Marvel’s Captain Marvel represents a paradigm shift in popular entertainment. Much like Disney’s Moana, this is a film that’s more noteworthy for what’s not there; there’s no romantic subplot, no damsel-in-distress, no last-minute rescue by the guy who’s been standing around waiting for his moment, and perhaps most importantly, no awkward gender-reversal of tired tropes (see the endless double-entendres and payback-based objectification of Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman). When our protagonist is diminished and dismissed, it’s most often because she’s human rather than female.
Set in the 1990s, Captain Marvel tells the story of a Kree warrior come to Earth in search of answers to her forgotten past; it also happens that she has to fend off an alien invasion while she’s at it. Along the way, she meets SHIELD agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, (the actors are nicely digitally de-aged to their respective Pulp Fiction and West Wing appearance), and helps to put events and people in place to not only set off the eventual modern-day Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also change the rules of engagement for the upcoming Avengers: Endgame.
Keeping this post spoiler-free is going to be pretty difficult, but given that much of the story derives from comics published between 1977 and 2014, we have some latitude. If you haven’t read any of the Captain Marvel comics, I’ll still try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.
Also: If you think “Captain Marvel used to be a dude, but Marvel’s pushing their feminist SJW agenda,” I suggest you read Jim MacQuarrie’s explanation of the history of all the heroes named Captain Marvel, and accept that Marvel’s original hero of that name died in 1982 and was replaced by a woman, so none of this is new. The faux-outrage asserting that “this is not the real Captain Marvel” is merely the bleating of ‘Fake Geek Boys’ ignorantly repeating nonsense. I think 37 years is a long enough time for them to get over it.
That’s enough preamble. Here we go.
As established in the trailers, the woman named “Vers” (pronounced “veers”) has a hole in her memory. She thinks she’s a Kree warrior, but keeps having flashbacks to a life she doesn’t recognize. Events push her to Earth in 1995, where her mission to locate Skrull agents takes a back seat to learning the cause of her random memory flashes. In time the two missions merge into one, as she discovers that she was previously an earth woman named Carol Danvers.
And that’s all the synopsis you’re getting.
At first, I wasn’t completely won over by Brie Larson’s portrayal. I thought she came off like Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun, somebody who is working very hard at creating the impression they are more capable than they really are, more cocky than powerful. But then I realized this is exactly the point the film was going for. Carol is more arrogant than powerful, and very much like Cruise’s ‘Maverick’, and indeed very much like several of the real-life pioneers of space exploration. She would fit right in with the characters in The Right Stuff, a fact that is slyly referenced a couple of times. Since the main thrust of the story is Captain Marvel discovering who she is and what she can do, her portrayal is a good starting place for that growth. The Carol Danvers at the end of the film is not the same person who started the story, and the transition happens quietly without a lot of explicit explanation, showing rather than telling. Larson makes the transition quite believably, and we very much enjoy her demonstration of her ability.
The rest of the cast is equally solid, notably Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau and Akira Akbar as her 11-year-old daughter Monica, a name that ought to be familiar to long-time Marvel readers. I’m looking forward to the inevitable appearance of a 35-year-old Monica somewhere in Avengers: Endgame. The secondary through-line of the story, the evolution of Nick Fury, is ably portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, with great comedic support from Clark Gregg as Coulson. But the real scene-stealer is Goose, the orange tabby who provides a number of unexpected moments.
The filmmakers trust the audience and respect our intelligence. When something unexpected happens, or a character reveals their true nature, they resist the impulse have another character explain what happened; there’s no “gee, I guess he was [spoiler] all along!” It’s just assumed that we’ll get it without being told.
This is why the filmmakers were able to bring added depth and complexity to the Kree-Skrull War and to the persons fighting it. Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, our hero’s mentor on the Kree homeworld, moves between encouraging and threatening, and as one of our primary representatives of the Kree, he clearly demonstrates that their image as “noble warriors” refers much more to their cultural traditions and self-image than to any actual ethical or moral conduct. When Roy Thomas wrote the Kree-Skrull War in the early 1970s, it was pretty obvious that the Kree represented the “heroes,” in other words, the US and its allies, while the deceitful and treacherous Skrulls were stand-ins for the Soviet Union. The film’s creators have wisely largely jettisoned that interpretation, creating a more nuanced conflict that carries more resonance in the current climate.
Other commentators have talked about their qualms with the message of Captain Marvel and its retrograde form of feminism, which is essentially the old Annie Get Your Gun number, “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” Indeed, some of the more deliberate female empowerment bits feel a bit manufactured and trite; the montage leading into the finale feels very much like a Nike commercial with the theme, “You Go, Girl!”
Whether we like it or not, Captain Marvel is going to be compared to Wonder Woman, and the comparisons will not always be accurate or fair. As the reviewer linked above argued, it is possible to classify the feminism of Captain Marvel as merely “girls are just as good as boys,” which does come up short against Wonder Woman’s more progressive “why are men the standard?” In truth, each film does better than the other in specific points; where Wonder Woman’s message is more progressive, there are a great many story points that are a bit cringe-worthy, most of them involving the character of Steve Trevor. In Captain Marvel, for most of the film there’s no male character trying to cling to their dominant role, no male figure trying to romance the heroine, no sexualizing of the costume, and no fumbling over gender roles at all. Everyone has a job to do and stays on-task. Even though Wonder Woman was noteworthy for its distinct lack of the the Male Gaze, with no camera leering at the tanned and toned Amazon bodies on display, Captain Marvel avoids the situation by not having any bodies on display. Somehow Carol gets through several intense action scenes without ending up in an artfully torn costume or stripped down to her Kree Underoos. Almost all of the misogyny takes place in flashbacks. While the overt message of the film’s story is a rather superficial one of female empowerment, the film itself is blessedly free of the systemic sexism of most movies in the genre.
Compared to other Marvel films, I’d place this one in the upper half of the pack, way ahead of the second Thor, second and third Iron Man, anything with Hulk in the title, about on the same level as most of the individual hero films. There’s a lot to like. But given the expectations that have been heaped onto Captain Marvel as the first Marvel movie with a woman in the title role (the Wasp had to share hers), I hope that’s enough. There are those who will consider anything less than perfection to be a failure. They’re wrong. Captain Marvel is a solid mid-range Marvel movie; if you like them, you’ll like this.