We wanted to love Captain Marvel

A strong lead and show-stealing villain make the 21st Marvel movie compelling, but it still feels like a cog in a machine.


Brie Larson in Captain Marvel

Perhaps the mistake is assuming that comic books and movies are more similar than they actually are.

There have been 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies since 2008. That’s two a year for 11 years — something like 50 hours of carefully calibrated, boardroom-tweaked mass-market pieces of entertainment, all interlocked and thinking towards the future. This is arguably more precisely and thoroughly mapped-out than most TV shows, but not nearly as flexible and adaptable as the comic books it adapts. Marvel movies are made to appeal to a much wider swath of the audience than simply people who buy comic books; that particular audience has had decades to get used to the narrative acrobatics of comics, but movie audiences have not.

All of this points to why, after weeks of frankly embarrassing shirt-ripping antics from incel pickle-dicks on the internet, it brings me no joy to announce that Captain Marvel is hardly worth the hoopla on either side — and all for reasons that have very little to do with the character of Captain Marvel, her characterization or the lore that surrounds it. Captain Marvel’s role as the 21st piece of an ever-deploying quilt is a primarily connective one; it’s a film that never quite reconciles the story it wants to tell with the story it has to tell. It’s the curse, really, of most origin stories in the Marvel universe: they exist, it seems, mainly with the promise that once you get all this paperwork out of the way, you’ll have a really cool character set up for the next movie.

That very cool character is first introduced as Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior who operates under her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). In the course of her work protecting the Kree, Vers is abducted by the rival race of the Skrulls; in making her escape, she crash-lands on Earth in 1996. Taken in by agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D., Vers in fact discovers that she’s Carol Danvers, an Air Force pilot who somehow (it’s very complicated) became fused with a Kree, giving her superpowers. As the truth about her identity starts coming out, Danvers has to contend with both the Krees and the Skrulls planning to take their war to the surface of Earth.

Danvers spends most of the film in a state of partial amnesia, visited by vague memories of the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), the collective minds of all Krees given a form. Coupled with the very transactional nature of any non-Avengers Marvel movie (which essentially boils down to “we have to go to X to find Y and bring it back to Z before the others”), it makes the early parts of Captain Marvel pretty rough going. The intentionally retro, plasticky costumes and make-up (this is a ’90s movie, after all) give the thoroughly uninvolving and backstory-heavy first act a kind of cheap feel, but it does pick up considerably once Danvers arrives on Earth. The script manages to avoid a lot of the fish-out-of-water shenanigans that plagued the first Thor movie (which remains, I think, the blueprint for this particular type of origin story), but it also skirts close to Ready Player One levels of nostalgic name-dropping with its music cues (Nirvana, No Doubt, Hole) and random appearances by Troll dolls and other ’90s ephemera. It’s a zippy, entertaining action movie with an appealing and interesting lead that nevertheless never gets to fully extend its wings.

Captain Marvel is simply too squeezed by everything that comes before it and everything that’s supposed to come after. A digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson functions as Danvers’ sort-of sidekick in the film, but he also serves to bridge the gap between this ’90s-set adventure and the later films, which means his presence constantly drops goalposts (the Tesseract, shiny Macguffin to end all Macguffins, eventually becomes a coveted object) and throws knowing winks at the audience. The best things about Captain Marvel are the things that are not likely to follow her to subsequent films and thus feel glossed over: Danvers’ career in the Air Force and her struggles against the dudebros, the particularities of her friendship with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter, the strange détente that the characters reach with ostensible villain Talos (Ben Mendelsohn, who steals the show both in his shape-shifting human form and his Babylon 5-looking alien-faced form). All of these things peek through while the film is so busy with its numerous moving parts.

Truthfully, I feel like I’m beginning to repeat myself here. The criticisms you can lobby against Captain Marvel are essentially the same ones you can lobby against all superhero origin stories — and in fact, there are swaths of this review that give me déjà vu. A lot of Captain Marvel is different — different kind of protagonist, different kind of stakes, different kind of backstory than so many of the burly superheroes introduced thus far — but what’s more striking is how much of it is the same. Captain Marvel as a character represents a certain leap forward for representation: she’s the first female superhero to get her own movie, without a love interest, without needing to be rescued, and that’s certainly nothing to spit on. But Captain Marvel, like most of the Marvel characters, is at the mercy of a movie in which she’s just another cog in a complicated Rube Goldberg machine. You can’t have Captain Marvel without Marvel itself — and that’s a shame. ■

Captain Marvel opens in theatres on Friday, March 8. Watch the trailer here: