Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★★½
Release year: 2019
Genre: Action, Superhero Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

With Captain Marvel, after more than 20 films over the past decade, we now have a female-led superhero film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as the first woman director in the MCU: Anna Boden. Like DC’s Wonder Woman, the film’s cultural politics and expectations are a weighty burden to bear, as indicated by the smear campaign of online dudebro trolls attempting to derail Captain Marvel‘s Rotten Tomatoes’ stats. But Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel is certainly up to the task–she is unstoppable, both inside and outside of this film.

Set in the mid-1990s, and serving as a key plot point between the twin Avengers films, Infinity War and this summer’s Endgame, Captain Marvel lovingly embraces tropes from the “buddy cop” genre, nodding to the wondrous years of Blockbuster Video, Mallrats, and grunge music. But it doesn’t go full Guardians of the Galaxy in either its nostalgia nor its snarky humor. Instead, Boden and Fleck’s film–which they also co-wrote–strikes a balance between formalism and realism (as much as one can do so following the MCU boilerplate) as a competent character study which is both enriching and entertaining.

Carol Danvers–introduced as “Vers”–is a Starforce (not to be confused with Trump’s “Space Force”) warrior living on Hala, the home planet of the Kree, an alien empire at war with the shape-shifting Skulls. Unable to remember who she was prior to her arrival on Hala six years earlier, she trains and fights to manage the extreme powers she contains within herself, namely shooting giant laser beams from her fists. When a mission with her Starforce crew goes sour, she ends up captured by Skrull commander Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who taps into her hidden memories to find coordinates for a supposed laboratory containing a secret for ending the war. When Vers/Carol ends up crash landing on Earth after escaping the Skrulls, she teams up with youthful S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to stop the Skrulls and get back to her team. But with her memories coming back and with new revelations on Earth, she finds herself with larger questions about her identity and origins, and whether she’s fighting on the right side of history.

There’s a nonchalant mischievousness to Carol/Vers when she’s in combat, but it’s not like the sarcasm of Spider-Man or the snark of Stark. In a battle scene where she escapes from Talos, as a Skrull roars in her face, Carol roars back before charging headlong at him, almost playfully. She maintains this aloof-yet-amused posture throughout the film, although there are hints of genuine care and emotional depth behind this fun-loving facade. Despite its numerous plot points and narrative twists and turns, Captain Marvel remains consistent with Boden and Fleck’s previous character-driven films–Half Nelson, Sugar, Mississippi Grind–about solitary people coping with loss and difficulty from their past lives, stories about a “fish out of water” with a rich interiority. Carol (and Larson’s performance) fits their oeuvre perfectly; though incapable of external defeat, there are signs of internal struggles, where mind, body, and spirit are coping with the lingering scars.

So it’s the interiority, not the externals, which truly threatens Carol as she strives to recover her memory and sense of identity. Larson is working in familiar territory here–her excellent performances in Short Term 12 and Room (she won an Oscar for the latter) are also about resilient women facing the future in light of a past of trauma at the hands of abusive, manipulative men. These are stories of women taking back and embracing their stories, becoming heroes and advocates for others; indeed, their stories were truly theirs all along, as evidenced by their indefatigable spirits. Larson is charming and forceful without becoming sappy or overbearing. Her chemistry with Jackson feels genuine, and really embraces the buddy cop motif in the film’s middle portion. Moreover, Mendelsohn is doing something truly remarkable here: even beneath loads of green alien makeup, he generates empathy and humor in spades, a testament to his incredible acting chops. In all this, Carol’s laid-back indifference can be seen as a coping mechanism for the trauma of the past, spurred on by the Kree’s Vulcan-esque stifling of emotions as promoted by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Carol’s coach/mentor harboring ulterior motives. Captain Marvel is a film about the struggle of overcoming one’s trauma and using that newfound strength to help others, a richly complex theme in a film ostensibly about aliens and superheroes. Carol learns to face her past–sometimes literally, as she reunites with best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch)–and step (or fly) into the future, one which will inevitably bring her to Endgame. Which is a somewhat disappointing reminder, to be honest. Even as there are plenty of moments where the MCU machine overshadows the originality Boden and Fleck bring to their film, there are an equal number of fresh and interesting aspects–the flashbacks, the entire Louisiana sequence, Carol’s final transformation, the presence of Goose the “cat”–where Captain Marvel soars. Captain Marvel shouldn’t simply be treated as a mere stepping stone between the Avengers‘ CGI-punchfests when it truly stands on its own as a solid contribution to the superhero genre. It’s marvelous.

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