You’ll already know the real story of Captain Marvel, even if you don’t know the specifics. The first film from Marvel Studios to focus on a female hero, and one of very few at all in recent memory? The latest high-profile target of ‘fan’ opprobrium, ostensibly because of opinions held by one of the actors involved? The sixth biggest opening weekend in history? In 2019, there’s plenty to untangle about a new superhero film before you even take your seat, and Captain Marvel is the most talked-about in a long time.
Here, Brie Larson stars as Veers. She’s part of an interplanetary SWAT team for the alien Kree, fighting an endless war against shapeshifting baddies the Skrulls. But an encounter with a machine which unearths hidden memories, and a hasty escape to Earth in the mid-1990s, reveals another long-hidden life. As she pulls that thread, teaming up with the pre-SHIELD Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) for a road trip of sorts, she discovers that the answers she seeks raise even more questions – and could help to end the war itself.
The film doesn’t pat itself on the back for finally foregrounding a female lead, and nor should it. There’s no unsubtle girl-power message that’s hammered home, and certainly nothing to justify so much male internet rage, not that that ever stopped anyone. But there is a nicely delivered message, about refusing to be underestimated or kept down, which is woven throughout the narrative. The film’s massive box office returns, in spite of a fanboy-led boycott, illustrate this theme fairly well (although it feels vulgar to root for Disney when it comes to money).
Oscar-winner Larson is as fantastic as you’d expect in the title role, a steely badass who frequently steals scenes with a raised eyebrow or smirk. Seeing her punching, flying through space, and radiating cosmic energy is joyful. She totally sells her character’s struggle to reconcile her two lives while fighting alien wars, with some genuinely moving scenes involving a colleague and mentor. Jackson is another delight, reprising the role of Nick Fury before he becomes the stoic grandpa of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s very fun to see him playing the rookie for a change. Ben Mendelssohn performs his standard sexy Australian villain routine, this time wearing Green Goblin makeup, but a surprising turn gives him the opportunity to try something a little different.
The most noteworthy thing about Captain Marvel how far it veers from the well-established Marvel template. Yes, there’s an extraordinary person learning to channel their specialness, not mention fan service, spaceships and aliens that talk and act an awful lot like humans. But none of the upstart studio’s previous films have ever leaned so heavily on the concept of memory as a narrative device. The movie is practically Hitchcockian in all of the paranoia, doppelgängers, amnesia, timeline jumping and sudden betrayals it dabbles in. An early flashback sequence plays with abstract imagery and jarring editing to feel like a collaboration between Terrence Malick and Peter Tscherkassky. I wanted more of that! It’s enough to keep Captain Marvel feeling fresh and fun.
Likewise, the 1990s setting allows directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck to not only broaden the edges of the Marvel universe, but to add cultural flavour (Blockbuster Video, Elastica and flannel) that spices up a few otherwise unremarkable exposition and action scenes. Surprisingly, one of the main 90s influences seems to be the oeuvre of Michael Bay; not only is there enough military hardware on display to sink an aircraft carrier, but some of the action sequences here feel a lot like his work – fast-paced, noisy and almost totally incoherent.
And while the story is well-paced, any scenes featuring the alien Kree (with the exception of Annette Bening, as always), stop the movie dead; the characters just aren’t developed enough. Elsewhere, some plot developments are telegraphed with a bullhorn. These are just some of a handful of flaws which perhaps keep Captain Marvel from being a true classic. But, for a few glorious moments, it soars.