Screenshot: Marvel

Captain Marvel came out this weekend. Maybe you saw it! Maybe you didn’t think it was that great. Let’s chat about that.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s initial take on Carol Danvers is fine. It’s fine? It’s fine. Maybe, if you’re so inclined, you could get away with saying the movie is good. But despite the mounds of gold bricks it’s been piling into the Disney vault over the weekend and for all the auto-laudatory praise it’s received at other outlets, it’s middling at best and overall a missed opportunity—and I’m saying this as a person that would weep if someone presented me with several well-sourced graphs or an Excel spreadsheet detailing how much cash and time I’ve sunk into my MCU fandom. 

MaJoR SpOiLeRs to follow, obviously.

Let’s start with the big, macro stuff. The central narrative—the whole damn story—is blurry and ill-defined to the point that by the time the Big Reveal(s) happen and the final-act set pieces start to unfurl, you’re sitting in the theater trying to remember why the hell you care about who’s getting punched. It’s as though the movie has its feet on two pieces moving in different (not opposite) directions—the desire to play in the MCU sandbox and the desire to tell Captain Marvel’s origin story—and never really makes a choice about which one it wants to be. What’s left is a mishmash of good acting, beautiful special effects, and some shoddy screenwriting.

For what is ostensibly an origin story, this movie constantly tries to avoid being exactly what it is. (Wow, it’s, like, a meta-commentary!) Unlike Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming—which both subverted some of the more common origin tropes thanks in part to the fact that their characters made cameos in Captain America: Civil War and were thus established within the canon—all MCU viewers have to go off of Captain Marvel before seeing her full-length introduction is a logo on a beeper in the mid-credits scene of Avengers: Infinity War, one that, given the musical cue, is meant to inspire hope after the most devastating event in the current timeline. Comic book readers can obviously enter the film with expectations from the glorious pages of Kelly Sue DeConnick, but for the majority of filmgoers, Captain Marvel is as fresh to them as the Guardians crew was before the 2013 hit dropped.

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So the big question the film had to answer was always: Who is Carol Danvers, or Vers? (Just to be clear for the sake of this blog, in case any oddballs out there enjoy spoiling blockbusters for themselves, anytime you see the names Captain Marvel, Vers, or Carol Danvers in this piece moving forward, we are talking about the same person.)

But the question is never once answered in full or strategically over the course of the movie; instead, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck start the story in media res and relegate these answers to frustrating and insufficiently informative flashbacks and second-half reveals that come off as potentially cool but ultimately rushed. If you’re going to put Annette Bening in a bomber jacket (a great idea!) and change her true identity three times over the course of one movie (another great idea!), it might be useful to make the audience actually feel some sort of emotional connection to at least one of those identities and not just expect us to be awed by the constant rug pulling.

It’s possible and likely that this is a problem of a constantly expanding MCU and the idea that anything released post-Infinity War must earn and state its place in the larger canon. But in comparison to Iron Man, Captain America: First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, and even Dr. Strange, the reason why any moviegoer would be watching this particular film is unclear for far too long.

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Part of these shortcomings come with the risk of taking your story outside of the well-defined history of Earth, or C-53. In The First Avenger, the stakes are set by your preconceived understanding of WW2; the same goes for the U.S.-Afghanistan war in Iron Man. You know full well the shapes and beats of the periphery setup, so you can spend the majority of your time digging into the character arcs.

To that point, the largest obstacle to feeling any kind of emotional investment in Captain Marvel is its inscrutable mythology of the Skrull-Kree war—and more importantly, the two races’ preexisting relationship to one another, which is left almost wholly undefined outside of explanatory language from Talos, played perfectly by Ben Mendelsohn. We still don’t really know why these two armies are really fighting, what kind (let alone color) of blood Talos has on his hands, and who Ronan is in relation to Vers other than some blue dude that she absolutely punks. The first Guardians side-stepped this pitfall by focusing more on its ragtag bunch of a-holes than the surrounding conflict, and even then, by the end you get what’s going on between Ronan and the Nova Corps and even get a little hint of Thanos’ master plan.

One of the best things this movie has going for it is the cast’s chemistry. Larson and Lashana Lynch, who plays Danvers’ best friend and fellow Air Force vet Maria, make the most of their few scenes together to really drive home their deep, lived-in relationship. But their dramatic reunion at the midway point felt unearned and underdeveloped—we had no way to understand why Danvers seeing Rambeau for the first time in years (and vice-versa) meant so damn much. The main friendship between Carol and Maria could have done with a solid five-to-10 minutes more of background or even current-time screen time at Rambeau’s house. The friendship isn’t unbelievable, just shallow in foundation, especially in relation to past MCU movies—think Cap/Bucky, Tony/Rhodes, T’Challa/Okoye, even Thor/Hulk. And that’s a shame, because their scenes, as well as the scenes with Monica Rambeau, played by Akira Akbar, shine.

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Some other nits in need of picking:

  • The big, badass action sequences are all over before they begin, which is fine, but because Captain Marvel just seems to snap her fingers and totally comprehend and master her “new” powers, the fact that she’s even more badass than originally believed gets a little lost.
  • The opening of the movie is so ridiculously dark I was squinting for the full first half-hour—you’re telling me the Skrulls and the Kree can wage an intergalactic war but nobody has the money for lights in their spaceship?
  • This movie seems to have not taken note from Black Panther in terms of distancing the central characters’ powers from the Infinity Stones. Again, tying Captain Marvel’s powers up in the Tesseract/Space Stone isn’t a big problem, it just overly complicates the whereabouts of that very busy stone and seems a little too MacGuffin-y even for a film universe that lives and dies on MacGuffins.
  • The name “Captain Marvel” is not uttered or referenced one single time in the entire movie, to my knowledge. That’s OK! Just going to feel a little awkward when everyone goes around the room and introduces themselves in Endgame.
  • The directorial decision to have one of the closing shots follow Nick Fury as he sits at his computer on the precipice of typing “The Avengers Initiative” on a Word doc is some high-cheese laziness that I hoped the MCU had left in Phase One.

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That said, there is good stuff! This movie is very funny and quippy—Samuel L. Jackson loves playing Nick Fury and it shows. His scenes, and the de-aging technology being used on him, provide some of the funniest bits. Also, I’m showing my biases as a cat person, but the Goose bits are good as hell and very funny—though I didn’t need it explained, necessarily, the decision to have Fury’s eye go at the paws of Goose works for me.

And to the screenwriters and directors’ credit, the second half brings everything into focus much more clearly than the first half. The reveal that flips the whole Good Guys/Bad Guys dynamic—though, again, not perfectly set up on a larger scale—is creative and smart. And when Captain Marvel unveils her full powers and kicks every ass around, it’s extremely rad and well shot and a prime example of why this whole big machine will outlive us all.

In relation to the distracting male-gaze of other MCU entries (looking at you, Iron Man 2!), the film is a vast improvement in how female characters are represented on-screen in Marvel movies. Captain Marvel doesn’t have any annoying male love interest to distract her—Jude Law appears for all of five minutes—and Larson embodies the role better than anyone else could have in this situation, with a presence conveying both the curiosity and fully confident strength that her character’s backstory demands. The larger problems—the script, the lighting, the normal origin story tiredness—don’t take you out of it to the point that you want to walk out of the movie theater (but you will sigh a decent amount).

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OK, now let’s talk about what that mid-credits scene means, because, really, that’s the real question with this film finally released. Without breaking the scene down beat-by-beat, I dearly hope Endgame doesn’t rely too heavily on Captain Marvel to fly in and punch Thanos and save the day. What made Infinity War special to the folks who have watched (and rewatched) the MCU canon is that it felt at least partially earned—like the relationships and narratives established in each movie had been convincingly woven together by the Russos in order to craft the first half of a satisfying finale to the initial offerings of the MCU. Yes, the relationship of Wanda and Vision was dumb and just kind of there, but that was about it, if you also ignore the quick intro and exit of the Black Order. Captain Marvel is very clearly supposed to pair with Spider-Man, Black Panther, Ant-Man, what’s left of the Guardians, and Dr. Strange to lead the MCU into its cosmic phase.

It’s not nearly as clear from this first Captain Marvel film where and how exactly the character and the movies exists alongside what is apparently a new era of films. Thor, for all its faux-seriousness, made clear there were other worlds with higher powered beings. Captain America left us with the prospect of a human of old that had encountered and conquered an Infinity Stone. Leaving Captain Marvel’s position (in the universe, in her personal journey, in her mastery over her powers) unclear moving forward feels like quite literally the last possible thing you want if you’re Marvel and there’s one month left before what is supposed to be the culmination of a decade-plus of world building. That said, if the worst-case scenario is Captain Marvel takes a solo movie or two to warm up and spends the interim shining during the big team-up films, I can live with that! But we’ll have to wait until the end of April to know if that’s the case.

Overall Captain Marvel in the middle tier of MCU movies for me (better than Thor 1/2!) but that likely says more about my depraved fandom than it does anything else.