“Captain Marvel” is fun, but it leans too heavily on MCU connections to stand on its own

 By Douglas Davidson

March 8, 2018

First teased during the post credits sequence of Avengers: Infinity War, the 21st Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, Captain Marvel, fully introduces audiences to a character MCU producer and mastermind Kevin Feige described as “…the strongest character [the MCU’s] ever had.” (Considering the massive PG-13 carnage on display throughout the film, this is an unequivocally true statement and it makes the wait for the soon-approaching Avengers: Endgame all the more unbearable.) This comparison to the rest of the MCU typifies the paradoxical after-taste of the Captain Marvel experience: its inherent need to directly connect to the events of the other films requires it to sacrifice its unique identity.

Brie Larson as Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel courtesy of Marvel Studios

Captain Marvel is set in 1995. Far from Earth, the warring nations of Kree and Skrull battle for galactic supremacy, each equally taking on as many losses as wins. While on a mission to recover an asset, Kree’s elite military unit Starforce– comprised of our main character Vers (Brie Larson), as well as Bron-Char (Rune Temte), Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan), Att-Lass (Algenis Perez Soto), Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and leader Von-Rogg (Jude Law)– find themselves engaging in combat against a group of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). Much of the novelty to the origin story is attributed to the approach of introducing Larson’s Vers, an individual suffering from amnesia, who has been– for reasons explained in the film– assimilated into the Kree community. When a battle finds members of the Kree and the Skrull landing on Earth, both sides make a discovery which may just turn the tide and change the outcome of the war forever.

Directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson & It’s Kind of a Funny Story) are absolutely adept at handling the complexities of a film which must balance a large ensemble cast with the needs of a sci-fi adventure with a spy thriller twist, all while maintaining a character-focused core. At no point during Captain Marvel does anything feel rushed, glossed over, or left unexplained, nor does it rely too much on spectacle to distract from narrative weaknesses.

Brie Larson as Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel courtesy of Marvel Studios

Even most impressively, Marvel possesses one of the more fun origin stories in the MCU, if only because the approach to filling in the back story is executed in a manner which feels ripped straight from a Douglas Adam novel: wholly informative in material and absolutely ridiculous in execution. The whole of Captain Marvel exists in this consistent duality which is always moving the story forward in interesting ways. This should not be too much of a shock since Boden and Fleck’s backgrounds are more story-based than action-based, while their co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Tomb Raider) brings some experience in action to the table. It doesn’t hurt that Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Meg LeFauve (Inside Out) aided in crafting the story with Boden, Fleck, and Robertson-Dworet; their respective experiences help the directors imbue Captain Marvel with humor and pathos.

Much of the humor in watching Vers engage with Earth, a planet she doesn’t know, can be attributed to the incredible chemistry between screen partners Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, with Jackson returning to the MCU as a younger version of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury. Audiences will delight in and want more of the buddy film vibe created by Larson and Jackson. However, even though Marvel is a slick film with nary a wasted moment or loss of momentum, it’s still not a strong film because of the one thing it does to streamline the narrative: connect to the rest of the MCU.

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury courtesy of Marvel Studios

While arguments can be made over which MCU character owns the best origin, all of them exist and function more or less as standalone features. Captain Marvel does not. Without delving into spoiler territory, Captain Marvel taps into the collective knowledge of the 20 previous films in order to skip over explaining objects, motives, or general connections. Captain Marvel utilizes this well, but it prevents the film from standing on its own premise. Examined as a movie in its own right, there’s nothing but confusion and questions once the credits role.

Similarly, as it’s set in the mid-nineties, many sequences are overlaid atop songs by No Doubt, Elastica, Garbage, and more. Considering the female focus of Captain Marvel and the female-heavy bands of the nineties this is a natural fit– much like Gunn’s music selections in both Guardians films– except the songs here aren’t as organically introduced as they are in Guardians. Instead, they’re being used to amplify a scene’s emotionality or the momentum of the action. While it certainly makes sense to include the music, not to mention an additional tapping of nostalgia for older audiences, this choice feels more like an homage to ‘90s action flicks than as a true addition to the scenes.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Lastly, and this is the biggest item which highlights the paradox of the film, the exhibition of power induces audiences to immediately think of what Vers will do when she encounters Thanos post-Infinity War. This is both a titillating thought and, for avid MCU fans, an absolute distraction to the film as it plays. For as much as the other films are often described as being an advertisement for the next film, Captain Marvel is almost wholly just that. Considering the character’s vast history stemming from its creation in the late sixties, Captain Marvel deserves to be more than merely a precursor to Endgame. It deserves a chance to stand on its own.

When all is said and done, Captain Marvel is a damn fun film which gives audiences much of what we need, even if it’s not what we want. Larson is great as the titular Captain Marvel as she brings plenty of riot girl spunk and heart, grounding the otherwise cosmically powerful superhero. Jackson is fantastic, as always, and Mendelsohn all but steals the entire film, improving every scene by simply being a part of it. Even better, the best parts of Marvel aren’t in the trailers, meaning there are plenty of surprises– in performances, narrative, and Stan the Man, of course. While Captain Marvel may not incite the cultural impact of Wonder Woman or Black Panther, it is a strong continuation of the diversification of the MCU roster. Maybe, now with the origin complete, the next Captain Marvel can shuffle off the past and look to the future.

Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5 

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