There’s a distinct period piece vibe to the 1995-set Captain Marvel, the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It isn’t just seeing the title character crash-landing into a Blockbuster Video or the period-appropriate pop songs on the soundtrack. It’s a kind of strange, pre-superhero cinema energy that’s both quietly refreshing and a little bit dampening all at once. There’s a lack of Marvel bombast, but it’s replaced by a focus on natural and unforced character interaction. It’s a down-to-earth film about a cosmically-powered hero.
That hero is Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a human air force pilot who receives superpowers after an encounter with alien technology. The incident wipes her memory, and she ends up assumed into the intergalactic race known as the Kree, part of their elite Starforce military. During a mission against the Kree’s enemies the Skrulls, her memories of Earth start coming back to her, and she goes rogue in an attempt to piece her past together. Meanwhile, Carol is being pursued both by the Skrulls and her Kree allies, who threaten to bring their war with them to Earth.
There are a lot of firsts happening with Captain Marvel, and with it, a fair amount to prove. It’s the first MCU film with a female lead, the first to feature a female director, and even the first to feature a score by a female composer. And much like Carol Danvers herself, the result is flawed but appealing, a combination of the MCU’s established formula, action film nostalgia, and the indie-film roots of directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. The mix isn’t as homogenous as it could be, but it’s also exciting enough to get the job done.
Boden and Fleck have not only set the film in 1995 but in many ways presented it as if it had been filmed in 1995 itself. Unlike a lot of Marvel films, there’s a stronger emphasis on grounded locations and organic character interaction and less on sheer SFX spectacle until the final act. At least half the film feels like it could be part of a non-superhero drama about a military cover-up. Conversations between characters feel easier and more natural. The humor is subtler, the personalities slightly muted but never dull, the chemistry real and flowing.
Which is not to say that Boden and Fleck can’t handle action sequences. Much like how fellow indie-director Patty Jenkins was able to pull off Wonder Woman‘s thrilling fight scenes, Boden and Fleck handle Captain Marvel‘s set pieces with a solid bit of competency. There is nothing as transcendent as WW‘s No Man’s Land sequence, but the Captain’s combat is exciting and well-staged. Melee battles are, unfortunately, edited to death as is standard for the MCU at this point, but the vehicle chases and numerous aerial dogfights are on point and engaging. Everything’s greatly helped by Pinar Toprak’s kinetic and dynamic score, a mix of orchestral force and 90s synth loops that like the film itself is both metatextually nostalgic and modern at once.
The film sometimes becomes a bit too grounded for its own good. Dialogue is presented so naturally that it occasionally gets drowned out by the soundtrack or ambient noise. There are no oversized personalities or class clowns stealing the show (well, except one…see below). The first act is so easygoing in its forward motion that it almost stops the film before it starts. It takes Carol crashing down to Earth to get things really going, but before that, Boden and Fleck don’t do the best job of putting Carol’s life as a Kree warrior in context. There’s a lot of exposition, but it tells us all about where Carol is and very little about WHY she is.
Once Carol does end up on Earth, that’s when things start getting interesting, and that’s when Brie Larson really gets down to work making Carol a wonderfully imperfect protagonist. Carol is impulsive, prone to running on emotion, and at times, kind of a self-centered jerk. Part of that is her Kree training, and part of that is just her, but as she rebuilds the memories of her past, we get to see Larson’s portrayal evolve and reclaim the more redeeming qualities that Carol has. Her empathy, compassion, and her desire to set things right end up fusing with her hotheaded nature and occasionally misplaced self-conviction to form an actual, fully-dimensional hero. Boden and Fleck (along with the other writers) are clearly focusing on Carol as a person first and a flying, super-strong, energy-blasting cosmic warrior second, and Larson is possibly one of the best people to realize that.
She isn’t alone, however, because Carol has a whole host of excellent supporting characters on all sides of her internal and external struggles. She interacts most with Samuel L. Jackson in his ninth appearance as Nick Fury, here as a younger and more junior agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Jackson’s approach to the character maintains the attitude and no-nonsense power we know of Fury in the present, but he tempers it with a new vulnerability and openness. It’s one of his best performances in the role, and the digital effects used to de-age him are so seamless that it appears natural. Larson also has a real and true rapport with Lashanna Lynch, who plays Carol’s best friend and former fellow pilot Maria Rambeau. The two act as if they’ve been friends in real life forever, and Lynch’s performance has an appealingly understated quality to it.
As Carol discovers more about her past, she also finds out that the Kree/Skrull conflict is far more complicated than she was led to believe. Carol’s closest Kree ally is her mentor Yon-Rogg, played with such dedication by Jude Law that it engenders a kind of strange, automatic form of sympathy. Likewise, Skrull general Talos is played by Ben Mendelsohn, primarily known for playing villainous characters with ease. While both have done questionable things in the course of their conflict, it’s how they respond and move forward that defines their characters, and both actors are great at playing at dualities, keeping the audience guessing as to their true loyalties and motives.
But Carol’s most intriguing and attention-grabbing co-star isn’t Skrull, Kree, or even human at all. It’s a cute, orange kitty that Nick Fury goes gaga for named Goose, played over the course of the film by four cats and a CGI-enhanced puppet. Goose attaches herself to Carol as soon as Carol begins investigating her military background, and it becomes clear very quickly that there’s more to her than meets the eye. To fully explain it would be to give away major spoilers, but let’s just say there’s a good reason that Talos recoils in fear of the adorable fuzzball upon first meeting her. Goose has more personality than some of the supporting cast, and she’s easily the highlight of any scene she’s in, with only Larson herself able to eclipse her. (Although Jackson’s “who’s a cute kitty” shtick is utterly adorable.)
Overall, while the film has a slightly hushed atmosphere compared to the average MCU film, it’s this quality that also makes it work well as a vehicle to introduce Captain Marvel to the cinematic world. We’re being eased into Carol’s cosmic adventures as opposed to being thrust into them, getting to know her first before we know her canvas. It’s the equivalent of reading up on an artist before seeing their gallery. It might be a bit tedious, but it gives the final product a great deal of valuable context. Captain Marvel isn’t a perfect film, but like the Captain herself, it’s full of remarkable potential and possibility.
And one hell of a kitty. Seriously. Give Goose her own series. Sure, with Carol, too.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B