The best thing about the release of Captain Marvel is that it brings us one step closer to the end of the nonsensical internet drama surrounding it. I won’t be going into that here, chiefly out of self-preservation, but a quick Google search should inform the more masochistic among you. I’ll offer just one thought on the matter: things as trivial as superhero movies have no business being cultural battlegrounds. Consequently, this review will only cover my thoughts on the movie itself – not its “impact,” nor “what it means,” nor “why it matters.”
For the uninitiated, Captain Marvel is a prequel to the rest of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (excepting the first Captain America movie). Taking place all the way back in 1995, it tells the story of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), an Air Force test pilot who loses her memory in a mysterious crash and is subsequently adopted by the Kree, a warrior race of humanoid aliens. Having gained uniquely powerful abilities in the accident, Carol – now known as Vers – is chided by her commander and mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for her perceived lack of emotional control in using them. After a hairy battle against the shapeshifting Skrulls, the Kree’s lime-hued enemies, Vers finds herself marooned on C-53, aka Earth. Hot on her tail and eager to steal her power is a squad of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn).
In her attempt to regain contact with her Kree superiors and defeat the invading Skrulls, Vers finds herself paired up with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent of the nascent crimefighting organization SHIELD intent on protecting his home planet. The two form an uneasy alliance as Vers discovers more clues to her past, along with learning that the cosmic war she’s waging isn’t what it seems. In order to prevail, Vers will have to break free from her limitations and become the hero she’s always had inside of her.
So it’s an origin story, plain and simple. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the formula behind Captain Marvel was already stale before its announcement, and the movie doesn’t do much to refute the designation. The sci-fi visuals have an anonymous quality to them, looking slick in the moment but failing to produce any memorable images. Action scenes are murkily staged and weightless, betraying directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s lack of experience in the genre; unfortunately for the audience, they make up an easy twenty percent of the movie.
Captain Marvel’s main attempt at freshness is its period setting, but it flubs that as well. The movie is never quite sure of how to handle its throwback tone, relegating it to the background in some scenes and beating it over the audience’s head in others. This erraticism is most evident in the soundtrack, which takes the scattershot approach of throwing a handful of ’90s hits into the movie without cleverness or nuance. They’re just sort of there, a gimmick that rings especially hollow when compared to contemporary Guardians of the Galaxy, which not only wielded its ’70s pop soundtrack with surgical precision, but also made the music a character in its own right. Here, it’s nothing more than window dressing.
What does work in Captain Marvel can be largely credited to its cast, who make the most of dialogue that’s inconsistent but often quite funny. Samuel L. Jackson, keeping his Samuel L. Jackson-ness to about a six here, has his moments, as does adorable cat Goose, but Ben Mendelsohn is the movie’s indisputable MVP. The actor, who’s developing a troublesome habit of playing the heavy in mediocre tentpoles, effortlessly steals the movie with a series of perfectly timed one-liners. Sure, turning the lead villain of your movie into a joke character deflates some of the dramatic tension, but that’s less of a concern when there’s so little of it to begin with.
Which brings us to the movie’s story: a messy, problematic affair whose greatest victim is its leading lady. Brie Larson is a terrific actress, as proven in her Oscar-winning turn in Room, but she flounders here. One can’t blame her, as the script gives her precious little to work with. There’s just not all that much to Carol/Vers – she starts off the movie as a cocky badass, learns about her past, and ostensibly evolves into a true hero, but there’s never any meaningful sense of growth in her character. Aside from switching alliances, she acts more or less the same way throughout the movie; her chief character arc is the addition of some flashier CGI powers in the final act. Her uncovering-the-past storyline is undercooked; when we finally find out the truth of what happened, it’s underwhelming and predictable. The movie tells us the revelation gives Carol the strength to excel, but never shows it, and as a result the emotional beats are unearned and unconvincing.
When I think about this movie, the word that keeps springing to mind is flat. Flat visuals, flat characters, flat story. Not once does Captain Marvel take a single risk with its material, an approach which may have yielded something at least mindlessly effective with stronger plotting and direction. As it stands, the movie isn’t so much incompetent as it is bland in the extreme; it’s watchable enough, but rarely fun. The moments of humor provide exceptions, but more often than not the movie has the air of a tolerable chore: easy enough to get through, but hardly engaging.