Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law
Superhero movies are critic-proof—in certain cases, they’re even critic-repellent. Make one remark even vaguely critical of one of these movies—or even a matter tangential to them—and watch the holy ire of toxic, twitchy fanboyhood rain down upon you. And so, following the Human Resources-prescribed method of delivering criticism, I’ll start with the good things I noticed about Captain Marvel, the first female-led movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and use those positive points as a cushion for the easily provoked:
The Good Things:
1. Captain Marvel is the origin story of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a female fighter pilot in the ‘90s who gets caught up in an intergalactic war after flying a secret mission with her mentor, a catch-all scientist/sage figure played by Annette Bening. To give more away would spoil the film; all I will say is that nothing is as they seem, and part of the fun of the script by writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who worked together on the cable drama Billions and the Zach Galifianakis comedy It’s Kind of a Funny Story—those Marvel headhunters are nothing if not wide-ranging) is how many twists they’ve built into the story.
2. Carol Danvers is a character that seems to thrive on partnerships. At the start of the second act, the cosmic warrior meets Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who, according to the timeline, is a lowly operative in a fledgling intelligence agency named S.H.I.E.L.D. Another of Captain Marvel’s distinct pleasures is getting Fury’s backstory filled in, and discovering that it isn’t all gloom and gravitas. (For example, the story behind that eye patch may not be as valorous as you think.) The Nick Fury of the previous MCU films may seem cool and relentless, but here he’s befuddled, and it’s nice to see Jackson play the comic relief for once.
3. Another ally that Carol Danvers depends upon is a former colleague named Maria Rambeau (a pop culturally evocative name if there ever was one), and the actress who plays her, Lashana Lynch, may just be the film’s secret weapon/true unsung hero. She doesn’t come into the story until more than halfway through, but she manages to infuse a whole history to her friendship with the superheroine in her limited screen time. She also wears the mantle of motherhood and is, casually, an exemplar to her young daughter. She plays a kickass fighter pilot, too. All these without breaking a sweat.
4. And then there’s Goose, that scene-stealing cat. The less said about Goose, the better to preserve the surprise.
And now, on to the not-so-good things:
1. Captain Marvel is entertaining, to be sure. But it’s also a mixed bag: It has the amnesia-and-investigation storyline of the first two Captain America movies, the cosmic hijinks of Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy (the villain from the first one, Ronan, even makes an appearance during a climactic battle), plus the relationship dynamic of every buddy-cop movie ever made. It all adds up to a movie that’s tonally scattershot, like it’s searching for a groove.
2. At this point, every movie fan will be focused squarely on the showdown promised in Avengers: Endgame. Which is why an origin story that explains why Thanos is f—ked with the entrance of Carol Danvers feels a bit like the Marvel Cinematic Universe spinning its wheels. Captain Marvel keeps you diverted for two hours, but it still feels like a chapter you have to dutifully slog through before you get to the climax.
3. There’s no denying that DC’s Wonder Woman beat Captain Marvel to the punch when it comes to feminist representation in superhero movies. The joy of seeing female power in an elemental way is part of Diana Prince’s equity now. Which leaves Captain Marvel in the unenviable position of playing catch-up. Not just prowess in hand-to-hand combat, let’s also give her a photon-powered fist! Not just the power to vanquish her foes, but also the power to dismantle spacecraft in one special effects-laden sweep! She may not come from a race of mythical Amazons, but she has a female friend! (That’s actually a good thing.) After relegating its arsenal of female superheroes to supporting roles for so long (most egregiously in the case of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow), Marvel bestowing all these cosmic powers on Carol Danvers feels less like empowerment, and more like overcompensating.
My tally comes to four-good, three not-so-good. Which isn’t bad, I guess. But coming from a triumph like Black Panther, I expect more from Marvel than not bad. I expect something marvelous