Note: If you consider a plot synopsis of the first act of a movie a spoiler, then spoiler warning for this review. That is all.
Vers (Brie Larson) lives, with partial amnesia, on Hala, the homeworld of the Kree civilization. She spars with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who encourages her to control and temper her powers (which include shooting missiles of heat energy out of her hands). Her past comes to her in flashes and dreams in-between her efforts to get field work as part of the Starforce. This past is manipulated and refigured when Vers visits the Supreme Intelligence, the powerful A.I. guru of the Kree that comes to a person in the form of who is most important in their lives. In Vers’ case, it is a mysterious woman (Annette Bening).
Vers and the Starforce are tasked with hunting down the Skrulls, an alien species at war with the Kree whose members can shapeshift into any living organism they see. During the mission, Vers is separated from her crew and kidnapped by the Skrulls, who probe her mind for information.
Are you following? To the well-versed in the celestial realm of Marvel comics, this likely comes off as common knowledge. But it is presented in Captain Marvel, the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a behemoth all-quadrant-hitting franchise, to all-comers. In a sense, this rush of expository storytelling is impressive, in that it is so much jammed into about 10 minutes of screentime. On the other hand, viewing it as a theatrical experience even for those not well-versed in the intertexts and paratexts of the IP, and this storytelling often times appears clunky.
This does not distract much from the main attractions of Captain Marvel, a film that is first and foremost a science fiction action-adventure story. These attractions include sci-fi action, dictated through impressive feats of computer imagery and occasionally disappointing jitters in the camerawork; an engaging lead performance from Larson, who is able to morph the awkward quips of the script into something more compelling; and the chemistry between Vers and her de-facto sidekick, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
Through these accomplishments, Captain Marvel is able to outpace its flaws, enough so to be a consistently engaging film. Enough stakes are raised late in the film to make for a thrilling climax and a satisfying resolution, which is just what Marvel needed in order to slot Larson’s character into the larger MCU timeline.
What is less effective is the storytelling throughout the bulk of the film. While there is something compelling about the struggle between the Kree and the Skrulls, something that adds a surprising layer of emotional stakes to what in a lesser movie would be a macguffin or a side plot, the way Vers’ story is told leaves something to be desired. As a cog in a war, she fits in. As a fish out of water element, she is fine as a narrative tool. As a story unto herself, though, her past and the conflict around her overshadow her as a character.
In a way, the film appears too preoccupied with convincing us we’re watching the 1990s and making us wonder about the mystery of Vers’ past that it forgets to motivate the character beyond that. By the end of the film, we are meant to see her journey as a means of shaping her superhero identity, leading her to make the final choices that she makes. But so little is shown about who she is as a character in the present to allow us access to why she makes these choices (beyond the fact that the timeline of the larger franchise requires she make certain choices to preserve continuity).
With so much world building happening in this two-hour span of time, the audience would benefit from something to cling to as a reason to learn all this new information (again, beyond the need to expand a larger franchise). Larson as a performer acts as this reason, a beacon in the fog to be drawn to throughout the film, but her character feels under-valued in the larger story in which she takes part.
However, it is perhaps foolish, at this point of Marvel’s ubiquitous franchising power, to view a Marvel film on its own terms. Perhaps it is foolish to critique the story of a two-hour segment called Captain Marvel, when it is merely the next episode in a grand sci-fi soap opera of comic book intrigue. Perhaps my normal viewing procedure is compromised by the industrial factors that pushed Captain Marvel onto 4,500 screens nationwide, and my standards for what makes a single movie good or bad do not apply to a film that is, by its very nature, incomplete.
It is easy to view an Avengers film as a run-of-the-mill sequel and judge it accordingly. An origin story in this era of Marvel Studios is a harder nut to crack, I think. So perhaps story problems and a few clunky script elements are inconsequential to the larger entertainment value of a Captain Marvel-style installment.
It is not as if the film is devoid of truly impressive feats of filmmaking. Take, for instance, the scary good digital de-aging of Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg (and I mean scary good). This is a feature of computer graphic design that Disney has been toying with for a few years now, and it has never looked this realistic. That this technology could prove to radically alter filmmaking and our understanding of the “uncanny valley” makes Captain Marvel an awesome experience (in the traditional sense of the word “awesome”).
But call me old fashioned. I like a film to stand on its own narrative feet, even if that film is acting as an introduction of a character to a preexisting universe of films. In the case of Captain Marvel, it feels as though the need to bring the superhero into future MCU films overshadowed the need to give her character a life of her own. Given these character are flattened, by necessity, in the large-scale “team up” films to basic character traits and desires, I would have liked to see more of Carol Danvers and less about her elusive past.
All the same, Captain Marvel does its job. It front-loads all of the information needed to understand the Kree and their place in the MCU. It ties up continuity threads that have been left dangling. It presents us another hero to add to the hefty Marvel Studios stable. And it has some fun along the way.
Captain Marvel: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)