Review – Captain Marvel (2019)
Directors: Anna Boden & Ryan Fletcher
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Clark Gregg, Akira Akbar, Gemma Chan, Rune Temte, Algenis Perez Soto, Djimon Honsou
Since the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe well and truly heralded in the era of the superhero movie, Marvel Studios have consistently shown themselves to be a step ahead of the competition. However, with the blockbuster success of Warner Brothers’ Wonder Woman in 2017 we saw, for the first time, Marvel Studios having missed a trick. While the MCU’s heroes had come from a variety of eras and planets and demonstrated a range of different powers and personalities, there was one key way in which they all remained the same: they were all male. While Hope Van Dyne had made it into the title of Ant-Man and the Wasp she remained clear second fiddle in the narrative, and characters like the Black Widow and Gomorah have been integral parts of the MCU without ever getting top billing. So it is with the 21st film in the franchise that Marvel gives us their first female led film, Captain Marvel.
After being taken prisoner by the Skrulls, a race of shape shifters who have been infiltrating planets throughout the galaxy, amnesiac Kree soldier Vers (Brie Larson) manages to escape to the nearby planet C-53, which we know as Earth. Having learned that the Skrulls are searching for a Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning) who has been working on something called Project Pegasus, Vers is determined to get to her first. It is 1995, and she joins forces with young S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who, having seen her powers, determines that bringing her in is not really an option and he’s better served working with her. As the two set out to find where Dr. Lawson is and what the Skrulls want with her, Vers becomes increasingly convinced that she has a past on Earth as fighter pilot Carol Danvers.
While Marvel are undoubtedly late to the party when it comes to a female led film, having got there, Captain Marvel clearly understands the significance and plays to it. Co-directed by filmmaking duo Anna Boden (who becomes the first woman to helm an MCU film) and Ryan Fletcher, Captain Marvel does not present us with a generic superhero movie whose protagonist just happens to be a woman. Rather it is a distinctively feminist story, an intention that was declared in the marketing campaign focusing on the ‘her’ in ‘hero.’ At its heart, it is the story of a powerful woman who is being limited by men, particularly her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who are intimidated by her potential. Consistently taught to view her emotionality as a weakness to be overcome rather than as a strength to be embraced, Carol Danvers only realises the full extent of her abilities when she decides to stop waiting to be told by someone else that she is ready. With no romantic subplot or revealing costumes, Danvers’ status as a powerful character is never undermined by an invitation to sexualise her. A powerful montage in which Danvers remembers all of the moments in her life when she was beaten down only to force herself to stand back up will get your heart pumping with feminist fire regardless of your gender.
Brie Larson is a top notch actor. Equally adept at drama and comedy, she shows here that action star is also in her wheelhouse, imbuing Carol with a supremely confident swagger which is fun to watch. Unfortunately, Captain Marvel is let down by a convoluted narrative, a series of twists and reversals making things just a little messy. Carol being an amnesiac helps push the film beyond the standard origin story pattern. Starting the film already with powers, albeit not understanding their full potential, hers is a Jason Bourne-like quest to uncover her own origin. However, what her memory loss adds in terms of intrigue it sacrifices in character relatability. If Carol doesn’t really know who she is, what chance do we have. As such, in the early part of the film, when we are on unfamiliar planets trying to grasp who these different alien species are, you are left feeling a bit disconnected, struggling without the grounding your main character usually provides.
It is when Danvers arrives on Earth, and particularly when she teams up with Fury, that things pick up. Larson and Fury share a nice, buddy-movie dynamic. As well as providing the opportunity for a soundtrack loaded with 90s girl power – No Doubt, Hole, TLC, Garbage – and a rare Stan Lee cameo in which he plays himself, the 1995 setting means Captain Marvel also serves as an origin story for Nick Fury. Fury recognises in Danvers a fellow soldier, and his experiences with her start to shape his thinking about the Avengers initiative. In his ninth appearance in the MCU, this is by far Samuel L Jackson’s biggest role. Marvel has played with digital de-aging before with Michael Douglas (Ant-Man), Robert Downey Jr (Captain America: Civil War) and Kurt Russell (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), but never to the extent that it is used here, with Jackson convincingly looking 25 years younger. Or, at least, his face does. The digital sorcery can’t conceal the fact that he still runs like a 70 year old man.
Of course, every Marvel movie is part of the master plan. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe prepares to farewell its first generation of heroes, Captain Marvel sets us up with another strong character to carry the franchise forward. And with Black Panther already on the board, the long awaited solo outing for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in pre-production and an adaptation of ‘Master of Kung-Fu’ Shang-Chi in the pipeline, this next phase of Marvel’s project looks set to be a more diverse one.
Review by Duncan McLean
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