By: Steve Pulaski
Captain Marvel is set in the 1990s, and being that it takes place in a time when people still rented movies and had to seek out "communications equipment" in stores, it's only fair that it waxes nostalgic in what is perceived as a "chill" period in American history. It also makes sense that the screenwriters and the tireless special effects artists put so much work into making the film look like a product of a hot, mid-90s summer, when superhero films came in only a couple, narrow breeds: the moody, Gothic style that defined the beloved Tim Burton Batman films, the risky, hard-R Blade and Judge Dredd, or the amateurish and ungainly one-off disappointments that served as poorly conceived star-vehicles like the Daymon Wayans caper Blankman, the Shaquille O'Neal morality play Steel, or the wretched 1990 Captain America. Captain Marvel doesn't look like any of these films, but from its Star Trek: The Next Generation-esque intergalactic battles, washed-out color palette, and basic story outline, it checks all the boxes of a superhero film from a bygone era.
Brie Larson stars as the titular hero, whose real name is Carol Danvers, caught in a crippling tug-of-war between trying to define herself and letting others define her. The film opens on the planet of Hala, where her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) engages her in a grueling combat exercise while he bloviates about how a warrior's emotion is their Achilles heel, and one must discard it at all costs — a not-so-subtle commentary on the sexist ideal that women are emotionally unstable. Carol, who goes by "Vers," also feels this is why her powers seem beyond her, as she can't quite figure out her purpose despite harboring the inkling that she's destined for big achievements.
While keeping her fighting spirit in check, Vers crashes onto Earth — through the roof of a Blockbuster Video of all places, making the new Power Rangers film's incorporation of Krispy Kreme look perfunctory — and learns that shapeshifting Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), are inhabiting the Earth and capable of assuming the look and appearance of ordinary people. She's soon picked up by one Agent Nick Fury (a remarkably de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), and the two work together in trying to stop the Earth being overrun by Skrulls. Gradually, Vers begins to assume her "Captain Marvel" alter-ego, but only after she begins to piecemeal her murky roots together. A U.S. Air Force pilot who was once responsible for conducting a mission with an experimental engine on her plane, Vers gets a lot of assistance not only from a novice Fury, but her confidant Maria (Lashana Lynch), a former pilot, and Goose, a spunky little cat guaranteed to steal the show for any cat-lover.
Anyone who has seen Room, Short Term 12, or The Glass Castle knows Brie Larson is one of the finest actresses today. Her characters are resourceful, resilient, and mesmerizing while she herself is as plucky and as confident as they come. Her Carol Danvers, however, is reduced to someone who is defined by her rebellious and cunning nature, a move that feels limited, especially for anyone who already is well aware of what Larson is capable of as a performer. Being that her character is lost, with little knowledge of her former life as a pilot, she's a blank slate in a movie that should be all about getting to know her. Captain Marvel is an origins story where the titular soul is as clueless about herself as we are.
This might explain why Vers is at her most interesting when she's placed alongside another castmember, and that person is most often Jackson's Fury. Captain Marvel boils down to a quest movie insofar that it features two characters in search of their place whilst trying to overcome a challenge ostensibly too big for their first go-round together. Pitting Fury, as we know him today, and a new, unfamiliar hero sounds like a recipe for a rehash of the prickly Peter Parker/Tony Stark relationship we saw in bothCaptain America: Civil War and later divulged deeper in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but screenwriters/directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (with the assistance of Geneva Robertson-Dworet) quickly assert these two as practically equals. This makes their banter not simply a contrived power-struggle, but a mutually beneficial, working relationship that leads to some engaging dialog.
The 90s aesthetic is refreshing, if ultimately superficial. It relies heavily on brand recognition and era-specific accouterments in the form of pagers, Radio Shack, and the aforementioned bygone video-store chain. It's chuckle-inducing, but doesn't enhance the story much. The more nuanced aspects of the film that are meant to reflect the period and bring about a more subtle commentary of our present gender dynamics are much more intriguing. Consider the film's soundtrack, with songs by TLC, the English rock band Elastica, and Heart featured prominently as if to reflect a period where music featured loud, unapologetic women at the forefront. Much of the music made by those bands reflected the angst of young people, and it's only fitting as it's posited in a manner that is germane to the struggles of our heroine.
I suppose the underwhelming aspect of Captain Marvel is that it doesn't provide much for us viewers and audiences to dissect that we haven't already. Much was made about Black Panther's seamless incorporation of African history and politics into its narrative, Guardians of the Galaxy's deft ability to take a gaggle of no-name heroes and place them into a quirky ensemble, and even Doctor Strange's push-pull of infusing mythicism into the Marvel Universe for good reason. After all those films, Marvel's 21st film in its mega-franchise is its first to feature a female lead and the result is a half-cooked film more reminiscent of a Phase One installment.
This is doubly disappointing given Fleck and Borden's track-record of humanizing complex, troubled characters, as seen in Sugar and the underrated Mississippi Grind. It's as if Marvel, who has always hounded young, ambitious directors, even those inexperienced with such a large-scale shoot and nine-figure price-tags, and the insatiable executives at Disney, had to take the hand of Fleck and Borden as if to guide Captain Marvel into merely serviceable territory, thus backpedaling on potentially bringing down the hammer too hard before the ultimate conclusion that awaits us in just under two months.