FILM REVIEW: Captain Marvel aims to lay heavy foundation for next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe at the expense of a compelling origin tale.


If there’s a lesson to be learned from the now 20 plus films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its that the films which succeed the most as standalone films are those with a compelling cast of characters that actually feel standalone from the greater MCU. Those films that tell a simple story that defines that character’s journey and personality for all other films are always the strongest. The rarified films from this tier (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Spiderman: Homecoming) create unique worlds and mythologies and actually populate them with characters that were happy to see and explore and that the audience feels they grow with as they accompany them on their journey. The films that ultimately succeed less from the MCU are those that are there to lay foundation blocks for future films. These films (Captain America: The First Avenger, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Civil War, and Iron Man 2) have memorable setpieces but tend to move overall series plot developments forward as opposed to individual character arcs. Here, characters act in a way that moves the plot forward, even if it’s against their previously written appearances to achieve a specific end goal for the overall “greater good” of the MCU.

Captain Marvel tends to fall more in line with the 2nd school of thought. It’s a very ambitious film that has a very unenviable task. It has to give a compelling origin for an unknown character who has been built up only in reference as a powerhouse cosmic entity to an established audience base (in Avengers Infinity War) that already has their fan favorites. How do you introduce a god-like character to a franchise at the peak of that franchise’s climax to a wary fan base? Here, Captain Marvel is presented as Vers, a sarcastic sparkplug of a Kree soldier who grows as a character when the plot demands it versus a growth populated by curiosity or a personal challenge. At the same time, this character needs to be an aspirational hero, Marvel’s Wonder Woman as it were. Here, Captain Marvel does deliver that style of character, but the story they use to deliver that hero does not work as well as Wonder Woman.

Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of the Kree Star Force, an elite military unit tasked with hunting down and exterminate the menace of Skrulls, a shape-changing alien race that the Kree Empire has been at war with for an untold period. It isn’t until a battle with a Skrull fugitive named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) who has fled to Earth that Vers realizes she may be on the wrong side of history on this potentially genocidal program. Vers ends up on Earth in 1990s where she captures the interest of SHIELD agent Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson). As Vers struggles with the realization that she may not be the Kree-born noble warrior hero she believes herself to be, Fury tries to come to terms with the idea that there are alien races warring beyond our world and that he needs to be prepared for the fact that an alien invasion is now a very real possibility.

It’s kind of obvious that Marvel Studios is hoping that Captain Marvel will be their Wonder Woman equivalent and possibly their next franchise lead character in the vein of Captain America. That being said, the film has much in common with Captain America: The First Avenger. Its a film that uses the past of the MCU to anoint its hero as someone important that needs to be seen as a powerhouse, but also as an aspirational figure for young fans. Larson’s Vers character is self-assured, smug, and confident in her abilities. She’s a fully-formed character right when we meet her and for the most part, the film’s arc for her is her learning who she really is. Chris Evans’ Captain America has the confidence he always had as his fully formed version when we meet him as a small guy in The First Avenger, but he has the obstacles of more moxie than muscles to overcome in that film. Here, Vers’ journey is more of a discovery of heritage and then choosing to use that revelation to aim her power and character to a different end. The film tries to make up for this lack of a deep character arc by having her surrounded by other characters who we know from other films and see how her powers and actions affect them. Fury becomes the Fury we know from the whole MCU til now because of his meeting Vers. Their relationship is not unlike that of Riggs and Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon films or Al Powell and McClane in Die Hard; a buddy cop with Vers as the straight man to Fury’s Steve Trevor-esque street level veteran. Similarly, the ultimate villain of Guardians of the Galaxy, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) flees from terror and awe from Vers, establishing her power level as something never seen before in the MCU. Its a shorthand for development and I don’t know how well it really works.

But, the part that really works is Larsen’s portrayal in the film’s third act. She comes across as an aspirational figure like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman in her relationship to Skrull refugees and the daughter of her best friend Monica Rambeau. If the film didn’t have to establish future touchstones like the relationship between certain characters to Infinity Stones, as well as set up the Skrulls as a sandbox items for future films, this film would have benefitted tremendously with a more focused story that isn’t as reliant on its 1990s setting for most of its humor and overall tone. The film’s humor is great when it works, especially early on in regards to the cat and mouse game between Vers and the Skrulls. It’s less so when they load the film up with 90’s references like slow dial-up, ubiquitous alt-rock, and even the Blockbuster Video staging is a bit cringe-inducing, especially a battle sequence set to “Just A Girl” by No Doubt near the end of the film.

Overall, Captain Marvel is a mixed bag. It does a solid, even commendable, job at times explaining who this character is and why they are important and even why this is a character that is aspirational in the mold of Captain America. But, that being said, the tale they weave around the character to show off her power and nobility is, unfortunately, more than a bit predictable. While it addresses a lot of plotholes in other MCU films in positive ways, the way it sort of rewrites the character’s importance to the founding of the MCU seems a bit heavyhanded. We don’t get too big of a supporting cast around her to make the film’s universe seem as rich or diverse as that of even Ant-Man or Dr. Strange, aside from Rambeau who will likely be replaced by her namesake daughter in future MCU films. Ultimately, the film does end up a bit like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and its treatment of Wonder Woman. Its a great first showcase for an interesting character in a film that doesn’t show off that character to its full potential.