Captain Marvel Review

A high-flying superhero movie sticks the landing when it stays grounded.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, by and large, built on an idea. Not to bring together remarkable people, but to mimic a certain affable tone laid out all the way back in 2008. Further films in the Avengers world have strained against, improved upon, and often just replicated that mix of humor and low-stakes emotional consequences from the original Iron Man. But all of it is still more-or-less rooted in what worked more than 10 years ago.

Captain Marvel is the first MCU film in about that long that feels unmoored from the subtly strict formula. That’s partly thanks to the setting, of course. It’s literally detached from the rest of the series.

Captain Marvel largely takes place in 1995 — more than a decade before the majority of the other films. And it does a solid, if sometimes overly obvious job of anchoring the action in that specific period. Songs like “Just a Girl” and “Only Happy When It Rains” sting the travel montages and fight scenes. A digitally (and convincingly) de-aged Samuel L. Jackson gets to flex his tragically underutilized range as Nick Fury (still with both eyes, which this movie addresses in what might be its most surprising twist).

Twists and Transformation

Speaking of twists, Captain Marvel has one, but even folks who don’t know the comics will see it coming a mile off. The trailers “spoil” 99 percent of it anyway. Although the film’s core goal — an in media res origin story for one of the MCU’s most powerful individuals — doesn’t really require surprise. Because part of why Captain Marvel feels so different from its predecessors is thanks to a more leisurely, character-focused pace.

The titular captain, called Vers and pronounced “veers” for most of the movie, starts as a soldier for the Kree Empire — those often-blue aliens that pop up in MCU movies and shows now and again. She can’t remember anything beyond the past six years of her life, but has magic hands that shoot energy blasts. Which is not something Kree normally do.

The whole amnesia thing gives Cap plenty of room to grow. Although she… doesn’t really need it. The midway start through her origin means much of her personal growth occurs off-screen: hinted at in flashbacks, but not really shown directly. So when her big “overcome all odds” moment occurs, it’s not about finding the strength to save the day. It’s about remembering she had it all along.

That doesn’t make for the most traditionally dramatic climax — at least not by Marvel blockbuster strictures. But it does feel appropriate. It means her antagonists and would-be abusers don’t get to steal the spotlight. Hell, there’s not even a romantic subplot to drag the hero away from hero stuff.

That narrow focus doesn’t always work, though. Brie Larson (the hero herself) and Jackson are terrific on-screen together. They trade a wit that feels bone dry compared to usual MCU slapstick. And character-building scenes with them doing dishes or just flat-out trying to make each other laugh work wonders. Yet, off to the side, worthwhile supporting characters get forgotten. Specifically: Captain Marvel’s bestie Maria Rambeau and her daughter Monica.

The family seems to enter suspended animation whenever Captain Marvel isn’t around or doesn’t need them. (What exactly were they doing during the six years Maria’s best friend went missing?) And it certainly doesn’t help the movie’s mild case of white feminism.

Higher, Further, Slower

By now you might have heard about the U.S. Air Force recruitment ad running ahead of the movie. Well… it’s there, and it sure does want to glom onto the icon of Marvel’s first woman with her own film (who comes a measly 11 years after they started making these things). The ad includes such “empowering” footage as women bombing an unspecified location — a mosque or somebody’s wedding, perhaps? Who can say!

The movie itself doesn’t actually address the captain’s own time in the U.S. military much. If I drew anything from its very brief addressal in flashback, it looks like she used her career to escape a bad home life — something which many real-world women do use the armed forces for, with varying results — and as a personal hurdle to clear.

In fact, when Captain Marvel does lightly express ideological opinions, it’s not exactly kind to the American empire. The bad guys are a military regime that brands otherwise peaceful refugees as “terrorists” to perpetuate a war of expansion. Although it’s all performed with science fiction metaphor — with aliens and ray guns and superpowers. Even so, I find it extremely good and funny that this is the movie the U.S. military threw so much money after.

Captain Marvel Movie Review

Those bigger ideas aren’t purely for “what a twist” shock value, either. Captain Marvel makes sure to circle back on the victims of its core conflict. It shows hints of them at play and in love, as much as at war. It doesn’t condemn them for fighting for their survival. Not when that’s what it’s all about: survival. It’s a level of nuance not often seen (or admittedly required) by most other Marvel movies. But it elevates what could have been an otherwise didactic message into something smarter.

There’s a lot to get through before you reach that point, however. Captain Marvel’s slower pace and relatively few fight scenes aren’t exactly on par with Guardians of the Galaxy (despite all the aliens). Larson nails the calmer tone with off-the-cuff charm and subtle amusement, rather than arm-waving antics. But I’m curious to see if the average moviegoer will be prepared for the change in gears.

Onward and Upwards

Certainly, the MCU is at its best the more it tries new things (Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok). But even the most out-there entries share the same breathless DNA. Captain Marvel slows things down without quite giving us memorable supporting characters to latch onto during the slower going.

As such, it throws a bit of the good out with the starting-to-get-old. Which, in this particular case, doesn’t play well in contrast — what with the movie’s two major black women running support for their super-powered white friend. Nor does it help that this establishes the on-screen Captain Marvel (i.e. the canonical version as far as most people are concerned) as the original. Whereas Monica Rambeau carried the mantle in the comics long before her paler partner.

Captain Marvel is still another fine experiment from an increasingly lenient MCU. It’s funny, full of heart, and focused (sometimes to a fault), just like all the best examples of its cohorts. It’s just all those things in ways the other movies are not. And a flawed but good experiment is nearly always more interesting than a safe, boring retread. This time is no exception to the rule.