It’s embarrassing how long it has taken the MCU to embrace meaningful equality. Twenty films. No female-led films. How come Chief Feige? Hot on the heels of last year’s revelation that leading heroes don’t have to be white, Captain Marvel now seeks to prove that they don’t have to be women either. Who knew? Whilst this isn’t the sickly romcom Scarlet Johansson once forecast in a bitingly brilliant spoof – ‘Marvel knows women!’ – neither is it the groundbreaking triumph that was Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman two years ago. When push comes to shove, Captain Marvel is actually very average.
Anything but average, at least, is an electrically charismatic Brie Larson. The Room star trained in judo, wrestling and boxing for the role, across nine strength-enhancing months, and is as kick ass as they come. Never referred to by her titular supernym during the film itself, Larson plays Vers – or Carol Danvers, depending on who you ask. As we meet her, she’s Vers: a Starforce warrior hero with light-up, baddie blasting fists and a serious hole in her memory. Transient flashbacks tease of some former relationship with the mysterious Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening – wasted), whilst a disorientating dive into Vers’ memory will later hint at an Earth-based history. All is slowly revealed as the film progresses, albeit clumsily and in sub plot to a bigger galactic picture. This being the ongoing war between a race of blue humanoids, known as Kree, and their shapeshifting, spikey green foes: the Skrulls.
While kudos is due to writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for their attempt to shake up the traditional mould of origin story formulas, it doesn’t quite work. With actual origins demoted to brief flashbacks, Boden and Fleck face and fall against the uphill battle of ensuring their hero attains an empathetic sense of self. Carol’s memory loss distracts her development for too long in the film, which never really resonates on any deeper level than its own shimmering surface. Things improve as Carol’s memory returns – in another fumbled twist – but it’s all a little too little, too late. By the time Larson’s Captain marvels beyond sass and in the realms of humanity, many will find themselves too far distanced to connect. It’s a testament to Larson’s warmth – and agenda – that she impresses regardless.
Also unemotionally impressive are the film’s visuals. Occasionally channeling the VFX of Star Wars and luminescence of Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel boasts a rather sophisticated aesthetic for the most part. Photo realist landscapes breathe with life, alongside alien cityscapes reminiscent of Blade Runner. This is, however, no dystopian tragedy and optimism prevails. Golden hues are emphasised by regular Marvel cinematographer Ben Davis, which gorgeously bring out the deep reds of Larson’s suit whence it is finally donned. The film’s effect de resistance is the exceptionally adept de-ageing of Samuel L. Jackson’s two decades younger Nick Fury, a buddy up for Carol on her descent to Earth. Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson too is de-aged, well demonstrating how far the studio have come since Tony Stark Jr. wobbled onto screen back in Captain America: Civil War.
Theory has it that nostalgia cycles on a thirty year axis. By that logic, it makes sense that Captain Marvel finds its crew embracing the spirit of the nineties. There are contextual motivations too – which allow the film to prequel Endgame without retconning the past two decades – but the main benefits are in soundtrack and techno throwbacks. Hits here include splashes of R.E.M., Nirvana and Salt-N-Pepa and there’s a smile warranted for any scene reliant on desktops twenty times the depth of the modern Mac. If the heritage nods here haven’t the energy of Gunn’s Guardians duo – admittedly, the nineties were never so exuberant as the eighties – there’s still bog standard fun to be had.
Ultimately, it strikes that studio suffocation is the film’s principle fault line. Whilst their script is hardly inventive – aside from some winning one liners – it’s Boden and Fleck’s failure to establish any sense of directorial vision over the proceedings that makes this feel bland. Certainly, Captain Marvel consistently struggles to find anything new to say or do. It’s not bad. It’s not great. It’s average.