The Pitch: Vers (Brie Larson) is a warrior hero of the Kree, one made of steely determination, a knack for quick comebacks, a hell of a lot of actual firepower in her fists, a warm but tough mentor in Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and no idea of who she was prior to the past six years. If that name, Vers, seems not quite right, that’s because it’s not — it’s as old as her oldest clear memory. There are foggy memories in there as well, and as she learns when a rescue mission goes awry, the Skrulls — brutal shapeshifters locked in a long and bloody war with the Kree — have ways of getting those memories to surface. As Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) rummages around inside her mind, Vers starts to grab at a few threads. A woman (Lashana Lynch) with a warm smile — a friend, perhaps? A face she’s seen before (Annette Bening) as the Supreme Intelligence, which takes the form of the person you most admire. A little girl (Akira Akbar). A bar, a plane, a bunch of guys telling her what she can’t do. And a planet that seems awfully familiar — one onto which she’s just crash-landed.
Higher, Further, Faster, Familiar: At this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has released 21 feature films. Quite a few of them have been origin stories. This is another. There are some interesting tweaks to the formula, as writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) disrupt the traditional timeline in mild ways. (The screenplay, credited to Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, works from a story credited to Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, and the three screenwriters.) We meet a hero already in possession of her superpowers; she’s bypassed the whole bit where the hero makes a fatal mistake that must then be overcome and will fuel her subsequent journey. Instead, she’s made to seek out her own origin story, unknown to her as well as to the audience, and the film chronicles what she chooses to do as she learns about it. That’s what makes it different (well, that, and the fact that a female friendship sits at its core, something that wasn’t even true for good old Peggy Carter’s TV series).
But all the same, Captain Marvel doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it’s just a bit detrimental to the film. There’s training, and lots of it. There’s the development of some kind of code. Like Winter Soldier, there’s a lot of rummaging around in dark government facilities for information, and a great deal of paranoia. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the needle-dropping is rampant, and ties directly into the character’s emotional life. (More on that later.) Vers (okay, Carol Danvers, you know it’s coming) shares Thor’s delighted enjoyment of combat, Tony Stark’s penchant for witticisms that hint at greater depths, Steve Rogers’ frank but unstudied self-assurance and, most importantly, his need to serve. And like most origin stories, in and out of the MCU, hers has beats you can see coming from a mile away — not that it makes them (well, most of them) any less satisfying.
Talos, or the art of having a good time: There’s not much that can be said about Ben Mendelsohn’s performance that won’t give away key portions of the movie, though it’s safe to assume you’ll see him with and without his human face, as Talos is one of the aforementioned shapeshifting Skrulls. What can be said is that he’s a goddamn hoot, a villain with an off-balance sense of humor played by an actor who finds a way to walk the razor-thin wire required for a comic bad guy who nevertheless conveys real menace. If Captain Marvel feels a bit like a quilt stitched together from recognizable Marvel moments, faded Nirvana T-shirts, and cat hair, then one of those squares is definitely Loki-shaped, and the film is all the better for it. That’s in part because Mendelsohn, no doubt used to jaw-clenching villainy by now, seems to dance around in the puddle of his own star persona, kicking up our associations with the roles he’s played as he goes along.
And that’s the key to his success, as well as that of Brie Larson (obviously indispensable) and Lashana Lynch as Marie Rambeau (not much less so): They all seem to be really enjoying themselves. Not every performance is made better by sheer, giddy enjoyment — one cannot imagine that, say, The Revenant would have been enhanced if it seemed like Leonardo DiCaprio just loved his job — but these three certainly are. And in the cases of Lynch and Larson specifically, that pleasure helps to define the film, because it helps to define the relationship which sits at its heart. Carol and Marie Rambeau love each other — that’s clear even before Carol figures out what the hell is up with her brain — but they also very clearly like each other, and that energy percolates through the film’s final act (and helps correct the imbalance of the too-rushed middle act, which shortchanges Carol’s emotional journey in favor of getting the plot moving).
Cats and Blockbuster: Goose the cat is, as you might suspect, amazing. The constant I Love The ‘90s vibe, somewhat less so. At its best, the film uses both the cute animal and the nostalgia to turn the familiar proceedings on their head. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is on mission, but he can’t help but stop and give some head pats! A much-needed piece of intelligence surfaces, and a PC’s CD-ROM drive takes forever to load! At worst (and there is no cat example here, the cat is perfect), it’s rolling around in the ‘90s much like an overlong edition of Pop-Up Video. In fact, the endless Now That’s What I Call musical choices rob the few really perfect choices, those with some emotional impact, of some of their potency.
It’s nuts, you can actually see the fights, so weird right?: That’s actually not true of a chaotic early battle scene, but other than that, you can actually follow the action of the combat sequences in a non-Ragnarok Marvel movie. It’s pretty exciting. (The elevator fight in Winter Soldier is the exception that proves the rule, and it still moves too fast.)
But wait, what about the woman stuff?: Captain Marvel’s most revolutionary element is not the gender of its protagonist. That’s important, and long overdue, but it’s nowhere near as significant as this: The big, sweeping hero lessons that Carol Danvers learns are rooted in the female experience. These are the thematic notes that Boden and Fleck strike: Emotion is not weakness. Validation is not an indication of worth. Pain, loss, and trauma are natural human experiences. Self-knowledge is more valuable than reputation. Only you know what your needs are. There’s a difference between stifling emotion and seeking calm and focus.
It can take years to learn this stuff in life, no matter who you are. But women and femme-identifying people are told the contrary, especially when they want to enter predominantly male spaces, with great frequency. Carol Danvers learning this stuff throughout a Marvel movie is no small thing.
The verdict: It might seem like damning with faint praise to say that the most exciting thing about Captain Marvel is the anticipation it inspires for what’s coming next. It’s not. An origin story is supposed to do just that. It’s why Iron Man ends with a press conference, The First Avenger ends with Steve waking up, and Black Panther ends with Wakanda introducing itself to the world. Captain Marvel inspires similar feelings, and that’s a good thing — particularly with Monica Rambeau hanging out with her mom and a certain two-way pager getting its own origin story.
That doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable to wish that Captain Marvel felt a little more original and substantial. There are touches of the freshness that percolated through Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, two films that brought new points of view, loads of promise, and no small amount of political and social resonance to the MCU, but only a little of the sense of newness and boldness that Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi’s films had in abundance. Still, like many great sci-fi and action films of the ‘90s, Captain Marvel has serious sequel energy. It promises one, great thing: She’ll be back.
Where’s It Playing? Is there a theater in your galaxy? It’ll be playing there March 8th.