'Captain Marvel' Is a Flawed, But Necessary Superhero Movie

It's an unfortunate fact of the world we live in that many movies not starring straight white men come with baggage. An adventure like Captain Marvel has to account not just for the fact that it’s the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe...

captain marvel
Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

It's an unfortunate fact of the world we live in that many movies not starring straight white men come with baggage. An adventure like Captain Marvel has to account not just for the fact that it’s the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe focused solely on a female character, but it also has to contend with the jerks online who are livid that star Brie Larson wants more women and people of color at her press days.

Which is to say: It's hard to treat Captain Marvel as just another Marvel movie. But having seen 21 movies in this franchise, that's just what it is -- for better and for worse. If you go in expecting one of the studio’s more recent, creatively ambitious endeavors like the Oscar-winningBlack Panther, you’re not going to get it. Instead, Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, is a solid origin story that feels a little more out of Phase One of the franchise, when the cinematic universe was playing it safe with its tone. It’s a good time, full of MCU world building and some charmingly weird aliens, but doesn't break the mold despite its mold-breaking hero.

Vers with her Kree friends. | Marvel Studios

That hero is Carol Danvers, known by multiple names throughout the film. It starts off on the planet Hala, belonging to the Kree people, where the woman who will soon become Captain Marvel is now just Vers, an alien warrior with blue blood, a memory loss problem, and supercharged fists. The Kree are lorded over by the Supreme Intelligence, an A.I. that takes the form the person approaching it most respects. For Vers, that's a person she doesn't recognize, played by Annette Bening. (It's hard not to be wowed in the presence of one of the greatest living actresses.) Vers and her team, including her advisor (Jude Law), are sent on a mission to a nearby planet where the shapeshifting Skrulls have taken one of their own prisoner. Their plans go awry, Vers is captured, and the Skrulls prod her mind, digging through her childhood and more recent history as an Air Force pilot and Guns N' Roses fan for a mysterious clue.

She quickly escapes her captivity using her supercharged fists, and crash lands into a Southern California Blockbuster in 1995. She immediately takes aim at Arnold Schwarzenegger on a True Lies poster in the first of many nods at '90s culture, including needle drops from TLC, Nirvana, No Doubt, and Hole that range in effectiveness. (It was awesome to hear "Celebrity Skin," but Courtney Love's tirade is a weird fit for our noble protagonist.) Vers' arrival attracts the attention of a young S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with two working eyes named Nick Fury (a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), and the two team together to battle the Skrulls, who are led by the charismatic Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), causing havoc on Earth. To avoid spoilers, I won't say much more, but Mendelsohn's playful performance is a highlight.

The key to all of the action, of course, is Vers' own backstory as Carol. When she was on Earth, she worked with a brilliant scientist, Wendy Lawson (Bening, again), developing light-speed technology for an Air Force-associated organization called Pegasus. Carol spends much of the running time missing a piece of her identity -- even her own name. All she knows of herself at the outset is that she doesn't quite fit in with the Kree, given her penchant for cracking jokes and her tendency to act on intuition rather than steely logic. From the initial moments, it feels inevitable that embracing the former is the key to Carol's ascension to ass-kicking glory.

captain marvel
With Nick Fury. | Marvel Studios

Larson's career as of late has been defined by intensely felt, naturalistic performances in low-key dramas like Short Term 12 and Room. And while she's shown her comic chops in the likes of United States of Tara and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, she doesn't seem quite as suited to Marvel's brand of quippy dialogue. Where her Carol comes alive is in the one-on-one scenes she has with Fury and, eventually, her old Air Force colleague and one-time best friend, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).

Though Maria and Carol's relationship is framed as the crux of narrative, it's the one she builds with Fury that gets more screen time. At this point, Jackson could play the eyepatch-wearing Avengers ringleader in his sleep, but he seems to relish embodying Fury in his more naïve, goofier form, without the sheen of all-knowing badass. (Nineties Fury spends a bunch of time cooing over a cat named Goose, who makes for an adorable sidekick with an otherworldly secret.) Larson and Jackson have an easy chemistry that you wish she would have been able to cultivate with Lynch. But there's a franchise in orbit, and Carol's connection to Fury is what directly ties Captain Marvel to Avengers: Endgame, out next month.

Marvel Studios

Boden and Fleck, who made indies like Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, have a tendency to deal with well-intentioned, but flawed humans searching for connection in a harsh world. While Carol is not shaded with any sort of messy inner conflict -- she's too busy trying to find out who she is -- Captain Marvel is fundamentally concerned with that same decency. The plot's big twist is a clever, sweet one that you may be able to guess if you recall the Kree's previous appearance in the MCU in Guardians of the Galaxy. That turn, however, allows Carol to figure out her motivation for fighting, and it's for the idea of family, be that actual or invented. As for Carol's gender, thankfully none of the principal characters are all that surprised that she's a capable warrior. Save for a few heavy-handed moments with misogynistic bit players, Boden and Fleck have Carol deal with more familiar forms of discrimination, the kind that's institutional and thinks women let their emotions get the better of them.

The raw material is all there, but filmmaking itself does not yield any truly thrilling, resonant moments. The action sequences are rote, at times almost muddled. A CGI set piece toward the end looks downright retro, and not in a cool, '90s way. But, hey, there have been plenty of male Marvel stars have gotten totally serviceable vehicles -- why can't that be acceptable for a woman? 

By the end, I was just left wondering what took Marvel so long. According to the screenplay, Carol is a crucial part of this lore. For Nick Fury, she's the whole basis of the Avengers Initiative that we've been following on screen for over 10 years now. I couldn't help but imagine a version of the MCU where we met Carol back in 2009, and have now seen her evolve as a character the same way we've seen Thor or Captain America grow. So why didn't that happen? Oh, right. Some good old-fashioned Hollywood sexism.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.