2019 is a big year for Marvel. Not only do they cap-off their Phase 3 plans in over a month’s time with Avengers: Endgame, but they also release their first solo film for a female hero, having been uncharacteristically pipped to the post by DC with 2017’s Wonder Woman. The stakes were high and though Captain Marvel checks a lot of boxes, it sadly fails to step up to the plate and deliver something spectacular, let alone something fitting of the watershed occasion.
Set long before Tony Stark proclaimed he was Iron Man, we are introduced to the galactic war between the shapeshifting Skrulls and the noble Kree. Carol Danvers (known as ‘Vers’ to her adopted brethren) belongs to the latter faction and ends up crash-landing on Earth when a mission goes awry. There, she’ll team up with a pre-eyepatch, pre-Avengers Initiative S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury and discover the truth about where she came from and who she was. We are told that she is a rebellious character, and yet the film itself never rebels against the existing coda nor braves a new approach. Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck don’t display any distinctive filmmaking flare here, and disappointingly waste the opportunity to deliver any Ripley-vs-Alien Queen / Eowyn-vs-Nazgul Witch King air-punching moment. 21 films into the studio’s expanded universe, you could have expected something far stronger and singular than their risk-averse origin story.
Not that it’s all bad: the fish-out-of-water elements do work well, the 1990s nostalgia never grates and some of the special effects (including the de-aging process for Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury) hit the mark. Captain Marvel never joins lacklustre or just plain annoying MCU instalments like Thor: The Dark World or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, but it only ever reaches mid-tier level, when something approaching a gamechanger was needed. The glaring thorn in its side is that the titular protagonist is lacking a compelling character arc, resulting in a disappointing absence of emotional resonance. The character of Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel feels stagnant and while Brie Larson does her level-best with a weak script, her performance resumes itself to a series of one-liners. This is made all the more egregious by the fact Ben Mendelson gets to surprisingly outshine her as Talos, a Skrull who is more nuanced than your average Marvel antagonist. Adept to being on hammy bastard duty, he – unlike his short-changed co-star – is given an arc and makes the absolute most of it.
What you’re left with is an entertaining yet oddly anonymous instalment, one that doesn’t do for women in the superhero world what Black Panther did for black representation. This is particularly irksome when its much-brandished, pre-release feminist credentials end up materialising on screen as clumsy and at times ham-fisted, paling compared to more memorable beats seen in Black Panther or even Avengers: Infinity War, especially when Elizabeth Olsen’s more layered character Scarlet Witch is concerned. And while Black Panther whetted audiences’ appetites for Infinity War, Captain Marvel feels like the obligatory prequel to Endgame that really should have been saved for the start of Phase 4. The already crowded MCU roster could have waited for a more opportune time to introduce this all-powerful character, or at least waited for an introduction that had dared, to quote Danvers’ maxim, to go “higher, further, faster”.
Captain Marvel | Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (US, 2019), with Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelson. Starts March 7.
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