The best scene in Captain Marvel is not an action set piece or a dramatic character moment. It’s the scene in which Brie Larson’s heroine comes face-to-face with a quasi-reptilian alien antagonist played by Ben Mendelsohn under daunting layers of prosthetics and makeup that do surprisingly little to mute the force of his personality.
It’s an engaging scene not just because of the relish with which the scene-stealing Mendelsohn delivers his lines, but because the challenge to the heroine is not what it seems, and what is called for is something very different from the straightforward course she’s been following until now.
The scene is complicated by the presence of an old friend (Lashana Lynch) and her young daughter, as well as a crowd-pleasing orange cat. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is also on hand, but this is not a complication at this moment, except insofar as the cat is involved.
I saw Captain Marvel with my 15-year-old daughter, and we enjoyed it. I don’t believe it left a lasting impression on either of us, except of course the one impression that counts above all with most Marvel movies, which is to remind you of the urgency of seeing the next one (in this case, Avengers: Endgame).
I’ve gotten to the point in my Marvel movie viewing where I will stay in the theater for the mid-credits teaser, but I usually wait till home video to catch up with the post-credits teaser. Leaving the theater, I guessed aloud to my daughter that the post-credits sequence was probably about the cat. (I just Googled it. I was right.)
At this stage in Marvel Cinematic Universe history you almost need a Tolkieneque set of appendices and diagrams to make complete sense of everything.
For example, perhaps you thought Captain Marvel was a big guy in a red suit who says “Shazam!” and has a movie of his own opening in a few weeks. That character, the first Captain Marvel, is associated with DC Comics, but his precedence didn’t stop Marvel from blithely introducing a half dozen or so characters over the years with the same name.
A few years ago the name effectively passed from the DC hero to the Marvel heroine of this movie. First, DC rebranded the original Captain Marvel as “Shazam.” (When I was a boy half the kids thought that was his name anyway.)
At the time the Marvel character featured in this movie was known as Ms. Marvel, not Captain Marvel — though her origin was directly linked to Marvel’s first Captain Marvel, a male warrior of an alien race called the Kree, whose given name was Mar-Vell (rhymes with “Carvel”).
A few months after Billy Batson’s alter ego became Shazam, Ms. Marvel became Captain Marvel. And now here she is, although no one actually calls her Captain Marvel in this movie. Perhaps Tony Stark will dub her that in Endgame.
The Kree warrior Mar-Vell isn’t here at all, although his name has been given to a completely different Kree character. Larson’s character seems to be Kree, although she wasn’t in the comics, until she was. A third character in the movie shares the name of yet another of Marvel’s many Captain Marvels, although she seems to be years away from claiming that title.
Set in 1995, over a dozen years before Iron Man’s debut, Captain Marvel is impressively integrated into the whole sweep of the MCU to date. In particular, it’s tied to the unifying presence of Nick Fury, from the moment he approaches Tony Stark in the post-credits scene in Iron Man until the last instant of his corporal existence in the post-credits scene in Avengers: Infinity War.
Why was Fury on the lookout for super-powered champions when Iron Man appeared? Why did the Avengers Initiative exist, and why was it called that? Captain Marvel provides the back story for these and other details (at least one of which plays like a gag).
In the process it introduces one of Marvel Comics’ classic villains, the shape-shifting alien Skrulls, along with their archenemies, the Kree. Larson plays Vers (pronounced like “veers”), a warrior of the Kree with unusual zappy powers that her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), tells her she must learn to control, along with emotions, which he says make warriors vulnerable.
Vers also suffers from amnesia, so I can imagine her having lots of emotions and being quite vulnerable, but she isn’t written or acted that way. Tough, calm, unflappable, she seems the perfect warrior, with neither the character flaws of a Tony Stark, Peter Quill or Doctor Strange nor the memory-related anxieties of a Logan or Jason Bourne.
After a trippy encounter with enemy Skrulls that fills her head with images of an alien world called C-53, otherwise known as Earth, Vers winds up crash-landing in 1995, where she might have had another life as an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers — but which version of her is the real one?
Before long Vers, or Carol, is trying to track down shape-shifting infiltrators with a startlingly young Nick Fury with two good eyes. Now 70, Jackson plays Fury’s 40-something younger self looking not unlike he did circa Pulp Fiction via the magic of Marvel’s familiar digital de-aging — the movie’s most eye-popping special effect.
There are also, of course, dollops of 1990s period nostalgia, from the soundtrack to the clunky technology, ho ho.
If this review skates on the surface, that’s because, really, the movie is all surface: all about the what, not the how. Captain Marvel is a perfectly fine Marvel installment that I can’t fathom deeply loving or hating, although I’m sure many viewers will manage to do both.
Opening on International Women’s Day, Captain Marvel is angling to benefit from the kind of pro-diversity enthusiasm that helped boost Wonder Woman and Black Panther to critical and box-office success. (It’s even co-directed by a woman and a man, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, with a story co-written by the directors and Geneva Robertson-Dworet.)
Yet how much feminist cred can this movie claim, coming as it does after a full decade of Marvel movies — 20 in all — the first 19 of which were either male-led or featured 80%-male ensembles?
Marvel’s reluctance to let a woman take the spotlight has actually become an awkward running onscreen gag, with characters in past installments repeatedly saying “It’s about time” regarding equal time for heroines — a goal that seems perpetually just over the horizon. I want to see more heroine-led pictures, but cheering for Captain Marvel because it stars a woman is like Christians cheering every faith-based film that comes along: It’s settling for too little.
At the same time, anti-feminist backlash against the film seems disconnected from reality. For a Marvel movie, Black Panther had some provocative themes; Captain Marvel really doesn’t.
Annette Bening and Lashana Lynch have key roles as important figures in Carol’s life, and there are references to the obstacles female Air Force pilots faced in the past, but it’s all flashback and allusion. I can easily imagine being bored by Captain Marvel, but anyone who takes offense or umbrage at its innocuous girl-power theme can be offended by anything.
There are two kinds of people I can imagine enjoying Captain Marvel about as much as I did: people who know almost everything about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and people who know next to nothing.
If you know nothing, you may enjoy it for what it is without comparing it to anything else. If you know everything, then perhaps it is a must-see and you can geek out about everything from Clark Gregg’s Coulson being back to what that cat does in the post-credits sequence.
Caveat Spectator: Much action and sci-fi violence; some crude language and cursing. Teens and up.