*Contains mild spoilers for Captain Marvel*
“Higher, further, faster!” runs the motto of Carol Danvers, the star of the 21st instalment in the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe, the movie leading directly into Avengers: Endgame and the first of the MCU movies to be led by, and co-directed by, a woman.
So no pressure, then.
Looked at in isolation, Captain Marvel is a perfectly decent mid-tier superhero romp with some uplifting and positive female messaging in the second half. It’s a good-natured cosmic action adventure with a banging 90s soundtrack (Garbage! Hole! Des’ree!) and an excellent cast, led by Brie Larson, making up for some slightly weak dialogue and characterisation.
But Captain Marvel doesn’t exist in a vacuum and as most trailblazing women know, it’s not enough to be just ok. For a movie, and a character, carrying some serious expectations, it’s a little bit of a disappointment.
When we meet Danvers (or ‘Veers’ to her alien mates), she’s fighting alongside her friend and mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) as part of the Kree Starforce – a special forces unit tasked with taking on shapeshifting rivals the Skrulls.
When a field mission goes wrong, she’s kidnapped by Skrull commander Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) and interrogated for information about a mysterious MacGuffin, but soon manages to mount a chaotic escape, crash landing on the nearest planet, C-53 (aka Earth). What business do the Skrulls have here? And why does the place seem so familiar? Luckily, young SHIELD agent Nicholas Joseph Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is on hand to help her figure it all out.
Unlike most superhero origin stories, Captain Marvel gets stuck right into the action from the off. From Veers’ initial combat training session with Yon-Rogg to the aforementioned Skrull ambush, it’s a frenetic opening that doesn’t give us much time to get to know her or the alien world she exists in (although it helps if you’re up-to-date with cosmic MCU entries like Guardians Of The Galaxy and the Kree-centric arcs of Agents Of SHIELD).
Thankfully, things calm down a bit when she arrives on Earth – giving all the characters a bit more room to breathe as the film gradually unravels the secrets of Carol’s past. It also gives Larson a worthy, buddy-movie foil to bounce off in Jackson – who’s clearly enjoying playing the future SHIELD director with a much lighter touch – with whom she has a much more natural and wittier rapport than Law’s Rogg.
Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are best known for lo-fi, character-based indies such as Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind. They’ve made no secret of their love of ’90s action movies, though, and here they prove their capabilities for big action set-pieces almost aggressively, throwing car chases, supercharged fisticuffs and large-scale space battles at the screen with gusto. Given Danvers’ almost god-like gifts, they still manage to mount a couple of scenarios in which she faces genuine threat – no mean feat for one of Marvel’s most powerful heroes.
In fact, one of the movie’s main tropes is that Carol is being held back from reaching her full potential, powers-wise – mostly by her Kree confidantes. She’s constantly being told that she’s too emotional and that her “humour is a distraction”, a particularly salient point for the first female led Marvel movie in a time when gender equality is increasingly in focus.
Trouble is, in the first half at least, that message is fumbled, owing to the fact that the film is rather lacking in emotion and isn’t quite as funny as it thinks it is. And while the ’90s references are consistently entertaining (including a good Windows 95 gag), the dialogue doesn’t have the zip and wit of Iron Man, Avengers Assemble or Thor: Ragnarok.
Captain Marvel does have two particular aces up its sleeve, though. The first is Danvers’ tag-along feline pal Goose (a Top Gun reference, swapped from her name in the comics) – a ginger kitty that somewhat steals the show and actually plays a major part in the plot to boot. The second is Mendelsohn – here reteaming with his Mississippi Grind directors – who not only imbues the pointy-eared Talos with a broad Aussie accent, but also a surprising amount of humour and pathos, steering well clear of panto-baddie territory despite the heavy prosthetics.
Meanwhile, two post-credits scenes, both definitely worth staying for, tie Captain Marvel squarely into the MCU, while the film itself is packed with easter eggs and returning characters from the wider Marvel universe (perhaps a few too many distractions from Carol’s own story). There’s also a cool cameo from late Marvel legend Stan Lee – made all the more poignant because of his passing in 2018 (the whole movie is dedicated to him).
With a screenplay penned predominately by women – Tomb Raider’s Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Nicole Perlman and Inside Out’s Meg LeFauve share writing credits with Boden and Fleck – it’s unsurprising there are some powerful, political, female-centric punch-the-air moments that land hard and lift the second half of the movie. It might be set in the ’90s, but Captain Marvel is current, diverse and packed with great sentiments, particularly for young female viewers.
“I have nothing to prove to you,” Danvers says in one of the best scenes of the movie – and it feels like a message to the wider world. The weight of expectation on Captain Marvel was a lot to live up to. And while it doesn’t shy away from the responsibility it carries in the context of the current climate, it just doesn’t quite thrill as a superhero origin story.