Within the past five years, Marvel has fully embraced the crazy wacko cosmic side of their considerable canon. Unlike other studios, Marvel Comics delivered content that focused on a world beyond ours, where weird and insane things happen on a regular basis. This allowed Guardians of the Galaxy to become one of the biggest films in the franchise and eventually brought the big bag Thanos to Earth in search of Infinity Gems. With Captain Marvel, Disney is allowing Marvel to embrace one of their most powerful heroes, and potentially open up a new phase of the MCU. While Captain Marvel may not live up to the lofty expectations set for the film, both because of Black Panther‘s success and the intense marketing campaign behind it, it does tread ground as one of the best origin films for an MCU hero since Guardians.
Captain Marvel follows a young Kree warrior (hero-warrior) named Vers (Larson). She experiences severe memory loss and has trouble sleeping. She uses her lack of sleep to train with her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). When Yon-Rogg’s team (including Gemma Chan) is sent out on a mission, the team gets ambushed by an alien race, the Skrulls, who take Vers captive. Led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the Skrulls explore her memories, searching for a figure from Vers’ past (Annette Bening). After she escapes, she lands on Earth (circa 1995) and meets a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The two begin to unravel her past as Carol Danvers and find links to her missing memories.
The rise of Marvel has given it a strong role in shaping popular culture dialogues. The studio has been allowed to break through barriers and give platforms to performers on their way up in the world. No one would really say that Brie Larson needed Marvel to enhance her brand, but Marvel likely needed her. She’s a younger actress with extremely diverse talents. She won her first Oscar for Room just a few years ago, and you can easily make the argument she deserved another for Short Term 12. With some of their stars getting ready to move away from the franchise, Marvel needed to replenish its star power.
In Captain Marvel, Larson showcases some of the skills that will make a face of the universe for years to come. She gets to be funny and unsure of herself, playing well off the performances around her. She can quickly establish chemistry with nearly any actor, and that allows you to change allegiances at the drop of a hat. She may not get the opportunity to deliver a great performance on her own, but she needs to play down-the-middle in this one. She does a better job at selling the Marvel-speak than the disinterested Benedict Cumberbatch.
Most of the issues coming from Larson exist from the screenplay. Directors Anna Boden and Josh Fleck co-wrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet. Nicole Perlman, who also wrote the first several drafts of Guardians of the Galaxy, and Meg LeFauve, a Pixar alum, contributed on a story level as well. The combination of writers should have produced a well-structured story.
However, Captain Marvel becomes unwieldy because there are way too many things in it. There are superfluous cameos from characters that have little bearing on the MCU. Guardians alums Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and Korath the Destroyer (Djimon Hounsou) are unneeded. The same goes Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson, who is fun to have back but serves little narrative function. Time and time again, we complain that we don’t need to know where everything comes from, and turning this movie into an origin story for why Fury is obsessed with heroes adds extra plot devices that could have been used on character development instead. We had the Skrulls, Kree, and her relationship with Mariana Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). That was enough to let this movie function.
Speaking of Lynch, she stands out as one of the more enjoyable pieces of the story. Her thread contributes the emotion to Larson’s storylines, and the two have great chemistry. She gets her own standout moments as well, not allowing herself to be placed into the sidekick for the sake of having a sidekick box. The only person who has better chemistry with Larson than Lynch might be Jackson. He gets to have the time of his life, and in a fun little side note, you can make the argument this is Jules’ post-Pulp Fiction life (he works in LA, we know he had the Ezekial verse on his fake tombstone in Winter Soldier. Just saying…).
Ben Mendelsohn might surprise audiences the most, giving one of the more dynamic turns of his blockbuster career. The Australian actor gets to play a few scenes as himself, but the majority of the movie he is caked under some excellent makeup work. Yet his line readings deliver the most nuance of any performer on screen. There is a moment where he picks up a baseball and rushes down a hallway that allows him to express several types of emotion in just a few frames. It’s weird to say that something as simple as a few frames plays with that emotional complexity. Yet Mendelsohn uses the makeup effects to enhance his performance in ways that would honor the Doug Joneses and Ben Chapmans of the world.
Another actor buried behind makeup was Gemma Chan. She’s great in limited screentime, working as a less frustrating version of Nova. However, she does not get many chances to show off, so it feels like the actress could have played a more significant role. Even so, she accomplishes something many of the other characters could not, and provides an actual physical adversary at times for Larson.
There are issues that go beyond the story and the performances. There is a lot of CG, and for audiences who are not into that, this one will really stand out. In some cases, the CG transcends what you would expect from the artform (specifically Jackson’s de-aging), but in others, we get messy explosions. It feels like Benning and Law are here for their paychecks, but they aren’t putting in a ton of effort. Their baseline is better than most, but they do little to add to the film. The action sequences can get messy at times.
Perhaps most frustrating were the song cues, which border on Suicide Squad levels of bad. It’s just that they drop the needle every five minutes or so, but they aren’t inspired choices. I get it, in 1995 we liked No Doubt, Nirvana, and Salt-N-Pepa in 1995. Even though most drops inspired a laugh from the audience, few were inspired. Would it be so bad to call up Zach Cowie, who performed Music Supervision for Master of None and Isn’t It Romantic? to come in and pick a unique playlist?
A couple last second positives. The Stan Lee cameo is actually great, and you get a couple times to recognize his in the screening. Pay close attention to what he was reading, or listen to the line reading, and you get a nice little cameo to a great ’90’s comedy. The production design team killed the game in terms of setting up easter eggs in the background, and you can pick up on popular albums from the time period pretty well. Perhaps my favorite easter egg came in the form of a double VHS pack Larson picks up. The film in question, The Right Stuff is one of the best Space Race films ever made. Fun movie for her to choose. Finally, that darn cat. Goose might be the MVP of this movie. Pretty great, even when they turn it into CG (to avoid animal cruelty charges).
Regardless, Captain Marvel still charts itself as a strong start to the hero. While Marvel really needed to focus on building this one character (instead of many at once), the power of Larson, Jackson, and more pull the picture together. After her return to action in Avengers: Endgame, it will be fun to jump into her next space adventure. Whether it be set past Endgame or before is irrelevant. She’s a fun character to hang with, and if Captain Marvel is any indication, they can get even weirder in the future. Can’t wait for the next one.