Marvel Studios released 20 movies before Captain Marvel, its first helmed by a solo woman, came to theaters. Semantics will say that women co-starred in Ant-Man and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly’s titular Wasp) and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow), but the Brie Larson-led Captain Marvel is a new experience altogether (and a refreshing one, at that).
Captain Marvel, set in 1995 and released in 2019, capitalizes on the ‘90s nostalgia early. The movie is the white foam at the top of the tidal wave of ‘90s-based art and culture that will be washing over us soon. (Think Stranger Things, but more aggressive and commercially-motivated.) The movie prominently features the Kree-Skrull War, an ongoing conflict between two alien species in the Marvel universe. As a long-time comic book nerd, I never imagined a successful live-action adaptation of the war, but producer Kevin Feige’s commitment to the periphery of the Marvel universe was clear with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy (GotG).
Vers (Larson) is a member of Starforce, a Kree special forces operation tasked with intelligence gathering missions that will eventually lead to the extinction of the Skrulls, a race of shapeshifters. Suffering from amnesia, Vers doesn’t know who she is or where she comes from. All she knows is her training with Starforce commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) and the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who takes the form of the person you most admire in the world. For Vers, that’s an unknown woman (portrayed by Annette Bening).
When a reconnaissance mission to recover a Kree spy goes wrong, Vers is captured by the Skrull leader, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). Vers escapes capture and crash lands an escape pod on planet C-53 (Earth). There she teams up with Nick Fury (a believably digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) and old friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) to unlock her past and end the Kree-Skrull conflict once and for all.
Directors Anna Boden (Marvel’s first female director) and Ryan Fleck, the duo behind Mississippi Grind, effectively adapted to the Marvel formula with a few hiccups along the way. Most notably, the amnesia plotline falls flat. Loosely inspired by a comic story, the screen version is unsatisfactory and suffers a predictable resolution. Larson, with her character’s past in question, is left with little to chew on. What she has, she devours, but a chronological script would’ve given the Oscar-winning actress more to work with. Further, dark and incomprehensible cinematography make Captain Marvel the least stylish Marvel movie since Thor: The Dark World.
Boden, Fleck, and fellow co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet do succeed in playing the greatest hits of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though. Winter Soldier, still perhaps the choice movie in Marvel’s catalog five years after release, saw fugitive Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow on the run from spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., infiltrated by Nazis. Captain Marvel is never more fun than when Vers and Fury are on the run from spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., infiltrated by shape-shifting Skrulls.
Disney, handling its golden goose with care, seems reluctant to introduce new characters without support from a recognizable face. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tom Holland’s Peter Parker got an assist from the face of the franchise, Robert Downey Jr. Here, it’s Jackson lending Larson support. (Black Panther bucked this trend, but Wakanda’s secrecy was essential to the plot.) In Captain Marvel, in addition to Jackson, MCU superfans may also recognize Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) from numerous Marvel movies and Ronan and Korath (Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou, respectively) from GotG. Super-superfans may recognize the Tesseract, the central MacGuffin in 2012’s The Avengers.
As a #90skid, the soundtrack, awash with No Doubt, Garbage, and Salt-N-Pepa, was a bright spot that complemented Marvel’s conventional heroic score well. The classic hits will draw natural comparisons to GotG, but songs failed to punctuate scenes so much as they distracted from them. A heavy-handed use of Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” toward the end of the movie was especially egregious.
Evaluating blockbusters on the merits of independent films is incongruent with the reality that we live in. Blockbusters should entertain through expensive, showy set pieces, inspire with a clash between good and evil, and represent the diverse world we live in with an inclusive cast and crew. Indiscreet sound mixing, dark cinematography, and a poorly executed amnesia plotline aren’t enough to dash Larson’s dazzling, intergalactic MCU debut.