I’m still in awe of what Marvel has managed to do over the last decade. When I was little, I used to ask my parents what it was like watching Star Wars for the first time, living through that historic moment in film. And now, I can say I’m living through something like that; a point after which everything will be different. This level of interconnected storytelling, while commonplace in comic books, is still an extraordinary novelty in movies. It shouldn’t have worked. That it did is a miracle.
Still, they can’t all be winners. Every once in a while, you’re going to slip up. Even so, I was very excited for Captain Marvel for a number of reasons. Marvel had gotten Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind the wonderful Half Nelson and Sugar, to helm the project. They’d gotten an all-star cast, led by Oscar-winner Brie Larson. Old favorites Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg were returning! There was gonna be a war between two interstellar races from the comics! Shape shifting aliens! It was gonna be set in the 90s! What could go wrong?
Already, there are articles appearing comparing this film to its closest apparent DCEU counterpart, Wonder Woman. It’s a cheap and easy comparison to make (take the two recent female-led superhero movies and pit them against each other!), but a quick point that I think highlights my issues with Captain Marvel is this: Wonder Woman was a focused movie. It knew exactly what it wanted to say narratively and it did so. It used its period-piece trappings to make a broader, empathetic point about gender struggles both then and now. But, above all else, the main character was extraordinary: a complex, multi-dimensional person who was an absolute joy to spend time with for two hours. I believed in Wonder Woman because I believed in Wonder Woman.
Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is all over the fucking place. It’s a space opera-turned 90s throwback movie-turned buddy cop romp-turned immigrant parable-turned CGI slugfest. To be clear, there are good movies that have incorporated all of these elements before. This is not one of them. There’s no clear narrative through line whatsoever. These scenes never cohese into a whole, and as such, it feels like they’re actively working against each other.
Part of this is the almost overwhelming lack of visual style. Remember how in Thor: Ragnarok, or the Captain America movies, or the first two Avengers, or Black Panther, you could just tell instantly who was directing the films? That immediate, clear authorial voice? That is completely absent here, and it’s a damn shame. One of Marvel’s most admirable qualities is their willingness to hire indie directors and let them do their thing. Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi is the obvious example, but even Avengers’ Joss Whedon, in spite of him creating three of the greatest television shows ever made (also Dollhouse), had only helmed one feature film before Avengers — the good-but-unprofitable Serenity. Like I said, Half Nelson was wonderful, but it was very low-budget. It’s useless to speculate, but it feels like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were chewed up and spat out by the “Marvel machine”; for how blandly competent it was, I was half convinced they’d ditched Boden and Fleck about halfway through and brought in the guy who made Thor: The Dark World. This is a product made by an assembly line. In that way, it more closely resembles the directorless, hacked-to-pieces disaster Justice League, and I truly can think of no worse insult.
And so we come to Brie Larson. Now, Larson is an incredible actress. I feel like this is a given. While the Academy Awards have a very well-deserved reputation for being wrong on an alarmingly consistent basis (hi, Crash, Green Book, etc.), Larson’s Oscar for Room was one of those rare instances where the Academy got it absolutely right, both for the actress and the role. She brought a level of nuance and passion to that film that blew me (and seemingly everyone else) away. But there’s just something wrong here. She feels disconnected from everything, like the movie’s happening around her and she’s just observing it. Captain Marvel is a multi-layered character, but it really felt like Larson got stuck on the “stoic, dispassionate soldier” layer and no one knew what to do about it.
Also, the action scenes just generally suck. Part of this is again Larson, who never really seems to be in any danger. Even the early fight where her powers are greatly restrained, she plows through henchmen with about as much ease as ever, and always with that one stoic facial expression. But mostly, it’s the camera work, and the return of the dreaded shaky-cam quick-cut combo. There’s a chase scene, where Nick Fury and Phil Coulson are trying to catch up to a moving train on which Captain Marvel is dueling a Kree, and it plays like The French Connection but shitty. The chase takes place in broad daylight, but it’s practically impossible to tell where anyone or anything is in relation to each other.
Speaking of fights, there’s one where Captain Marvel has to go up against her former comrades in arms. These people, we’re meant to understand, have been fighting alongside each other for six years, having each other’s backs, looking out for the other. A unit. And now they have to battle for the fate of their civilizations. This should be some grand, Shakespearean shit, but it’s all just brushed aside for an empty, dispassionate, poorly choreographed fight set to a really bad tune.
This isn’t a completely bad movie. There’s the occasional moment of real charm, the most obvious being Stan Lee’s very sweet cameo. Talking of Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, the de-aging special effects are genuinely awe-inspiring. Sam Jackson looks exactly like he did in The Negotiator, and after about a minute I forgot I was looking at a special effect. Jackson and Larson have good interplay, as they do with Ben Mendelsohn’s character. His Telos felt very well fleshed out, and he gets some of the best lines. And the cat was cute.
But at the end of the day, the film is a disappointment. The lack of worldbuilding cripples any sense of reality the other planets might’ve had, the overall message is confused and unclear, and there’s a real sense that the main character just isn’t interested in anything happening around her. I don’t know if it’s an actor thing or a director thing, but somewhere something went wrong. I’m still excited for Endgame — of course I am — but this could’ve been so much more.