The demands foisted on this movie are not unlike those placed on Carol Danvers herself in this 21st entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Can she help the Avengers defeat Thanos? Is the movie a beacon for feminism? Does it set the table for Endgame? Is it a social comment on misogyny and sexism for today’s world? The expectations for it were raised by Marvel’s own cultural phenomenon and financial success with Black Panther and DC beating them to the feminist superhero punch with Wonder Woman. There’s nothing supremely controversial about it other than its lead happens to be a woman. Sadly, in 2019 that has become a political statement with factions of the internet going nuts over a movie passing the Bechdel-Wallace test (two women talk to each other about something other than a man.) What it is instead is a fun '90s inspired action comic book movie with some social allegory along with a lot of Marvel fan service.
What the film does well is what Marvel usually does well–great special effects, lots of humor, digital de-aging, post-credit scenes, and plenty of connective tissue to other Marvel films. It also features right out of the gate the best Stan Lee tribute put to film with a cameo still to come! Yet it still can be viewed independently, or even as an entry point to the MCU, its timeline slotting itself rather nicely between CA: The First Avenger and the first Iron Man. There are also more twists in this movie than most any others since The Winter Soldier.
It features two scenes paying homage to (heavily inspired by?) Terminator 2 and Independence Day (which I’m surprised no other review has yet mentioned). Its buddy-road trip vibe in the second act features effortless if not earned chemistry with Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson. Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson is a welcome but underused presence (his digital de-aging not as effective as Nick Fury’s, though 90s pompadour hairstyles were a tad pronounced.) Its comments on the technology of the time are hilarious in hindsight (“What’s happening?” … “It’s loading.”) The soundtrack homage fits though it is not quite as successful as the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. The film score itself, orchestra with some electronic keyboards from the era, did its job during the movie, though as is typical with Marvel, I couldn’t recall its theme once leaving the theater.
Brie Larson is quite good, subtly expressive most of the time, determined and confident, but also witty, smiles, and is capable of one-liners when the situation requires. This despite Jude Law’s character constantly saying she’s too emotional. It’s in the quieter scenes where this pays off–her friendship with fellow Air Force pilot Maria and relationship with Maria’s daughter. Women will recognize the stoic tolerance she exhibits while the men around her put her down or fiddle with tape. The line she delivers to Jude Law at the end fits perfectly, not just for #metoo but in the context of how the Kree have tried to control and re-invent her into “the best version of herself.” But she already is. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, which will anger some, but nor does she have a girlfriend, which may not be enough for those expecting more from Marvel than a big budget movie aimed at the masses.
The movie is set up for her to discover her identity, being left amnesiac from the incident that gave her powers. Unlike Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, and Stephen Strange, she doesn’t seek out these powers voluntarily. Nor was she born into them like Thor, Star Lord, or T’Challa. She already has these character strengths, but now she is given super powers on top of that. Learning that she is the master of her own destiny is something that her best friend reminds her of which wakes her from the brainwashing, the Kree standing in for our modern society not just socially, but also politically and militarily.
But it is Ben Mendelssohn’s performance that resonates the most. He’s funny, has a meta moment about his blue eyes and eye glasses, and succeeds in conveying emotion under a pile of makeup and prosthetics. I would almost say he steals the scenes he’s in except that honor goes to the “cat.”
Captain Marvel is a solid Marvel movie. It won’t be the cultural statement to women that Black Panther was for African-Americans. But it may prove to be better than Wonder Woman, and not just financially (sure to surpass WW’s $100M opening.) It sets the table for Endgame nicely and is one of the better hero origin movies Marvel has produced, above Doctor Strange and Spiderman Homecoming, but well short of Black Panther. The fact that so much more expectation is upon this movie shows how far Marvel has come from its beginnings in 2008, but also how much more it can deliver in the coming decade.