CAPTAIN MARVEL Review: Carol Danvers Finally Takes Flight, but Her Movie Never Truly Soars

In recent years, there has been a growing cultural awareness of the extent to which the film industry is by and large dominated by men both in front of and behind the camera. To put a spotlight on women working in film, I am participating in the 52 Films By Women challenge. The requirements: watch at least one (1) new-to-you film per week that has been directed by a woman. As I make my way through the year, I will be reviewing each film I see as part of the challenge here.

52 Films By Women Entry #: 1

Captain Marvel poster.jpg

It took Disney and Marvel Studios 11 years and 20 movies to finally give audiences a film fronted by a female hero. The embarrassing delay, largely driven by a few specific big-wigs behind the scenes insisting that there was no market for stories that served this specific demographic, allowed Warner Bros. to beat them to the punch with an equally overdue Wonder Woman movie. Even still, Marvel was hoping not to let DC steal their thunder, announcing this first hero to not just be a newly fan-favorite character bearing the company’s own name, but stated to be the most powerful character in the franchise, period.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on what turns out to be a smaller-scale character-focused entry in a franchise that’s now blown up to Infinity War-proportions. Primarily Captain Marvel is a return to the Phase 1 origin movies that started everything, injected with a hefty dose of the whip-smart quipping that Joss Whedon introduced in The Avengers and thereon became a permanent fixture of the Marvel brand. And it’s a shame that the parts of the formula on which the film leans most heavily became stale just in time for its arrival.

The aspects in which the film differentiates itself from that formula fare better. We are introduced to Vers (pronounced “Veers” and played by Brie Larson), an elite soldier for the alien Kree empire suffering from a peculiar case of amnesia. Still receiving training from her commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), she engages with her team of elite soldiers in fighting a long-running war with a race of shape-shifting aliens called Skrulls. After an encounter with the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), Vers crash lands alone on Earth circa 1995. There, she meets a young Nick Fury (an impressively de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), whose fledgling S.H.I.E.L.D. agency has a lot of questions about where she came from, who she is, and what her story means for Earth’s place in the universe. In pursuit of the Skrulls and what they seek on Earth, Vers’ fractured memory and investigation of a mysterious figure in them point her to a past life on Earth as an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers.

The decision to structure the story as a mystery for the character to solve is novel, allowing the film to bypass a typical origin story and directly engage with audiences unfamiliar with the character. The way in which Carol’s origin unfolds will hold few surprises for long-time fans, though that’s nothing out of the ordinary. However, the approach does handicap investment in crafting a character who, by design, doesn’t even know who she is until the third act. The film doesn’t establish a strong sense of who she is at the start either, rushing through its introductory set-up on the planet of Hala before diving headfirst into the events on Earth.

Anna Boden &
Ryan Fleck

Brie Larson
Samuel L. Jackson
Ben Mendelsohn
Djimon HOunsou
Lee Pace
Lashana Lynch
Gemma Chan
Annette Bening
Clark Gregg
Jude Law

Screenplay by
Anna Boden &
Ryan fleck &
Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Danvers’ personality is the only clearly defined aspect of the character. Larson portrays her as smart and quick-witted, but also stubborn and incorrigible, unbothered about being liked or the way that those around her perceive her. The fish-out-of-water humor of her first moments on Earth sing for this reason, her quips working best once paired off to trade barbs with Jackson, who’s having tons of fun in a role that fits him like a glove. Ben Mendelsohn, strangely allowed to use his native Aussie accent to play a green alien, has his own fun as well, packing plenty of humor into what would otherwise be another villain turn until a later revelation of character.

Elsewhere the jokes clash clunkily not only with the characters around Danvers, but with the somewhat serious tone of the story itself. Additionally, a normally capable young actress like Larson isn’t able to adequately sell earnestness when the film calls for it. That failure is to the film’s detriment, especially once a second act plot turn reveals itself and the dynamic between the heroes and the villains change, introducing themes of nationalism, war, and the plight of refugees. The film doesn’t have a lot to say about those topics, aside from “they’re bad”, but their inclusion does change the tone irrevocably. That the typically light Marvel jokey banter persists gives the sense that the film doesn’t take either the story or the character terribly seriously.

The story and character issues are surprising coming from indie directors and screenwriters Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known for their mumblecore dramas like Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind. Much like most entries in the MCU, the chaotic action scenes seem to direct themselves, and Boden and Fleck certainly feel lost in them. There are some wonderful ways in which the filmmakers make their personal stamp felt, mainly in the playful, cleverly shaped dialogue, but also as directors. The sequence depicting how Carol gets her powers features perhaps the most strikingly beautiful visual effects evers seen in one of these films, and an early mind-probing trip through Carol’s memories is intelligently staged and hallucinatory. And it cannot be overstated the surreal nature of an intimate scene shot handheld during magic-hour in a $200 million blockbuster; the tall, green alien awkwardly hovering in the background only amplifies the effect.

It pains me greatly to have not enjoyed Captain Marvel for all it stands for. I suspect I will be in the minority, and that those who need it most will love it. I am grateful for its existence nevertheless, as Carol Danvers is a welcome addition to this franchise. Putting aside all other ways in which the film didn’t quite work for me, consider one of the moments that did. After Carol realizes the full extent of her abilities, discovering that she can fly, she soars through space, ramming herself through spaceship after explosive spaceship with all the wanton joy of a child on Christmas. After being haunted by her memories of constantly falling - or being pushed - down, and being kept down, she realizes she is more powerful than she ever thought. Not only does she get to stand up, but soar. I wish the rest of the movie soared with her.

Captain Marvel is currently playing in theaters everywhere.