The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been around for eleven years, resulted in twenty-one movies, and made a grand total of—let me crunch the numbers—eleventy trillion dollars. Marvel Studios has enough money to make whatever kind of movie they want: special effects smorgasbords? Check. Talking space raccoon? You got it. A female lead? Well, that’ll take over a decade. But here we are in 2019 and Captain Marvel has finally arrived, and while it’s certainly too late, hopefully it’s not too little.
When Captain Marvel kicks off, our hero is living on the planet Hala and going by ‘Vers’. That was the name given to her by the Kree, an alien race that rescued Vers and donated their blood to save her after an unspecified disaster. The Kree are at war with the Skrulls, a race of shapeshifters who are ravaging Kree border planets, and Vers is part of an elite military force that’s out to stop them. Their mission takes Vers to a more unfamiliar planet with even stranger terms: Earth in 1995.
It’s not her first time on Earth, but she doesn’t know it. Vers is an amnesiac who’s haunted by flashes of her forgotten past, which Captain Marvel hints at by having Vers say something to the effect of “I’m an amnesiac who’s haunted by flashes of my forgotten past” three times within the first ten minutes. Rather than finding an interesting way to introduce us to Vers (otherwise known as Carol Danvers), the movie just has her describe herself in casual conversation.
Such clumsiness is sometimes to be expected from the opening scenes of a comic book movie—but Captain Marvel doesn’t develop Carol Danvers beyond her surface level descriptions. She doesn’t have a character arc. She hardly undergoes an internal struggle. For the entirety of the movie, Carol is the same stalwart, cool, and collected hero, and she simply directs her unwavering power towards whatever problems arise. The only thing that changes about her is how much she knows. One starts to get a sense of how uninteresting Superman would be without kryptonite.
It’s not just the protagonist that’s thinly sketched. The movie’s central conflict is the war between the Kree and the Skrulls, which we barely get to know before Carol crash-lands on Earth. She then veers off to find her lost memories, but the plot is still largely driven by the Kree-Skrull conflict—and it’s hard to feel invested in that conflict without a closer look into what’s driving it. More details are given late into the movie, but by then, we’ve spent a lot of time watching a war without a reason to care about who wins.
Things spice up a bit when Nick Fury joins the game, because we’re familiar with the character and because he’s Samuel L. Jackson. Other side characters don’t fare as well: we’re asked to care about people from Carol’s past when we know as little about them as amnesiac Carol does. Everybody’s a bunch of blank slates. The screenplay for Captain Marvel wasn’t in need of touching up; it was in need of a full rewrite.
Thankfully, the performances are first-rate all around. Ben Mendelsohn is deliciously droll as the leader of the Skrulls, and Annette Bening could improve any movie with her mere presence. Perhaps most impressive is Sam Jackson, and not because of his acting—the digital de-aging work done on him is flat out astounding. With these visual effects, actors might never truly die.
The star of the show is, of course, Brie Larson, who lights Carol up with color even when the screenplay leaves her black and white. Larson has been seen as a real-life feminist hero, and that comes through loud and clear in her performance. The determination in her eyes relays a power and a humanity that cannot be denied. She earns every bit of the admiration she’s going to get from girls growing up on superhero movies.
It’s a shame that the rest of the movie can’t rise up to meet her level. Captain Marvel will inevitably be compared to DC’s Wonder Woman, since there’s still an appalling inequality between comic book movies fronted by men and those fronted by women. Wonder Woman has a perfectly directed, perfectly shot moment in which the hero steps into danger when the men around her are cowering in fear. Patty Jenkins’ cinematic alchemy elevated that moment into something poignant and universal: it brought thousands of viewers to tears, including me. Captain Marvel doesn’t have a moment like that. The action scenes are shot so listlessly that they border on boring. It feels like a chore to get done before Endgame. The movie’s feminism is deeply necessary, but Marvel Studios deserves the blame for phoning this opportunity in.