3 out of 5 stars

There are two moments in Captain Marvel that are touching and beautifully handled: the tributes to comic-book legend Stan Lee, including another of his famous cameos recorded before his death. The film itself is loosely entertaining, qualitatively in the upper-middle of Marvel Studios output. It leans into much of what’s made the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) such a roaring success, but with a few welcome tweaks. Given where we left things with Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Captain Marvel can’t push the bigger picture farther along, so it fills in unexpected backstory from 25 years ago.

As this introduces another new superhero, it’s no surprise that Captain Marvel is an origin story, but one that doesn’t play things straight like Iron Man (2008), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), or Doctor Strange (2016). The fact its origin story is a surprise to the person at the centre of everything is a nice subversion, too, as we meet intergalactic Kree warrior Vers (Brie Larson), who’s part of a Starforce team that includes her mentor-trainer Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Vers is a key member of his interplanetary special ops unit, but there are signs of something peculiar going on; she has recurring nightmares about an older woman (Annette Bening), hazy memories of flying fast jets on Earth, and the fact she can emit energy blasts from her forearms.

The Kree are embroiled in a centuries-long war with Skrulls, a race of shapeshifters that use their ability to infiltrate Kree society. During a rescue mission to rescue a kidnapped operative, Vers is captured by a Skrull named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) before eventually escaping in a pod and crashlanding on Earth—specifically through the roof of a Blockbuster Video store in 1995. She’s soon acquainted with two rookie S.H.I.E.L.D agents—a pre-eyepatch Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and a pre-his-own-TV-show Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who naturally don’t believe her ludicrous story until they encounter shapeshifting aliens themselves. Fury is dragged into this crazy situation with the Skrulls, all while helping this powerful woman get home—but do her repressed memories prove she’s already home?

It’s a slightly convoluted setup, and that’s without getting into exactly what Vers’s earthly backstory is revealed to be. While I appreciated a superhero origin tale where even the protagonist learns things alongside the audience, there are definitely issues with clarity at times. We’re expected to acclimate to who Vers is and what Skrulls and Kree are, then understand why she was once a USAF fighter pilot called Carol Danvers, and ultimately how she becomes a more superpowered being we’ll never actually call “Captain Marvel”.

When the credits roll, everything is clear enough, but there’s enough clutter to ensure the story doesn’t feel effortlessly told. I’m not sure what replay value Captain Marvel has, either, as without the mystery underpinning it there isn’t actually much else to the story. It’s clear a lot of bandages have been applied to the script, to pull audiences through the messiness, in terms of its fan-pleasing attachments to the wider MCU. The involvement of Nick Fury is the biggest link to the past (well, future), which ret-cons everything we thought we knew about him setting up ‘The Avengers Initiative’ by discovering WWII super-soldier Steve Rogers, but there’s also our awareness this film is essentially a longwinded flashback to explain the Infinity War end-credits scene with Fury’s pager. We even get the return of two Marvel villains from Guardians of the Galaxy in Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and Korath (Djimon Hounsou).

I really like the MCU and what it’s doing, so there isn’t anything here that seriously got my back up. It further deepens the galactic frontier of the MCU (hitherto explored in the Thor and Guardians instalments) and tells an origin story in an unusual way that, while problematic at times, is certainly preferable to doing something linear and lazy. There are a few twists I didn’t see coming when it comes to the lore and character allegiances, which did help keep my waning interest in the third quarter.

Wonder Woman (2017) beat Marvel to the punch when it comes to portraying a female superhero in a mainstream big-budget movie and, while Carol Danvers lacks the pop-culture clout of Amazonian warrior Diana Prince, she’s more relatable and her humour relies on less fish-out-of-water gags. This speaks to the common creative difference between DC and Marvel, as DC is mostly interesting in aliens and gods saving ordinary people from world-ending threats, and Marvel mostly tells stories where ordinary folk are touched by greatness and save the world themselves.

Captain Marvel doesn’t feel as important as Wonder Woman (despite being cleverly timed for am International Women’s Day release), maybe because the character isn’t as well-known or popular, but it’s nice the film doesn’t beat you over the head with its own self-importance. I soon forgot this marks the MCU’s first female lead named in the title without an ampersand (sorry, The Wasp), and that’s fantastic. It wasn’t an albatross and the story didn’t stop every few minutes to make a lazy feminist sentiment, it just happened to involve a capable woman who wasn’t there to be sexualised or rescued. It was fun to see Nick Fury play the “funny sidekick” role, often seen cooing over a ginger kitty cat.

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While it’s almost a given the VFX will be excellent nowadays, particularly seeing as Captain Marvel cost $152M, a special mention must go to the “de-aging” technique now seemingly perfected since being introduced in Ant-Man (2015) with a youthful Michael Douglas. It looked pretty good even back then, honestly, but you could tell something was “off” and faces would appear a little waxy with odd expressions at certain angles, but what they’ve done to make Jackson appear 45 instead of 70 is practically seamless. It certainly helps that Jackson doesn’t look like a typical ‘old man’, even without a digital facelift, but the VFX utilised is a remarkable achievement. You don’t give it a second thought and the “novelty” vanishes within seconds. I don’t know how much of the $152M budget went on it—perhaps a lot, as there are so few big set-pieces until the finale?—but we’ve arrived at the point when actors could keep playing roles of people half their age well into their dotage. The only minor issue is that, in a few of the fight sequences, young Fury seems to physically lack the athleticism and speed one would expect of a trained agent in his mid-forties… but that feels accurate to a more lumbering septuagenarian.

Larson is interesting casting by Marvel Studios, coming from more of an indie background, which is also where directors Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck earned their stripes on Half Nelson (2006) and Mississippi Grind (2015). It makes sense to hire talented up-and-comers, to imbue “studio fare” with left-field thinking and a unique voice. It worked like a charm with Taika Waititi and Thor: Ragnarok (2017) with its colourful production flavourings and eccentric humour, but I’m not sure Boden and Fleck manage the transition from indie drama to mega-blockbuster as effortlessly. Nothing in their filmographies suggests a particular skill with science-fiction or action, so Captain Marvel feels a little generic and beholden to the real trailblazers of the MCU (especially James Gunn, laying out a distinctive vibe for the Guardians adventures). A lot of the action here isn’t memorably conceived or shot, particularly a fight atop a moving train—which The Wolverine (2013) did so much better years ago. There’s even a fighter jet sequence that seemed to copy a similar moment, shot-for-shot, from Independence Day (1996).

Captain Marvel is adequately put together and not visually terrible, but nothing leaps off the screen as being an unforgettable moment or spine-tingling sequence. This only becomes a noticeable problem during the extended climax, when there are moments designed to get audiences cheering for what Carol Danvers in all her pomp can accomplish, and I never got goosebumps. If anything, I’m worried that now we have a character that can destroy giant spaceships by simply flying through them, the scale of the threats she needs to pose a challenge could become ridiculous. But that’s for the Russo brothers to worry about with Avengers: Endgame

As the eponymous heroine, Larson acquits herself well throughout. She has all the attributes one could hope for but is particularly good at being unpretentious, fun, and charming. Her brotherly rapport with Jackson is a delight, making it feel like their friendship is an essential ingredient Captain Marvel 2 will need to return to. My only real criticism is how the story didn’t have time to dig into Carol’s family background, just the existence of her best friend. There’s no mention of her parents or any siblings, but maybe that’s being kept back for sequels. It just seemed odd to avoid that, given a decision she makes at the end when her identity crisis has been resolved. Physically, Larson fills the figure-hugging costume nicely, and it’s well-documented how seriously the actress took training to ensure she carried herself as someone with genuine strength, stamina, and presence. It paid off.

Overall, Captain Marvel can be chalked up as another win for the MCU, but it’s not quite the spectacular crowdpleaser I was hoping for. I don’t think the lore surrounding the character is especially good—it’s a bit of Green Lantern with a touch of Supergirl, doused in amnesia—but the film was entertaining because Marvel can do this stuff in their sleep now. It knows what it wants to be, has some fun along the way, there are some nice surprises, and most of the jokes landed. I just wish the story was leaner and cleaner, the action more startling, and it had been stamped with more personality and quirkiness.

Cast & Crew

directors: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck.
writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet, based on characters created by Stan Lee, Gene Colan & Roy Thomas).
starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg & Jude Law.