First teased during the post credits sequence of Avengers: Infinity War, the 21st Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Captain Marvel fully introduces audiences to a character MCU producer and mastermind Kevin Feige described as “…the strongest character [the MCU’s] ever had.” Considering the massive carnage on display throughout the film, this is an unequivocally true statement and it makes the wait for the soon-approaching Avengers: Endgame all the more unbearable. This, however, typifies the paradoxical after-taste of the Captain Marvel experience: its inherent need to directly connect to the events of the other films requires it to sacrifice its unique identity to the detriment of the whole.
Set in 1995 and far from Earth, the warring nations of Kree and Skrull battle for galactic supremacy, each equally taking on as many losses as wins. While on a mission to recover an asset, Kree’s elite military unit Starforce – comprised of amnesiac Vers (Brie Larson), Bron-Char (Rune Temte), Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan), Att-Lass (Algenis Perez Soto), Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and leader Von-Rogg (Jude Law) – find themselves engaging in combat against a group of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). When their ensuing battle finds members of both parties landing on Earth, both sides make a discovery which may just turn the tide and change the outcome of the war forever.
Directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson & It’s Kind of a Funny Story) are absolutely adept at handling the complexities of a film which must balance a large ensemble cast and a sci-fi adventure with a spy thriller twist, all while keeping the core character-focused. At no point during Captain Marvel does anything feel rushed, glossed over, or left unexplained, nor does it rely too much on spectacle to distract from narrative weaknesses. Even most impressively, Marvel possesses one of the more fun origin stories in the MCU, if only because the approach to filling in the back story is executed in a manner which feels ripped straight from a Douglas Adam novel: wholly informative in material and absolutely ridiculous in execution. The whole of Captain Marvel exists in this consistent duality which is always moving the story forward in interesting ways. This should not be too much of a shock since Boden and Fleck’s backgrounds are more story-based than action based and their co-writer, Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Tomb Raider), brings some experience in action to the table. It doesn’t hurt that Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Meg LeFauve (Inside Out) aided in crafting the story with Boden, Fleck, and Robertson-Dworet, as their respective experiences help the directors imbue Marvel with humor and pathos. Thankfully, much of the humor doesn’t come from watching Vers engage with Earth, a planet she doesn’t know, but does come from the incredible chemistry between screen partners Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, who returns to the MCU as a younger version of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury. Theirs is a buddy film audiences will delight in and want more of. However, even though Marvel is a slick film with nary a wasted moment or loss of momentum, it’s still not a strong film because of the one thing it does to streamline the narrative: connect to the rest of the MCU.
While arguments can be made over which MCU character owns the best origin, all of them exist and function as standalone features. Captain Marvel does not. Without delving into spoiler territory, Marvel taps into the collective knowledge of the 20 previous films in order to skip over explaining objects, motives, or general connections. Marvel utilizes this well, but it prevents the film from standing on its own premise. Examined as a singularity, there’s nothing but confusion and questions once the credits role. Similarly, as it’s set in the mid-nineties, many sequences are overlaid atop songs by No Doubt, Elastica, Garbage, and more. Considering the female focus of Marvel and the female-heavy bands of the nineties, this is a natural fit, much like Gunn’s music selections in both Guardians films, except the songs here aren’t as organically introduced as they are in Guardians. Instead, they’re being used to amplify a scene’s emotionality or amp the momentum of the action. While it certainly makes sense to include the music, not to mention an additional tapping of nostalgia for older audiences, this choice feels more like an homage to ‘90s action flicks than as a true addition to the scenes. Lastly, and this is the biggest item which highlights the paradox of the film, the exhibition of power induces audiences to immediately think of what Vers will do when she encounters Thanos post-Infinity War. This is both a titillating thought and an absolute distraction to the film as it plays. For as much as the other films are often described as being an advertisement for the next film, almost the whole of Marvel is exactly that. Considering the character’s vast history stemming from its creation in the late sixties, Captain Marvel deserves to be more than a precursor to Endgame. It deserves a chance to stand on its own.
When all is said and done, Captain Marvel is a damn fun film which gives audiences exactly what they need, even if it’s not what they think they want. Larson is great as the titular Captain Marvel as she brings plenty of riot grrl spunk and heart, grounding the otherwise cosmically powerful superhero. Jackson is great, as always, and Mendelsohn all but steals the entire film, improving every scene by simply being a part of it. Even better, the best parts of Marvel aren’t in the trailers, meaning there are plenty of surprises – in performances, narrative, and Stan the Man, of course – which make it a film to return to. That said, while Captain Marvel may not incite the cultural impact of Wonder Woman or Black Panther, it is a strong continuation of the diversification of the MCU roster. Maybe, now with the origin complete, the next one can shuffle off the past and look to the future.
In theaters beginning March 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.