“Captain Marvel” is a film you want to love. It’s a film you want to rub in the face of all misogynistic online trolls who refuse to accept a superhero that doesn’t look like them. You want it to be great so you can shut down all the sad boys who see female empowerment as a threat to their fragile masculinity. You want it to be so undeniably good, it sends all those haters scurrying back into their dark basements never to be heard from again. You want it to be so inspirational, it introduces a new generation of young girls and boys to the next great woman superhero.
If “Captain Marvel” had arrived a decade ago, it would have been that film. It would have been a revolutionary breath of fresh air. However, in 2019, after “Wonder Woman,” after “Agent Carter” and “Jessica Jones,” after all the badass women on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Game of Thrones” and the CW’s Arrow-verse shows, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 21st feature-length film — and first featuring a female hero in the lead role — is a bit late to the party. It feels a bit ordinary.
That’s not to say “Captain Marvel” is a bad film. It’s really not. The film is a fun, high-flying cosmic adventure that calls to mind Richard Donner’s “Superman.” However, it leans too far into Marvel’s tired-and-true origin-story formula. The result is a somewhat bland and predictable story that, despite some fun set pieces and solid character moments, never steps outside its proscribed box.
Set in 1995, Brie Larson (“Room”) stars as Carol Danvers, an Air Force pilot living on Hala, home planet of the Kree race, where she serves as an elite, super-powered soldier. Called Vers, she has no memory of her previous life on Earth, save for a collection of fragmented memories that haunt her dreams.
The many, many references to 1990s nostalgia in the form of clothing, music, technology are a mixed bag — some are clever, other are obvious. Your mileage may vary, but at a certain point the returns began to diminish for me.
Jude Law plays Yon-Rogg, Carol’s mentor, who trains her to use her mysterious cosmic powers, but mostly keeps her under his thumb. Law is just fine here, but the character is a bit one-note.
A much better pairing for Carol is Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. Still a young S.H.I.E.L.D. field agent, this pre-Avengers version of Fury is idealistic, jokey, and nothing like the jaded, manipulative tactician he later becomes. This is easily the best Fury we’ve seen on screen to date, and the fish-out-of-water pairing with Carol works so well. (And kudos to the digital effects team for its remarkable work de-aging Jackson.)
Annette Bening is also great, if somewhat underused, as an idealistic scientist with a mysterious connection to Carol. I won’t spoil too much about Bening’s role, but it’s a fresh take that streamlines a lot on comic book continuity that I liked, even if it’s likely to draw the ire of diehard fans.
“Captain Marvel” also marks the MCU debut of the Skrulls, a shapeshifting alien race with a long history in Marvel Comics. The film’s political take on the Skrulls is an interesting one that explores the issue of colonialism on a galactic level.
Ben Mendelsohn (“Ready Player One”) is a terrific and sympathetic antagonist as Talos, a Skrull leader who leads a team to Earth in search of a piece of technology that will help them end his people’s long war with the Kree.
Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are known for their work on television and indie films like “Half Nelson,” have a lock on the character of Carol. The film’s take on the character draws heavily from writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s essential runs on the “Captain Marvel” title from the last decade.
However, that characterization suffers some from the amnesia plot, which keeps Carol from knowing who she is for close to half the film. Larson’s otherwise strong performance is consequently bound by that point, preventing her from fully realizing the character. Here’s hoping subsequent film appearances will give us more of the self-possessed, badass Carol we saw in this film’s third act.
A strong message of female empowerment runs throughout the film. At times, it can feel on the nose, but it’s never tiresome. A sequence of flashbacks in which Carol fails and tries again in the face of sneering men had me pumping my fist, even if it felt a little trite. The absence of a romantic subplot is welcome, and it opens up room for developing strong friendships between characters.
Still, at this point, I wanted more from “Captain Marvel” — a more trenchant feminist message, something more revolutionary. It feels somewhat greedy to ask for more, since the film is actually quite good for what it is. But given all that’s come before it and how long audiences have had to wait for a character like this to lead a film, we expected something marvelous.