“Captain Marvel” soars above narrative problems with a heroic lead and plenty of Marvel spectacle

Over the last ten years and 21 movies, Marvel has perfected a formula to their movies – like a family handing down a recipe for a nice sauce over the generations. More often than not, and especially for origin stories, this formula involves a budding hero of super qualities, a villain who wants a weapon of destructive qualities, and said hero trying to stop said baddie while learning to discover the true hero inside. This recipe can be found in movies ranging from Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy and all the way to multi-Oscar-winning Black Panther – but those movies proved that how you spin the material is what makes each MCU outing memorable. The latest entry, Captain Marvel, has a few strong elements going for it that make it an energetic, inspiring and often delightfully strange adventure in this mighty franchise, but one or two major factors that prove it’s succumbed to the formula rather than taking it higher and further than it’s gone before.

Sadly, it doesn’t take long for some of these cracks to show up. Starting off by showing our hero, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) on the planet Hala and part of the Kree unit Starforce, it takes a different turn from other origin tales in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While we get to know those characters from their most fundamental roots, Danvers is going by the name Vers while on this alien planet and while part of their version of Seal Team Six, having no memory of her Earthling self. As a result, she has been molded into a soldier by the likes of Yon-Rogg and Supreme Intelligence (Jude Law and Annette Bening), who try to convince her to suppress her inner emotions and by extension her mighty powers. She has no sense of agency or identity, having been molded into a person these other individuals have forced her into.

That’s a refreshing concept, at the start. During a space battle that calls to mind a grittier take on something you would see in Guardians, Larson’s Danvers proves a mighty hero indeed. She bashes the skulls of various Skrulls, shapeshifting villains who try to harvest her memories, and unleashes some nifty proton blasts from her hands, proving she’s not meant to be locked in an emotional cage. Trying to escape, she’s blasted from her escape pod and crashes to the planet below, which turns out to be Earth. She crashes through the roof of a Blockbuster Video, which is merely one of the seemingly endless nostalgic flourishes that take you right back to the 90s setting, featuring music from bands like Hole, TLC, and others you can’t believe are now that old.

From here and until about the halfway point the script from Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck (who both direct, as well) and Geneva Robertson-Dworet fails to establish either a compelling story or convincing character arc for its title hero, which is a rather disappointing takeaway for a Marvel movie. The positive about establishing a simple character arc in movies like Iron Man and Captain America is it gives the characters an identity to grab onto, and thus someone and something for the audiences to grasp onto. I found myself not especially engaged in Danvers or what she was doing, as she spends most of the time hunting bad guys – which is seen again and again in superhero movies – while being stricken with flashbacks about her life before alien military service. Again, I love the idea of Danvers searching for her own identity and breaking the shackles of the domineering patriarchy (Law’s character, essentially), but the problem is that self-discovering journey doesn’t seem like a major priority for Danvers. She’s more interested in hunting Skrulls than finding out who she is, the latter merely a B-plot that burdens her, rather than an actual mystery she’s compelled to solve.

The end result is a story that feels trapped in trying to balance a basic hero-versus-bad guy scenario, while trying to spin the concept of the hero’s discovery of their inner power into something that’s inspirational, impactful, and introduces the character to audiences. But it all ends up being muddled along the way, all until the final half, whereupon she learns about her past and the evil nature of those she knows and begins a righteous, empowering journey to fight back against the institutions she’s been kept down by. When she flares up for the first time, raging with inner power, it’s a cheer-worthy moment not only to see the hero finally, literally, shine but also because it felt like the story finally found its footing.

Carol “Vers” Danvers (Brie Larson) and her Starforce squad.

For all those narrative flaws none of that blame should be placed on Larson. She’s commanding in the lead role and perfectly charming, having a quick wit and has no problem tearing someone down with a playful jab or joke, which would make her a perfect bantering partner for someone like Doctor Strange or Iron Man. Demonstrated in movies like Room and Trainwreck, Larson has an impeccable skill in expressing the slightest emotions with subtlest facial cues, like the tilting of her head, the narrowing of eyes, etc. She’s compelling even as she simply listens to other actors as they speak, responding in the noticeable, effective ways without speaking a word. As a warrior she’s 100 percent committed, soaring into the action scenes and being natural enough at them to pepper in some moments for humor or sheer lunacy. She will make an excellent addition to the franchise, and hopefully, she gets a more compelling, focused story to flesh out the character in future movies.

Like a cheese to fine wine, or a pile of mashed potatoes to steak, Larson is wonderfully paired with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, taking place while he still had hair and both eyes. Much more buoyant and less stoic than the Fury we know, his charm bounces off Danvers’ nicely, to the point where I would just rather watch the two in a buddy cop movie down the line. In fact, Danvers has plenty of amazing pals, including Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, a fighter pilot alongside Danvers before she went away, and who gets some tremendous hero moments of her own when piloting a tricked-out airplane against alien invaders. Bonds between characters like this makeup various parts of the heart of Captain Marvel, and watching Larson perform with them brings out the best in both her and the character. And what more can be said about the adorable cat Goose? On top of being a precious little thing, he is much more than meets the eye and is a figure with perhaps one of the biggest impacts on the MCU other than Fury.

Then there are the villains, and there’s one I won’t spoil, but the central character to root against is the Skrull leader Talos, played by resident bad-guy-actor Ben Mendelsohn. While he could’ve phoned it in underneath pounds of makeup, he gives Talos a delightfully odd accent, coming off like a no-nonsense English street tough with a bit of a laid-back attitude and sense of humor. The movie is incredibly strange in parts, and all the better for it, and a large part of that is thanks to Mendelsohn having so much fun with the role when he wants to and being emotional and engaging when he needs to.

A superhero movie isn’t a superhero movie without the action, and in that arena is, well, it’s no Winter Solider. The action scenes are fine, becoming their best in the end when Danvers can unleash her powers, don an incredible helm over her armor (with room for a mohawk), and soar through the air like a superpowered phoenix. Before that she gets to kick ass to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” which is all at once so 90s and so clever and bananas. The only downside to many of these fight scenes and spectacle bits is something that is a crux on other MCU movies, and that’s the inexplicable need to get in close with the camera, giving no space for the combat breathe. Some of these scenes felt so cluttered and were hard to get absorbed in. The scenes that work best come in the end, while others have a level of absurdity to them that make up for wonky camera work.

By the end of the movie I was clapping with the rest of the audience, envigored by the high-flying Danvers demonstrating all her powers and bringing this funny, charming and all-around endlessly entertaining superhero movie to a close. But the journey is a rough one starting out, and the script can’t help but be hindered by formula at the center of its story, all the while a much more enriching, personal tale is buried and trying to break free. No doubt others will make it their new favorite movie, especially young girls, who finally get to see a strong woman take the lead in such a huge movie in this franchise, much like Wonder Woman in her 2017 movie. I do believe that, as a character, Danvers deserved a more focused tale to truly highlight her more inspirational persona, and I hope we get that movie in a sequel. For now, this movie is a solid introduction to the character and her potential, and I can’t wait to see her fly higher, further and faster in more movies.

Grade: B+

 

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