Captain Marvel feels like an important benchmark in the evolution not just of superhero films but films that offer woefully overdue, intersectional representation of women and people of color on a massive, mainstream scale. It’s not the “first” female-driven superhero movie of this increasingly sensitive era; Wonder Woman blasted through that glass ceiling, lifting the spirits of audience members from eight to eighty with a glimpse of female power that had previously been marginalized or relegated to supporting roles. And it arrives after Black Panther, a tremendously successful film where not only black characters but a multidimensional version of those characters’ culture was deservedly celebrated on screen.
But where the twenty-first entry in this expanding cinematic universe feels likely to make history is precisely in its lack of innovation: it is, and thankfully can be, just another superhero movie. It’s also better than that, but with Captain Marvel, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have managed to meet expectations driven by the films that preceded theirs and still create a rousing, fun superhero saga that earns the right to be viewed without needing conditions, asterisks or equivocation to evaluate its artistic worthiness - both alone and as a part of the MCU.
Brie Larson plays Vers (pronounced “Veers”), a member of an elite Kree military unit called Starforce whose purpose is to hunt down Skrulls and prevent them from invading peaceful planets across the galaxy. Not yet fully trained by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to control the powers that she cannot remember how she gained, Vers crashes on a mid-1990s Earth after a violent battle with Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). But her attempts to protect the planet from invasion get interrupted when S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) detains her for questioning and discovers that her fragmented memories suggest she’s not Kree, but human.
Because many audiences may not know a lot about Captain Marvel, it’s to the movie’s benefit that the screenplay by Boden, Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Jac Schaeffer is structured like a mystery; rather than follow a more conventional narrative where Vers (or Carol Danvers, she later learns is her name) starts out “ordinary” and gains powers and so forth, they showcase her personality, values and ambitions from the opening scene and then work backwards to explain, and eventually, dismantle and rebuild them. It’s a story where she has two male mentors - one on Hala, the Kree homeworld, and one on Earth - but she is way more powerful than both Yon-Rogg and Fury, and though she learns from them, is never their subordinate. Because the filmmakers never seem to view her as anything different than the scores of male heroes who have toplined their own adventures (the few moments when men dismiss her are played largely for laughs), her gender seldom if ever seems to be the focus of her identity or choices.
One supposes it’s a double-edged sword, critically speaking, to make so many choices that don’t feel gender specific in a story that outwardly remains an outlier in terms of the quantity (and quality) of superhero films that are not focused on white men. In Wonder Woman, by comparison, Diana’s gender and her upbringing are instrumental to her and to us in terms of understanding the fierce, disciplined, compassionate worldview that drives her heroism; Captain Marvel’s Carol is a wry, rule-breaking individualist with unique skills, strong ambitions and a broken-home background - the stuff of dozens of male heroes, including some of the protagonists from films like Top Gun that exert a palpable influence over the film’s story and tone. That she retains empathy for the people she’s charged to protect, and even some of the ones she fights against, is a byproduct of her humanity and the experiences she has, rather than a direct result of her femininity.
In terms of the action and visual effects, Captain Marvel delivers everything audiences expect and more, starting with the absolutely astonishing work involved in making Samuel L. Jackson look 25 years younger. The CGI transformation is so convincing that even if you remember well what they looked like at the time, it’s easy to forget the lives that he and Clark Gregg as a wet-behind-the-ears Agent Coulson have led in the intervening decades. Though some of the Skrull scenes occasionally hang heavy with a Star Trek vibe - even with a mischievous Ben Mendelsohn loving every minute he’s in that prosthetic make-up - Boden and Fleck vividly render a cosmic landscape that hints at the energy and possibility of galactic adventures that would chronologically come later, while setting up details that allow for a latitude of tones from silly (Guardians of the Galaxy) to deadly serious (Infinity War).
In the context of an online community that has in some corners been absurdly, childishly hostile to the very existence of this film, Larson plays Danvers with irreverence, humor and an understandable defiance, effectively showcasing how capable and formidable the character is long before we discover the true extent of her powers. Her relationship with Jackson as Fury, here less experienced with super-humans and not yet so callused to planet-threatening scenarios, falls into some truly fun rhythms as their journey simultaneously underscores foundational qualities of their personalities and exposes what each still has yet to learn. Mendelsohn, again, is a hoot as Talos - a genuinely unexpected shift from many of the villains he’s played in recent films - while Jude Law offers a slick, authoritative but charming turn as Yon-Rogg, the teacher trying not to be obliterated by his student.
Mileage may vary on the film’s use of ‘90s references and especially its needle drops - I’m not entirely sure we needed a fight scene set to No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” but I’m not sure we didn’t either. There are some especially specific and clever ones, including one involving late Marvel imprimatur Stan Lee, that absolutely kill. Otherwise, Boden and Fleck manage to both offer a solid addition to an established canon of origin stories and navigate their way through a more complex and competitive moviegoing landscape than the one at the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when comparisons to stuff like Star Wars were more existential than direct. Which is why ultimately, Captain Marvel is a successful franchise-starter for the MCU and an empowerment tome to inspire audiences across the globe.