Years from now we’ll all look back on the historical debacle that was the Not-Great Captain Marvel Flame War of 2019 and we’ll laugh about it if only to keep from breaking down in tears at how deeply the fandom-at-large had reached yet another embarrassing nadir. Until then, here’s a shout-out to those millions of kids out there finding delight and inspiration in the sight of a wondrous super-woman punching her way through an evil spaceship armada at hyperspeed, like a young Princess Diana plowing through German soldiers.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Brie Larson (Room, Short Term 12) is Air Force pilot Carol Danvers, though at first she doesn’t remember that or how she got superpowers. For the sake of doing something “different” from a straightforward origin story, as if that would have been such a wretched and problematic thing, the film opens in media res with Our Hero enjoying her full-time job as a soldier of the Kree, those warmongering aliens previously seen in Guardians of the Galaxy and TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. As far as Carol knows, she’s one of them and nothing is wrong and it’s perfectly fine that she’s helping them conquer the galaxy and can zap opponents with magic hand lasers. Her main concern is their race’s archnemesis the Skrulls, green-skinned changelings led by Ben Mendelsohn, who previously played villains in Rogue One and Ready Plader One and whose presence in Captain Marvel One could therefore be perceived as shorthand for “Skrulls = evil”.
The Kree/Skrull feud soon leads her to Earth circa 1995, a planet she recognizes only from the strange dreams that have been haunting her in between skirmishes. After an awkward first contact with Earth authorities she’s soon teamed up with Samuel L. Jackson as young S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury, blessed with several jars of that CG wrinkle cream they’ve been testing in previous Marvel films on Michael Douglas and Robert Downey, Jr. Can this mismatched buddy-cop duo track down the Skrulls, deal with one or two MacGuffins, recognize the Kree for the villains they usually are, help Carol deal with her severe case of space gaslighting, and make the Marvel Cinematic Universe safe for heroines starring in their own solo films? Because those of us dying for Squirrel Girl to dominate other media are really pulling for that last one to work out.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Kindasorta A-lister Jude Law is Carol’s Kree commander Yon-Rogg, a familiar name to older Marvel Comics readers who can guess where that arc is going. His teammates include Djimon Hounsou, reprising his role as Korath the “WHO?” Guy from Guardians. Also returning from Guardians is Pushing Dasies star Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser, briefly in Palpatine-hologram form. Four-Time Academy Award Nominee Annette Bening (my favorite of hers is The Grifters) is a face Carol sees in her dreams and in her encounters with the Kree’s disembodied leader, the Supreme Intelligence, who definitely bears no resemblance to the comics version.
MCU fans are also treated to the return of Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson, along with quite a bit of hair we’ve never seen before. And the next time I see the film, possibly on basic cable, I’ll need to watch for a group of oppressed aliens whose roster includes Vik Sahay, a.k.a. the frequently annoying Lester from TV’s Chuck.
In one of the final cameos filmed before his recent passing, Stan Lee appears as the Stan Lee of 1995 when he was attached to a very specific project. There’s also a glorious tribute to Stan during the opening credits that’s arguably the best thing about the entire film.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- Yay feminism!
- What is it like being a woman in superheroing?
- Amnesia is bad; being turned into someone else’s unwitting puppet is worse
- Human emotion is what makes humans awesome and Kree males are wrong for suppressing them like 19th-century Englishmen
- WE LOVE THE ’90S!
- Corollary: nostalgia is a heck of a drug
- “Found family” can be a blessing provided you got to choose your found family and you weren’t brainwashed into accepting them
- Suggesting someone smile is not considered a polite thing to say in this day and age
- Military careers are a good and useful thing, just like Michael Bay taught us in the Transformers series, and to learn more about how you can serve your country, be sure to go get recruited at belikecarol.airforce.com or whatever their movie-tie-in sign-up site is
…but in general Captain Marvel is about promoting a high-powered woman to a prominent position in the MCU. Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Valkyrie, and the dynamic duo of Okoye and Shuri were here first, but they’re not quite equipped for fighting entire armies (well, maybe Valkyrie or Okoye), flying through space unaided (you’re out, Okoye), or selling enough kids’ merchandise to satisfy Marvel’s marketing department (maybe if Valkyrie had a brighter costume?). Trick-or-treating as Super-Spy and Super-Witch is cool, but for girls who watch way more Marvel movies than they do CW shows, I imagine it’s cool to see themselves in an idol who could hold her own in a melee against Hulk or Thor.
Nitpicking? My biggest problem may not be the filmmakers’ fault: in our showing the action sequences at the beginning and end were swathed in darkness, as if post-production artists cranked all the colors down to Threat Level Goth, so we couldn’t tell what in the world was happening for minutes at a time. At first I thought directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had buried everything in murk and/or filmed extensive footage inside a warehouse with the electricity shut off so as to facilitate cheaper computer effects and/or obvious stunt doubles. In hindsight I wonder if the problem is our theater sucks at managing their screens’ brightness settings. We had the same problem last year when portions of Solo: A Star Wars Story were rendered indiscernible to a degree that reminded me of the pitch-black wilderness scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
In particular, the Big Hero moment when Carol reveals her official costume — as designed by comics’ own Jamie McKelvie in primary colors bold enough to qualify her as an honorary sun — suffered mightily in our showing, subdued in Stygian depths and barely distinguishable from her monochrome “before” uniform. Whatever the cause, if filmmakers could henceforth cease setting or shooting any scenes after 6 p.m., and always hire Roger Deakins to keep everything crisply and expertly lit, that would really help us out a lot. Because frankly, whenever this happens to us, in the moment we’re not thinking, “Wow, this theater is botching it.” We’re thinking, “Wow, this movie was shot by high schoolers,” and deducting an entire letter grade.
Meanwhile in the daylight moments, their rendition of Earth 1995 cranks the period setting into nostalgia overdrive, immersing older viewers over 25 in a game of “Remember That Popular Old Thing?” Folks do love having their entire pop culture history reduced to one big Easter egg hunt that prompts them to laugh or nod knowingly at every former possession they recognize on screen. I’m sure the assembly process is a pleasure for set designers who love scouring thrift stores for props. For writers they relieve a burden because it means they don’t have to write as many jokes — simply fill any empty spaces between lines with the direction, “CUT TO: shot of some eBay’d vintage item” and Pavlov does the rest of their heavy lifting. The older I get, the less these planted prompts mesmerize me, especially when indulged and paraded in excess.
(Now I’m imagining how The Favourite might have played if Yorgos Lanthimos had filled every set with dozens of 18th-century antiques and replicas not for ambiance or period authenticity, but just to provoke the historians, Anglophiles, and collectors in the audience to point at them, chuckle, and high-five each other as they reminisce about how they used to totally see that one specifically fancy gravy boat in a museum all the time.)
By the same token, the on-the-nose soundtrack was prominently distracting, filled with tunes selected for the closeness of their titles to certain scenes regardless of whether or not the rest of their lyrics were remotely relevant. I’ve read in another review that a few of them qualified as anachronisms, but I’m not interested in microanalysis to quite that level. Besides, hypocrisy or not, I was pretty okay with listening to Hole’s blistering 1998 single “Celebrity Skin” booming through theater-sized speakers over the end credits (I knew that one was out of place without even looking it up)…although “Violet” would’ve been more lyrically apropos.
(Related note: I’m surprised the songfic tendencies didn’t extend to a critical flashback-montage near the climax that desperately begged to have Chumbawamba shouting, “I GET KNOCKED DOWN! BUT I GET UP AGAIN! YOU’RE NEVER GONNA KEEP ME DOWN!” over and over and over again in Carol’s face.)
My least favorite part, though, circles back to Our Hero herself. Introducing us to Carol as an amnesiac was an overlong false start that cloaked her inner life, what there was of one. The few flashbacks, parceled out piecemeal but never in an informative context, were too short and vague to give much of an impression of who Carol is beneath the surface. We know she she fought hard to earn her stripes, that she had ordinary challenges like an ordinary human, that she was…good and kind and decent? Brie Larson played what was written, and shines more brightly — literally and emotionally — as secrets are revealed and she’s allowed to “be herself”. Based on the evidence provided she amounts to a shiny, snappily dressed, super-strong, super-fast, zap-tacular human missile powerful enough to destroy unremarkable lookalike spaceships and willing to kill aliens in combat like any trained soldier out of sci-fi or our reality. So she’s got that much going for her. She needed and deserved more.
So what’s to like? It’s unfair to demand that every MCU film be better than all the other films preceding it. It’s ridiculous to reset expectations with Black Panther as the new baseline. For MCU to continue functioning as a unique shared environment where not every film looks and feels alike, filmmakers need the latitude to do their own thing and make all manner of works — big or small, intergalactic or close-to-home, complex or simplified, cutting-edge or old-fashioned. Setting aside the odd creative impulse to reduce the origin story to a buried lede, Captain Marvel seems to revel in old-fashioned super-heroics, which can make for passable popcorn fare. It’s diverse yet middle-of-the-road, closer to centrist than progressive in its politics. It proudly refuses to objectify its women in general and Our Hero in particular — nary a revealing Hollywood blouse or even so much as a love interest.
When Carol lights up the screen with her powers and her improved trademark wardrobe later, it’s cool as long as she holds still for a few seconds so we can focus. Not much else here is visually groundbreaking, but it’s adequate for viewers who just wanna see superheroes hero-ing, making with the EXPLOSIONS and saving the day and inspiring cosplayers and whatnot.
Other MVPs include the homecoming of Mr. Jackson, great to see after his absence from the last several films and back to contributing the most one-liners, because it’s Marvel and someone has to do it. As the head Skrull, Ben Mendelsohn clearly has fun and, with some patience, is granted the chance to diverge in nuanced ways from his previous antagonists, which especially surprised us because we had just been talking about our concern for potential sameness earlier in the day. Sameness averted.
As an olde-tyme Marvel fan I enjoyed the inclusion of Lashana Lynch (now filming FX’s Y: The Last Man adaptation set for next year) and Akira Akbar (li’l flashback Beth from NBC’s This Is Us) as the mother/daughter team of Maria and Monica Rambeau. Lynch is fine as Carol’s best friend from the Air Force, the Goose to her Maverick, and earns her role on Team Good Guys, but the 12-year-old comics fan in me hopes we haven’t seen the last of Monica in the present-day MCU. She very much used to be somebody in comics, at least as far as a handful of us were concerned, despite willful sidelining by countless editorial regimes.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that darn cat. Carol and Fury inadvertently find themselves accompanied by a cat named Goose (a Top Gun nod?) who lightens the mood, steals scenes, facilitates a plot point, and will no doubt one day be turned into a plush toy. I hereby approve this merchandise in advance.
How about those end credits? The end credits confirm both the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force were on board with this production. We also learn Goose was played by four different cats, courtesy of a company called Animals for Hollywood, whose site mentions you may remember said cats from such films as The Hateful Eight.
But to answer the burning question that MCC is usually happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Captain Marvel end credits, along with a second offering at the very end after the final names have dropped. For those who fled the theater prematurely and who really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…during the end credits, we fast-forward to today. At Avengers HQ, an anxious Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, and Mark Ruffalo pace around the pager Nick Fury dropped in the scene after the Avengers: Infinity War end credits. They freak out a little as it goes dark. They freak out a little more when they turn to one side and magically Carol is standing there asking, “Where’s Fury?” Because now she has space-stealth power?
Anyway, to be continued in Avengers: Endgame!
At the very very end of the film, we return to the ’90s for a quick moment of Goose hopping onto Fury’s desk and hacking up the Tesseract, the most dangerous hairball in the universe.
To learn more about the wonderful world of Captain Marvel after the film, be sure to check out the film’s official website, which — in yet another display of naked, shameless nostalgia — looks like a summary of every personal site hosted on Geocities, Angelfire, Tripod, Xoom, and countless other companies that made 1990s internet tackiness not just a way of life, but a visual baseline for any and every fandom.
…or you could read some Captain Marvel comics. Good luck figuring out which of her 27 starting points will get you anywhere!