WhatsUp at the Movies: Review of Captain Marvel

"Captain Marvel is good, not great, and fits snugly into the middle tier of MCU films."

While the artistic merit of superhero movies is heavily debated, the scope of their presence in today’s culture has them wrapped up in important discussions about serious issues, one of which has been cinematic representation. A growingly vocal movement has challenged the racial and gender balance of Hollywood films in general, but superhero films in particular, arguing that children from any background should be able to experience the inspiration they provide.

When DC’s Wonder Woman debuted in 2017, it tapped into a shifting zeitgeist on the way to massive commercial and critical success, an important moment for both the genre and women’s empowerment. Last year, Marvel’s Black Panther erupted into a global phenomenon as it celebrated Blackness both in front of and behind the camera, while Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse adapted Afro-Latino Miles Morales’ iteration of the title character and took home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. These films were major steps forward, proving to studios that diverse casting pays dividends and proving to critics that the superhero genre still has legs when allowed to explore new perspectives.

Captain Marvel, the newest MCU film starring Brie Larson, wants desperately to carry that torch into 2019. A particularly gifted member of the Kree aliens’ special ops, Larson’s Vers finds herself completing a mission on Earth, where she experiences strange memories of another life as the human Carol Danvers. Set in the 1990s, the film serves as an origin story for the titular heroine, who will play an important role in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame.

The marketing has emphasized Danvers’ status as the first female superhero to head a Marvel film, and there have been coordinated online efforts to discredit Captain Marvel on sites like Rotten Tomatoes because of its feminist message. Advocates of greater representation wanted the film to soar while its opponents hoped for a spectacular failure, and many on either side will likely hold onto the opinion they formed before the film’s release.

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The reality, though, is that Captain Marvel is good, not great, and fits snugly into the middle tier of MCU films. Larson’s performance is largely compelling, particularly in the confident ferocity she unleashes in combat, but the script doesn’t give her enough to make the character fully tangible. The memory aspect of her storyline is treated too flippantly, and the screenwriters would have benefitted from watching movies like Memento and Blade Runner 2049 to understand how profoundly memory impacts identity.

The writers also left the Kree civilization too underdeveloped for the important role it plays in the story, content to show us their futuristic aesthetic and sketch a general outline of their social hierarchy. A deeper exploration would have been more useful (and more interesting) than Captain Marvel’s time in ‘90s L.A., allowing us to get to know Vers as she is before diving into her past.

Following their leader, the supporting characters are also thinly developed, but because they aren’t the focus that won’t bother you as much. The loaded supporting cast gives solid but forgettable performances in those roles, excluding Samuel L. Jackson as a younger, two-eyed Nick Fury and Goose the cat, the pairing responsible for most of the film’s laughs.

The de-aging of Jackson is astoundingly good, and the rest of the special effects are up to Marvel’s usual high standard, leading to some spectacular moments of superpowered action. Also typical of Marvel, the film suffers from a villain problem — though not exactly in the way you’d expect. Without giving anything away, some creative writing ultimately lowered the dramatic tension, and the impact of the ending along with it.  

And, of course, Larson’s superhero has several moments that celebrate female empowerment, defiance and general-badassery, but these don’t land quite as well as her punches do. The film seems too aware of its own importance, with one particular scene that plays like a cheesy sports commercial, demonstrating the danger of relying on representation to carry a narrative. Compare Captain Marvel to its spiritual predecessor and competitor, Wonder Woman, and you’ll find the latter is far more interested in developing the hero’s motive for heroism, and watching her fight means more because of it. This film revels too much in Captain Marvel’s powers while attributing her core motivations to a vague spirit of defiance, and her “coming-of-age” in the third act feels like a deus-ex-machina as a result. There’s a lot to like about Captain Marvel, and you’ll have a good time watching it — as long as you don’t go in expecting a revelation.

WhatsUpRI Rating: 3 out of 5

WhatsUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money