"Captain Marvel" (in theaters March 8) is the 21st Marvel movie, the last one before "Avengers: Endgame" and the first to be focused on a woman. Brie Larson's Carol Danvers (a.k.a. Vers, or Captain Marvel) deserves a strong debut, but this '90s-set prequel movie may be a throwback in more ways than one. Here's what critics have to say about the Marvel Cinematic Universe's latest entry:
It's Not A Huge Spoiler To Say This Story Starts In Space
Brie Larson plays the role of an amnesiac soldier, Vers, struggling to control the fiery photon powers within her fists, but eager to serve in the eternal war between the Kree and their sinister, could-be-anyone enemies, the Skrulls.
But then she lands on earth[…] Vers has a bunch of memories of having been on earth — of being a Top Gun fly-girl, partying with her Air Force cronies on karaoke night and listening to an obnoxious stud-pilot tell her, "You do know why they call it the cockpit?" Were those memories implanted, or are they something real that she's repressed?
The Skrull, led by Ben Mendelsohn's Talos, are searching for Dr Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) to secure an all-important piece of tech she invented. Vers, who's beginning to recover old memories, learns that she was once test pilot Carol Danvers and that Lawson was her boss.
Cosmic Complexities Aside, It's Familiar Origin Story Stuff
It's more evocative of Marvel's flatter "origin" movies that introduced big heroes, films like the first Thor, the first Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, all of which struck a carefully calibrated balance between their new star, a sparkling supporting cast, and an even mix of humor and action, but nonetheless felt a bit soulless.
It's strange to feel the MCU suddenly pivot back to the pure origin story routine after the last two years have been so experimental, and it's hard not to walk away wishing that Carol would have gotten the Black Panther or Spider-Man treatment with an introduction built into a previous movie to help add a bit more narrative weight. The exposition, especially in the first act, feels a bit breakneck at times as it rushes to try and get out of its own way.
Brie Larson Does Her Best With What She's Given…
Larson is great at the hero pose and the serious good-guy affirmation when bad-guy butt is about to get kicked. But her Carol is also full of one-liners, sneaky grins, and teases. I found myself marveling (if you'll pardon the pun) at the novelty of this. Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is humorous in her naïveté; Black Widow, the Wasp, and Jessica Jones are all business and deadpan snarking. Captain Marvel gives us the rare female action hero who is funny, knows she's funny, and enjoys it.
Larson makes Carol/Captain focused, solid, ever-alert to what's going on around her, a quick learner, a determined and unafraid warrior. In other words, she's everything you'd want and expect in a soldier, intergalactic or otherwise. But all of this is more or less prescribed by the role. What's lacking is humor, a hint that she might get off on the action and violence, or the indication of a deep desire or spark to ferret out evil and right the world's wrongs. The performance is fine, if not exciting or inspiring.
… But The Amnesia Angle Limits What Larson Can Do
This isn't the first time a Marvel protagonist has spent an entire movie trying to figure out the basic details of who they are, but at least Star Lord was given some additive character business to fill in the gaps. Ms. Danvers has no such luck, and Larson — an Oscar-winner whose natural protectiveness is poorly served by such a self-satisfied character — has little to do beyond mug for the camera and spout third-rate one-liners to any of the men who get in her way.
Larson, an incredibly gifted actress who did flooring and heartfelt work in films such as Short Term 12 and Room, has to spend most of Captain Marvel's running time without a backstory. Sure, she can blast energy bolts from her fists, and she has a rebellious twinkle in her eye, but she doesn't have much of an actual character to play.
When Lashana Lynch And MCU Stalwart Samuel L. Jackson Enter The Picture, Things Pick Up A Bit
Carol's dynamic with her human friend, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), provides the emotional core. Lynch manages to ground the movie with a serious and poignant throughline and perfect counterbalance to Carol's brash heroics and her sometimes slapstick buddy-cop relationship with Fury.
There are small but fun fight scenes highlighting Danvers' tenacity, and the joy of seeing Fury having things explained to him for once. There's a friendly cat called Goose who takes a shine to Fury and threatens to steal the entire film.
Though Maria and Carol's relationship is framed as the crux of narrative, it's the one she builds with Fury that gets more screen time[…] Larson and Jackson have an easy chemistry that you wish she would have been able to cultivate with Lynch. But there's a franchise in orbit, and Carol's connection to Fury is what directly ties Captain Marvel to Avengers: Endgame, out next month.
Ben Mendelsohn Makes Talos One Of Marvel's More Memorable Villains
Giving the best performance in a movie that relies on its excellent cast to compensate for its empty characters, the ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn elevates Talos into a genuine menace, first in his reptilian form and then as a Ben Mendelsohn-looking body snatcher once Carol escapes from his clutches and crashlands into Los Angeles circa 1995.
Mendelsohn is the clear stand-out of Captain Marvel's supporting cast—a darkly funny, world-weary lizard monster whose lidless eyes belie hidden depths.
Now if you're a filmmaker looking to check the "bad guy" box, you could do a hell of a lot worse than checking it with Ben Mendelsohn. Yeah, the guy's been racking up the sci-fi bad guys on his IMDB page lately, but here, as Talos the Skrull, he gets to relax a bit, and have some fun. So do we. (Put it this way: The Skrull homeworld must have an East London.)
The Distinctiveness Of Directors Anna Boden And Ryan Fleck Gets Subsumed By Usual Marvel Box-Ticking
Boden and Fleck get a little lost in the spectacle. Captain Marvel is a surprisingly loopy celestial adventure of a film, one that digs deeper into the alien lore laid out in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy series. But though Boden and Fleck wrote the screenplay (along with Geneva Robertson-Dworet), their talent for sharp banter and character interplay only shines in the scenes set on Earth. When the story is space-bound, things begin to feel perfunctory.
Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who wrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) hail from the world of talky indies like Half-Nelson and Sugar, which might explain why their film about a doughty space-warrior that features so many space-dogfights and space-explosions feels most at home on Earth.
Under The Space Stuff, The Liberal '90s Nostalgia And The Air Force Advertising, The Movie's Politics Are Slight
The messages of Captain Marvel — about self-actualization, perseverance, and looking past prejudice — are not worn as boldly as in, say, Wonder Woman or Black Panther, but they are there.
Save for a few heavy handed moments with misogynistic bit players, Boden and Fleck have Carol deal with more familiar forms of discrimination, the kind that's institutional and thinks women let their emotions get the better of them.
Captain Marvel only gently dips into what could have been a more engaging look at female rage and how emotion is currency, possibly afraid of alienating male viewers if its too overtly feminist (that ship has already sailed). Even sexism within the US military receives only a cursory nod. It feels less visionary and divergent next to Black Panther, which stood so firm in its convictions[…] it's 2019 – and we deserve a superhero movie that's not just coasting by on autopilot.
Larson's Captain Marvel will of course return in next month's Avengers: Endgame where, one assumes, female empowerment will take a back seat to powers of the zappy-explodey kind. In the meantime, we've got Captain Marvel — a little bit The Right Stuff, a little bit Top Gun, a little bit Guardians of the Galaxy, a little bit Men in Black.
And Yes, For Better Or Worse There's Plenty Of '90s Stuff
Indeed, nostalgia is in abundance, from the Nine Inch Nails t-shirt Larson wears throughout the film to a soundtrack comprising the likes of Nirvana, Garbage, Hole and TLC.
Alta Vista. Radio Shack. A scene where Bening dances to Nirvana. A climactic needle-drop that's too cringe-worthy to spoil here. It's as lazy and superficial as you might expect from a movie that was teed up by a two-way beeper, even if there's something about the guilelessness of Larson's performance that seems more at home in these 20th century environs.
All In All — But Especially Action-Wise — It Feels Like A Perfectly Alright Marvel Movie And Not Much Else
The film's first big showdown is inexplicably set on an alien planet shrouded in a dank yellow mist, so that all the punching and shooting is both impossible to follow and ghastly to look at. Most of the subsequent battles have similar problems—they're choppily edited and difficult to visually track.
The raw material is all there, but filmmaking itself does not yield any truly thrilling, resonant moments. The action sequences are rote, at times almost muddled. A CGI set piece toward the end looks downright retro, and not in a cool, '90s way. But, hey, there have been plenty of male Marvel stars have gotten totally serviceable vehicles — why can't that be acceptable for a woman?
It could have been "Alien3" or "Princess Mononoke" or "Tank Girl" — hell, it could have been "Batman Returns." But only in its most regressive ways does it really feel like a blockbuster from the mid-'90s. Neither a blast from the past, nor an inspiring glimpse into the future, at the end of the day it's just another Marvel movie. And not a particularly good one, at that.
It's hard to treat Captain Marvel as just another Marvel movie. But having seen 21 movies in this franchise, that's just what it is — for better and for worse. If you go in expecting one of the studio's more recent, creatively ambitious endeavors like the Oscar-winning Black Panther, you're not going to get it.
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