From almost any way you view it, Captain Marvel, has been saddled with an enormous amount of expectations. As the penultimate installment in Marvel Studios’ phase 3, it sits squarely in the shadow of what could arguably become the biggest movie of all time, Avengers: Endgame. It is the first Marvel film to feature a female superhero lead (no clue why Black Widow has been relegated to supporting roles in other hero’s films). And to top it off, it was facing a pre-release societal backlash the likes of which haven’t been seen since the weeks and months following the release of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. Much like how Captain Marvel (the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is being asked to swoop in as the new, strong force in the fight against evil, the Captain Marvel film is tasked with entering the lineup of films and immediately mowing through expectations in order to clear the path into Marvel’s phase 4.
Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck show a clear desire to use their character-driven background (Mississippi Grind, Half Nelson) to the dynamic nature of the main character. There are multiple facets to the Captain Marvel character, and we are given glimpses into each. First, there is Vers the noble Kree warrior. Then we are shown Carol Danvers, the woman behind the mask if you will. And finally, there is Captain Marvel — the fully realized superhero we see on the posters and commercials. The storytelling mechanisms chosen to drive the plot affords a lot of opportunities to explore the various aspects of this character, but the unfortunate side effect of this plot device is that we are limited to how much of it we can see. Even worse, what we are shown is neither long enough or poignant enough to truly build up our understanding of our hero’s backstory. The right pieces of the puzzle are there, they just aren’t assembled in a manner that creates a vivid picture of the character. If there had been more moments that resonated throughout the film, the already impressive climax could have been even more impactful. Carol’s friendship with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) is the primary window into the our understanding of who Carol was — and continues to be — at her core. More interactions between these characters would have deepened our emotional ties to the character. On the other hand, we spend the right amount of time with Carol and Nick Fury and their buddy-cop banter gives us a clear, full understanding of who Carol is now as well as who she may really be overall: an amalgam of the multiple facets mentioned above.
It goes without saying that all eyes were focused intently on Brie Larson’s performance. As expected, she turned in a high-quality performance that exuded strength and confidence in ways that for some reason are normally reserved for male superheroes. Her turn as Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel is all the more impressive when you realize that the script actually works against her by backing her character(s) into a corner for the majority of the runtime. She is not afforded the luxury of being a fully formed character in any regards until the final stages of the film. But there are enough moments of levity (especially with Jackson) and lightness (with Lashana Lynch) that Larson is able to maximize her character within the confines of the script.
With all of the (rightful) attention being paid to Brie Larson, opportunities were opened for other actors to turn in sneaky good performances. Samuel L. Jackson makes the most out of every scene he is in and seemed to thoroughly enjoy not only his screen time with Larson but also the opportunity to put a new spin on a younger, less jaded Nick Fury. The veteran actor put just the right amount of newness on a familiar character that kept Fury similar yet just different enough to feel fresh. Ben Mendlesohn arguably steals the show. Despite the physical limitations his character presents from an acting capacity, he is able to deliver in a wide variety of moments from humorous to menacing. He is the most memorable character in virtually every scene he is in which is saying quite a lot considering the other characters and actors he is sharing the screen with. Unfortunately, not all of the performances in Captain Marvel are worth fawning over. Jude Law’s take on Yon-Rogg, a fellow noble Kree warrior, is rather pedestrian despite the script doing its best to give him a wide berth. And to no fault of Annette Bening, she feels wholly out of place in the entire film. Her attempt to make the most out of the role is commendable, but this is a performance that falls at the feet of the casting director as opposed to the actress.
If there is a considerable gripe to have with Captain Marvel, it comes in the form of the action scenes. For a Marvel film, there are very few memorable action sequences… two, perhaps. And the sequences that are present suffer from poor direction and even worse editing. The fighting is filmed too close to fully absorb the action taking place and it never gives us a sense of the fighter’s true capabilities. The CGI-heavy action scenes leave a bit to be desired as well. The moments featuring Captain Marvel in space are not standout visual moments for the character. The combat looks good, but the character herself looks too CGI and the moments suffer because of that. Conversely, the de-aging CGI used on Sam Jackson is the best to date not just for a Marvel movie, but for the filmmaking industry as a whole. If this is an indicator of where the technology is going, there are going to be some interesting movies coming out in the next decade that take advantage of this. Let us just hope that they all look as good as Jackson and not as poor as Clark Gregg whose de-aging effects looked like they consisted of a metric ton of makeup.
Captain Marvel is a solid entry into the Marvel cinematic universe. It met arguably insurmountable expectations head on and withstood the scrutiny leveled against it. In doing so, it managed to even squeeze in a mixture of subtle and overly blunt social commentary that some will see as momentous and others will see as confirmation of their reason to pre-judge the film. Though it feels a bit too Marvel cookie cutter at times (especially in its failed attempt to mimic Guardians’ meshing of music and story), the strong performances from the leads are able to elevate this to be a cut above similar films such as both Thor entries, both Ant-Man installments, and Dr. Strange.