Review: Captain Marvel

Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers – not to be confused with DC’s own Captain Marvel (about to be released in April as Shazam) nor Kara Danvers from The CW’s Supergirl – crashes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain Marvel, super-charged to form the foundations of the juggernaut franchise for the next ten years. But with the film’s obligation to the broader MCU (and Disney’s commercially incentivised transition into episodic movie-making), it struggles to find a fresh voice for the character or disrupt the well-worn narrative structures of superhero cinema.

The film begins on the alien planet of Hala, with troubled soldier, referred to as Vers (Brie Larson), wrestling both with her festering sense of emotional unease and Yon-Rogg’s (Jude Law) oppressive command. Vers’ memories of her past are compromised – hinted at only in disjointed flashbacks – yet she settles easily into a military mindset of obligation and following orders, joining her equally inhibited comrades. Hala’s inhabitants, the Kree, are fighting a longstanding war and Vers is part of an elite task force of Kree warriors sent on a rescue mission to retrieve an operative lost to the enemy, the shape-shifting Skrulls. This early landscape of the movie is populated by cold characters in a remote galaxy, leaving the film without an emotional foothold amongst the  visual effects-heavy action sequences. Vers’ attempts at cheeky humour – taunting her stoic companions with insolent personal questions – barely manage to break the oppressive mood.

After this lengthy opening sequence, the true momentum of the story begins once the Skrull commander, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), kidnaps Vers and begins to delve into her mind using advanced technology to initiate a dream-like journey through her broken memories. These flashbacks expose fragments of Vers’ lost life as a human U.S. Air Force pilot, but the images are cut short as she physically overpowers her numerous captors and escapes. Chasing the newly-revealed hints of her past to planet C53 – Earth, Vers crashlands in a Blockbuster store and emerges in grungy, dial-up internet 1995 Los Angeles. She begins an investigation into what Talos was searching for on Earth and drags along fan-favourite Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) after an acrimonious first meeting in the Blockbuster car park. They uncover a government whitewash of the mysterious Dr. Lawson (Annette Bening), whose face has appeared in Vers’ twisted dreams and memories, and also Vers’ own human past as Carol Danvers.

The two-way banter between Fury and Carol, fuelled by Fury’s suspicions regarding her motives and Vers’ superior attitude, is a highlight that allows a glimpse into the easily digestible humour that carries many of the other films in the franchise. Their uneasy truce develops into a true partnership as the Skrull clones begin infiltrate the people around them. The conspiracy investigation storyline struggles to hold the film together during the heavy middle section, as the characters move between unremarkable LA and government locations. When Carol and Fury find Carol’s best friend, Maria (Lashana Lynch), the reunion flows into a number of lengthy dialogue scenes that give the story a trudging sense of inevitability as the characters are drawn towards a final confrontation.

Carol’s quest to understand the truth about her own human identity becomes tied to a broader ambiguity around the moral actions of the Kree in their war against the Skrulls. Mendelson and Law’s performances both swing between monstrous and charming, aiding this uncertainty regarding the justification and accountability of soldiers within conflict, and one of the film’s more interesting threads allows all the characters to be sullied by the subjectivity of war. One of Talos’ gentler moments is ressauring Carol with – “It’s war. My hands are filthy with it, too.”

The story shrugs off its alien beginnings to eventually become an upbeat narrative exploring self-identity. A memorable sequence showing Carol’s legacy of persistence – a montage taking moments of defeat in her life and reframing them as opportunities to overcome adversity – is pitched perfectly for a hit of syrupy emotional fulfillment. The plot brings few surprises as Carol faces down her previous friends and then ascends into a climatic sequence that feels more reminiscent of Superman than any of the Marvel’s current roster – both in her abilities and in the rhythmic beats of Pinar Toprak’s accompanying musical score. While the franchise has ventured into the broader galaxy before, with both Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy films, Carol’s unconstrained space flight and enormous firepower is an unmistakably upgraded spectacle. After spending ten years setting up the infinitely powerful antagonist Thanos, Marvel now reveals the counter-charge in the cosmic powers of Captain Marvel.

As as viewing experience, it’s hard to discern any glaring weaknesses in Captain Marvel, as the Disney movie-making engine has perfected ironing out the threat of anything unpopular. But while the basic building blocks all combine smoothly, finding any distinctive style or purpose in the film proves a challenge. What Captain Marvel offers the audience beyond another two hours of MCU shenanigans is difficult to answer – even its supposedly unique position as the first Marvel female-led superhero film is carved down and slotted neatly into the Disney template, lacking any of the flavour and gusto that propelled last year’s Black Panther into a cultural phenomenon.

Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grand) are relatively fresh to this scale of production, but their indie roots aren’t unusual for the appointment of Marvel directors, many whom only come in with a few credits to their name. The cinematic ambivalence of the film as a singular artistic experience can only be partly attributed to the filmmakers, as Captain Marvel has been positioned with an enormous catalogue of broader commitments beyond its own story. The long list of this year’s likely retiring Marvel heroes leaves a central space for Captain Marvel as a ready-made replacement for the departing Captain America. The similarities between the characters are striking – from the look of their stars and stripes costumes and decisive personalities through to their military backgrounds.

Captain Marvel is propelled by the obligation to introduce Carol Danvers and propose a compelling reason why she’s been absent from the MCU until now, while also setting up for her to appear in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame and take over a key role in the modern Marvel Universe. As such, the film attempts to forge a relevant narrative while being careful not to contradict the 20 films it acts as prequel to. Given such strict constraints, there’s little scope to create a story with any true surprises, and so the Captain Marvel team instead rely on drip-feeding the audience with connections to the broader MCU to sustain a sense of discovery.

The only true stylistic choice that the film offers is the ripe 90s nostalgia that’ll delight audiences over the age of 25; Captain Marvel races through outer space to a mixtape of classic pre-millennium hits such as No Doubt’s Just A Girl. This feels like an opportune adjustment to the timeline, given how overdue the female superhero protagonist is. Marvel aren’t technically a decade late, Captain Marvel was already kicking ass in the 90s.

Captain Marvel is now showing in Australian Cinemas.

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Kathleen Westcott is a writer who has worked across television, film and advertising. She is currently completing a Master of Screenwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts and would love to write a quirky and heart-warming Australian superhero film.

Kathleen Westcott

Kathleen Westcott is a writer who has worked across television, film and advertising. She is currently completing a Master of Screenwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts and would love to write a quirky and heart-warming Australian superhero film.

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