a result, Captain Marvel doesn’t need to overly contort itself to fit the existing storyline of the other movies and can largely exist on its own terms. With the exception of a mid-credits scene that takes place after the events of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, the primary connection here is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), largely pre-eye patch and sporting a full head of hair, who shows up when Larson’s strange being crashes to Earth claiming to be a soldier engaged in a massive alien war, many galaxies away.
CAPTAIN MARVEL ★★★
But who is she? The film uses memories and flashbacks to stitch together the character of Carol Danvers, an ace Air Force test pilot with a troubled earthly past and also a massively powered creature from another planet who can fire off blasts from her hands and bleeds blue blood. The patchwork technique is both appealing and innovative. While it may be a Marvel movie, it shares a deeper spiritual DNA with movies like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, than it does, say, Ant-Man.
On the flip side, the film has some noticeable drawbacks that its Marvel brethren (and pointedly, this movie only has brothers) do not, starting with the performances. Larson never quite gets a hold of who she wants Danvers to be; she keeps shifting from glumly studious to smirky and detached. (Fortunately, she will have another shot at it when the character returns to be the wrench in Thanos’ world-destroying machine in Avengers: Endgame this summer.) Jackson, perhaps hampered by playing a character who is roughly 35 years younger than his actual age, gives a less full-blooded performance than we’ve grown accustomed to. Only MCU newcomer Lashana Lynch, playing a fellow pilot who is Danvers’ best friend and surrogate family, truly stands out.
While the film may be emotionally reserved, the same cannot be said of response it has engendered ahead of its release, especially among a small and vocal contingent who—for the first time in their lives—are feeling threatened by the inclusion of people who don’t look like them in their pop culture fantasies. There has been an attempt by this contingent to cut the legs out from under the film ahead of its release by posting negative reviews on aggregation sites, a reaction that is as depressing as it is unsurprising.
The truth is, this flawed but still entertaining film’s chief asset is its representation of a young woman who has spent her life following orders but is now finally crafting an identity of her own in a shifting moral landscape. When she finally takes literal flight towards the end of the movie, eyes and hair aglow with unimaginable power, it is the movie’s first true moment of both visual poetry and catharsis. It is also an indicator that, fortunately for us, the most interesting parts of her journey are still ahead of her.