A certain stripe of critic likes to complain that the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies adhere too rigidly to formula. I think they’re reacting more to how similar the reviews end up being than to how similar the films actually are. There are a handful of standouts like The Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, the Captain America sequels and Thor: Ragnarok, but most of the MCU features are are solid B-plus films that may rise or fall in one’s personal estimation based on your particular like or dislike for an actor, concept, sub-genre or theme.
But otherwise, if someone says “Captain Marvel is your basic Marvel origin movie, and one of the good ones” you know what they mean. It’s a fun, comfy, mid-tier action blockbuster built around an agreeable performance by an overqualified supporting cast and a compelling lead actor you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be blowing stuff up with laser fists. It gets a little long in Act 2. It’s really good when it’s an easygoing dialogue-driven character piece and sci-fi inflected morality play, and not as good when it’s doing world building housekeeping for interchangeable plot widgets that even the other movies don’t pretend actually matter anymore.
As is equally typical the of brand, the bad guys aren’t as interesting as the good guys. But then these films aren’t really about the villains or even the story really. They’re about building up the characters as relatable and likable three-dimensional personalities so we’ll watch them in future sequels and crossovers. It’s a cynical marketing strategy to be certain, but one which paradoxically also keeps turning these features into weirdly intimate character pieces that make you ignore the less good parts and then really like the good parts.
The movie starts out like Star Wars and then morphs into kind of a Riot grrl Flight of The Navigatorand then turns into Star Trek: The Next Generation once it heads back out into space.
This time around the movie is boasting the nominal gimmick of being the franchise’s first theatrical “prequel” since the original Captain America and the first film headlined by a female hero. It’s other big novelty is being a non-linear version of an origin-story, starting in what we eventually learn is the mid-1990s with Brie Larson already boasting mysterious energy-blasting superpowers and near-total amnesia while serving as a soldier of the alien Kree Empire in its war against the shapeshifting Skrulls. A Skrull mind probe captured during a failed mission turns out to be (for some reason) interested in the same unanswered questions about her past that she is, sending the heroine and a small squad hurtling down to “primitive” Earth. There she runs into younger versions of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson and realizes that Earth may actually be her home planet and the key to the past life she can’t remember.
There’s a bit more to it than that, mostly laid out over the course of a second act road trip that the woman, who eventually learns her name is Carol, undertakes with Fury to stop the Skrulls from getting what they want. It all has to do with why she can’t remember who she is, what she was doing that caused her to wind up in outer space with superpowers and no memory as well as what the Skrulls are up to. People will also insist it is prequel housekeeping connecting back to the later Avengers movies and providing backdoor origins for a pair of Guardians of the Galaxy bad guys.
The unfolding character business is invested with a slow burn, Sundance Festival-feel that fits Larson’s overall groove. The back and forth with Jackson is great, and the de-aging effect is really impressive to boot. He’s super funny in this and it’s fun watching him slip back into his slick ‘90s action-comedy guy mode. The whole interlude with Lashana Lynch as Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau is VERY affecting and honestly could’ve used more screen time to develop further. There’s also a good stretch of Act 3 where a major revelation turns the way a whole mess of characters relate to one another completely on its head. The movie starts out like Star Wars and then morphs into kind of a Riot grrl Flight of The Navigator and then turns into Star Trek: The Next Generation once it heads back out into space.
That stuff works like gangbusters as does Ben Mendelsohn as the nominal main Skrull baddie Talos and Jude Law as Carol’s Kree commander Yon-Rogg. The stuff that works less well is the world building and continuity business and some of the pacing. There’s a pair of big action scenes at the end that are both excellent in isolation as technical achievements in stunt work and effects, but are undercut by an element of “I get WHY fighting these specific people is important, but if they’d had one or two more scenes to establish it I’d feel it more.”
But when it’s working, it’s working — and that’s most of the time. The film admirably commits to being a very decisive inversion of a long-lived Marvel Comics mythology trope. After a suitable amount of shouting and exploding, it also commits to a decidedly different sort of finale than blockbusters like this usually go for. I’m not sure it completely works, but I admire it anyway considering how easy it would have been to do something more conventionally satisfying.
Bottom line: I had a good time with Captain Marvel. As is usually the case with the better Marvel movies, I liked it more the more I thought about it after. With apologies to the folks who are hoping for one reason or another that this whole Marvel thing will slow down or be done with at some point, it looks like another two to three sequels and handful of team-ups are in the cards.