2019, PG-13, 128 min. Directed by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck. Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Lashana Lynch.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 8, 2019
In the history of Marvel Comics, there's been few characters that have been through more changes than Carol Danvers. An Air Force officer who became a cosmic-charged superhero, was stripped of her abilities, gaining new ones, beaten from pillar to post, losing her identity and finding fresh inner strength. The character's transition from supporting player to Marvel mainstay means she gets the movie megafranchise's first-ever female-driven superhero film, and as the energy-beam-projecting, space-flying defender of the underdog, Brie Larson has captured the pugnacious, charming, steely Captain Marvel in the ways she deserves.
As has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe's trademark, Captain Marvel has taken the core elements of the comic book story – the warrior who has been told "no" so many times that she almost believes it, the cosmic hero who overcomes betrayal to find her true self – and modified it to fit in with contemporary storytelling techniques (there are some elements of comic book Carol's backstory best left confined to the dustiest of corners).
Dropping the story into 1995 (the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness posters are a dead giveaway) serves two purposes. It begins what could well be both the beginning of filling in some of the MCU continuity, and setting in place new, retrospective foundations. We've seen Kree before, and both Ronan the Accuser (Pace) and Korath the Pursuer (Hounsou) from Guardians of the Galaxy are back for the first time as proud warriors of the interstellar Kree Empire, who fight alongside Vers (Larson) and Yon-Rogg (Law, steely, charming, and lizardlike) at the bidding of the Supreme Intelligence, an unseen super-AI who controls the empire. It only appears to Kree in CG-enhanced visions in the form of the individual they admire the most. In Vers' case, that's a mysterious figure (Bening), which makes no sense, since how can Vers admire someone she doesn't recognize? And did the Supreme Intelligence really give her those nifty energy-blasting powers, or is something else happening behind the scenes?
That's a feeling of disconnect and doubt amplified by partial memories of a strange, backwards planet that she doesn't remember. Of course, no species in the Marvel Cinematic Universe personifies doubt more than the shape-shifting Skrulls, the ancient and merciless enemies of the Kree. When Vers finds herself in pursuit of one of the most fiendish of these chameleonlike terrorists, Talos (Mendelsohn, continuing a peerless run of memorable popcorn villains), she goes all the way to that planet she almost remembers: a backwater called Earth, where a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot called Carol Danvers, who looked just like Vers, lived.
Unlike, say, Ant-Man, which is deliberately set a little to the side of the main MCU antics, Captain Marvel is right in its heart, as Vers crosses paths quickly with a pre-Avengers Initiative Nick Fury (Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Gregg) and starts unraveling her connection to this world. That's when Captain Marvel really kicks into gear, not least because the easy, breezy comedic chemistry between Larson and Jackson is both hilarious and adds real stakes to the action.
Yet making this 15th film in the franchise a period piece is not just about pushing the story to a time before Thanos clicked his fingers and got rid of half the universe in Avengers: Infinity War. The de-aging software that Marvel field tested with Kurt Russell and Michael Douglas earlier in the franchise, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Ant-Man, respectively, strips the years away more flawlessly than ever, and the set dressing of 1995, and a period-specific soundtrack of (bar two R.E.M. cuts and a Nirvana moment) female musicians and female-led acts from the era of riot grrrl, and breakout indie bands like Garbage, Elastica, and Hole, means there's a logic and a sense of place and time to the retro-setting. Also, Jackson as a more light-hearted and two-eyed Fury, who has yet to be battle-hardened by alien incursions, and who bonds with the adorable cat Goose (this year's must-have cuddly toy come Christmas, mark my words), is just too much fun to miss, especially as he plays second fiddle to the snarky, confident Vers.
Yes, in many ways Captain Marvel follows the classic MCU origin format of the hero finding out who they really are. But just as it worked for Steve Rogers, and it worked for Thor, and it worked for Tony Stark, so it works for Vers, and puts her up there with Marvel's defining trio. There are elements of all three heroes in her, and while Captain Marvel may feel a little like retreading the godlike-being-out-of-water plot of the first Thor, her struggle is in overcoming what people tell her she is. Thor lacked humility; Carol lacks self-belief, and that's a powerful inversion. While there will be particular resonances in the age of #MeToo (the gaslighting that has gone on in Carol's life could make a supernova seem dull), she's the hero for anyone who has ever been told they couldn't, and who works out they could, and should have a long time ago. Higher, further, faster? Damn straight.