It is 1995.
In midst of a bloody conflict, we’re introduced to Carol Danvers, a member of the Kree Starforce, who are trying to stop a race of shape-shifters known as Skrulls from taking over the galaxy. But during an ambush on a Kree moon, Carol is captured. Managing to escape, she crash lands on a planet designated C-23 by the Kree and known to us as Earth. Working with the newly-founded government agency SHIELD whilst trying to unlock the mystery of her own memories, can Danvers and Nick Fury stop an enemy who can mimmic anyone at any time?
Captain Marvel is a film of many parts, that has to do many things. It needs to be a satisfying entry-point for a popular comics character, an origin story, a pit-stop both before and after what we hope will be a rousing finish to the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a break in the post-Infinity War solemnity alongside 2018’s Ant Man & The Wasp and the upcoming Spider-Man: Far From Home. It also has to be a cultural milestone within the MCU and an entertaining sci-fi action flick in its own right. Essentially, it has to start with the impossible. I’m happy to report that it manages to accomplish all these things.
One cannot begin talking about the film without mentioning the cultural weight placed on it. Like Black Panther, this is a super-hero film for under-served audience: women in general and young women in particular. Unlike Black Panther, Captain Marvel decides to ignore that apparent weight, shrugging it off and aiming for a decidedly lighter tone, more fun and more agile than its predecessors. Sure, we’ve seen this tone to some degree in Guardians of the Galaxy (Vols. 1 & 2) and in Thor: Ragnarok, but rather than using humour to prick the pomposity of its male leads, it’s used to underscore the fact that the times they are a-changing.
Captain Marvel knows it’s an important film. It knows why. And it knows exactly what to do to let you know you’re in safe hands, that the 20-something film legacy of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Kevin Feige, Avi Arad and Disney is going to be looked after. Not mothered, but backed up by a big sister, an Aunty, a new best friend.
Sure, another film from the D(istinguished) C(ompetition’s) stable, set during a war about a powerful woman discovering who she is and what she must do to set the world right got there first with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, but Carol Danvers isn’t about to let that stand in her way. This film carves its own identity confidently, as if nothing else like it has ever graced the screen. Having said that, there was a moment where the distant echo of the Superman theme played through my mind, though I won’t say which. Spoiler-free review, remember? Anyway, it’s high-time the market supported more than one female character being the boss of their universe.
Talking of high times, the movie also finds its own historical period to make a stand in. We’re transported to the shallow ’90s, giving us a more bureaucratic S.H.I.E.L.D. and a more casual, calmer Nick Fury. Throughout, we’re reminded of ’90s action cinema, with tough-guy one-liners and even a buddy cop storyline for Danvers and Fury. Constant references to Top Gun seem out of place, considering it was made eight years before the movie’s own time period – but make perfect sense given Danvers is an Air Force pilot. She has a flip, hip energy that borders on the cool, geeky neighbour present in a thousand rom-coms. Funnily enough, what could have been the film’s own love story (between Danvers and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau) is merely hinted at rather than stated. And of course, no rom-com ever ended with one of its leads shooting pure energy from their fists while trying to save the planet.
It’s really Brie Larson’s moment in this film, even more so than her Oscar-winning turn in Room. She propels the movie, not just its literal energy core, but it’s emotional one too. Much of the film relies on an almost Malickean tour through her memories as they are readjusted, retuned and finally revealed for the truth they are hiding. Her reactions are consistently heartfelt and honest.
Truth itself becomes a key issue throughout the film. Are you being lied to? Is Danvers? Is Fury? Are your friends watching your back, or just checking where to slip the knife in? Is that cat really just a cat? The turns the story takes are among the most surprising since Steve Rogers kindly asked a bunch of his colleagues if they wanted to get out of the lift. I was stunned by both the twists and the way certain parts of Marvel lore were represented here.
Really though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made a career of starting with films destined to go one way and then organically, carefully, gently moving them to a course you couldn’t have predicted on your cinematic radar. Need further proof? Then check out Sugar, Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind. Films directed by this duo never fail to surprise and please. They make serious, thought-provoking films that always offer both emotional and intellectual engagement.
Does this mean Captain Marvel isn’t entertaining? Well, no. It’s hella fun. In fact, my one real negative criticism would be that film is almost too fun, too light. It doesn’t quite know when to turn off the laugh track and turn on the waterworks. The weight it shrugs off to move higher, further, faster, stronger – becomes tough to claw back when the movie needs it, especially towards the climax.
The cast carries all this wonderfully though. Besides Larson, who is a breath-of-fresh-air throughout and the always excellent Samuel L. Jackson playing Fury as if it’s really his first time, we get the eternally cocky Jude Law and the wonderfully laconic (and sometimes downright rude) Ben Mendelsohn, playing a Skrull with Australian accent – and loving every second of it. You can only hope that more of these characters, beyond the titular Captain, will reappear and find their own place in The MCU.
Ultimately, this is another giant leap forward for super-hero cinema. With Black Panther, Marvel added much-needed colour and diversity of opinion. With Captain Marvel, the MCU cements its position as a forward-thinking universe, and these type of films become not just sub-genre but true GENRE in their own right, by and of themselves. We’re heading towards heroes for everyone, with characters who refuse to be held back.
If you love the women of Marvel, come along to our Fearless & Fantastic event this Saturday, 9th March! Details here!
For more opinions on the MCU and beyond, check out Frame By Frame, our film & TV review podcast. You can also keep up with all the latest Marvel Comics on our comics review podcast, Orbiting Comics. And don’t forget to try our interview podcast, In the Orbit of. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Instagram.