There has been a lot of attention put on “Captain Marvel,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-led film and its 21st film overall.
Like 2017’s “Wonder Woman” before it, “Captain Marvel” is being marketed and seen as an important film in terms of female representation in Hollywood. “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” are certainly not the first female-led superhero films, but they are the first ones of substance and quality.
There’s been a small but vocal backlash against “Captain Marvel” by those challenged by the idea of more diversity in Hollywood. It is the same mindset that led people to rail against the new “Star Wars” films for the inclusion of more female and ethnically diverse characters.
One argument is that the significance of a film like “Captain Marvel” is overhyped because we’ve had plenty of strong female characters such Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” franchise or Sarah Connors in “The Terminator” series. This stance misses that, while there have been empowered female characters in the past, the number is small when compared to the hundreds of films starring male protagonists.
It is telling that it took Marvel this long to get to a female-led movie. The MCU has had powerful and important female characters, such as Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, the Wasp, and Valkyrie, but they have always been part of an ensemble.
Hollywood has long been reluctant to push female characters to the fore because of a belief that they can’t draw the same box office numbers as their male counterparts. “Wonder Woman,” which went on to gross $821 million worldwide, disproved this notion. “Captain Marvel” further cements that this thinking is passe, with a worldwide opening box office of $455 million.
With all this attention on the film’s cultural significance, “Captain Marvel” has been put under extra scrutiny. There’s a lot of discussion along the lines of “it is good, but shouldn’t it be more?” Should Captain Marvel be more likable and charismatic? Is she too powerful, and therefore unrelatable and uninteresting?
“Captain Marvel,” directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck from a script credited to them and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, isn’t a traditional superhero origin story. The film, set in the mid-’90s, opens on the Kree planet of Hala with the titular character (Brie Larson) already powered but with no knowledge of her past.
On Hala, she is known as Vers and fights alongside a team of warriors known as Starforce. Their goal is to eradicate the Skrull, shape-shifting aliens that infiltrate and overrun planets. When a mission goes wrong, our hero crash lands on Earth and must prevent the Skrulls from taking over the planet, while at the same time piecing together her past life as Air Force pilot Carol Danvers.
This is a refreshing approach to an origin story. Up to this point, all of the introductory films for a Marvel character have followed the template of “Iron Man,” the first film in the MCU. It is an effective formula, but leaves little to the imagination. Having Danvers piece together who she was and how that clashes with who she has been for six years creates an intriguing tension.
Even though she has no recollection of her past, Danvers’ essence always remained. She is passionate, sardonic, witty and rebellious. On Hala, she’s trained by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) who tries to quite literally beat these qualities out of her and make her an emotionless warrior.
As the film goes on, we discover how Danvers came to her abilities and how powerful she truly is, but her greatest strength — her willingness to always get up after a fall — existed long before she was superpowered. It is this quality that makes Captain Marvel an empowering and relatable hero that we can all strive to be more like.
Larson has been accused in some reviews of being too wooden, but that’s part of the point. Danvers’ true nature is repressed by Starforce, but Larson always gives hints to the character’s underlying personality whether it is through a wry smile, mockingly screaming at an attacking Skrull, or a confident swagger in a fight scene.
Larson adds subtle shades as she confronts her past and reconnects with her former best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). These scenes add humanity and emotional connection to the film.
The opening on Hala is a bit clunky causing the film to be slow to start, but once Danvers is back on Earth, the film’s entertainment value increases. Being set in the 1990s, allows for younger versions of super spy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, astoundingly and seamlessly de-aged by 25 years), and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) to be introduced.
Much of the film plays as a buddy-cop movie between Fury and Danvers. Given the popularity of the buddy genre in the 1990s (Jackson starred in his fair share), this is a good fit for the film, and Larson and Jackson make a dynamic and funny team.
The film also benefits from a strong turn from Ben Mendelsohn as head Skrull Talos. Mendelsohn has become the go-to actor for villains in recent years with appearances in “Rogue One,” “Ready Player One” and “Robin Hood.”
Until now, his villain turns have been bland and generic. Talos is different. The character starts out as a standard baddie, but gradually becomes funnier and more sympathetic.
And then there’s Goose the cat, who is one of the all-time great movie cats. Fans of the most recent Captain Marvel comics will know why, and the film delivers on fan expectations.
The movie also brings back two antagonists from “Guardians of the Galaxy” (Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace) but they add little to the proceedings. It is a wasted opportunity to expand upon characters who were already underutilized.
Comparisons to “Wonder Woman” are perhaps inevitable, and while “Captain Marvel” doesn’t have anything as awe-inspiring as that film’s No Man’s Land scene, it is a more consistent film from beginning to end.
Captain Marvel is a more-than worthy addition to the MCU, and it will be interesting to see how she is utilized in the future, including next month’s “Avengers: Endgame.”