Captain Marvel is unquestionably the best movie about a fighter pilot who gains superpowers after an encounter with space aliens. It was not a high bar to clear.
Our hero Carol Danvers longs to fly “higher, further, and faster” in high-performance flying machines, but her movie is more like a worn-out old sports car that occasionally fires on all cylinders, but just as frequently stalls out at red lights. There is a minus for every plus on the scorecard.
There are some cool moments and fun scenes, but the movie just grinds to a halt when it’s time to explore Carol’s past or dump loads of exposition about the galactic war she was drafted into. The humor is good in some spots but overdone in others. Marvel’s production design team is excellent as always – many nifty weapons are drawn and snappy uniforms donned – but the sense of a coherent, interesting universe conveyed by the Guardians of the Galaxy films is missing. Some of the incoherent Carol Danvers memory flashes could have been sacrificed to show us a little more of the Kree empire and flesh out Carol’s fellow space commandos as characters.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to Wonder Woman, and it’s no contest: Brie Larson simply lacks the warmth, charisma, and exotic appeal of Gal Gadot. Some of her line readings are shockingly awkward, delivered like a bored cheerleader dragooned into playing a character in her little brother’s stupid superhero role-playing game. Her attempts at cocky action-hero banter are cringe-inducing.
Larson fares much better when paired up with seasoned professional co-stars like Samuel Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, and especially Jude Law, who really sinks his teeth into the role of Carol’s mentor in the elite alien commando force she serves as the story begins. Law seems like the kind of actor who could tell you exactly what his character was doing three days before the first scene in the movie, right down to what he ate for breakfast.
Mendelsohn also brings a tremendous sense of inner life and confidence to his shape-shifting alien leader, delivering one of the best antagonists in a Marvel film to date. His race of Skrulls is handled extremely well and presented in a way that might surprise longtime comics readers.
Larson’s performance is not the only problem with her severely under-written character, who suffers from the amnesia trope and spends the whole film trying to remember who she was before she woke up as a recruit in a galactic army. The problem is that Carol simply doesn’t receive the deep characterization she needs. She has no depth, no dramatic flaws, nothing beyond “infallibly brave and determined.” She isn’t terribly likable, because likable characters have flaws that we root for them to overcome.
Carol’s apotheosis is a well-conceived scene that should have been stirring, but it disintegrates into hilariously overdone “Fearless Girl” posturing that has little impact because the character is shallow and lacks inner demons to defeat. Even Thor had to do some growing up to complete his character arc and prevail in his debut film, and he was 1500 years old at the time.
The message of Captain Marvel is “don’t listen to people who tell you that you’re not strong and brave enough,” and it’s delivered with all the subtlety of the photon blasts Carol shoots out of her fists. Once her apotheosis is achieved, Carol becomes utterly invincible, and therefore completely uninteresting. At the very moment the movie should soar, it collapses from exhaustion and wraps things up with a few perfunctory CGI explosions.
Captain Marvel is easily the worst-directed of the Marvel films, filled with confusing action beats, dull conversational interludes, and plot twists telegraphed so heavily that no one over the age of six will be surprised by anything that happens. The technical ineptitude on display is amazing given how well Marvel has done with directors until now.
This is the studio that keeps reinventing the superhero film, giving us everything from the Seventies-style paranoid thriller of Captain America: The Winter Soldier to the crazy psychedelic ride of Doctor Strange. It chose to introduce the character it wants to take over as leader of the franchise with a paint-by-numbers origin story, redeemed by outstanding production design, great supporting actors, villains whose motivations make sense for a change, fun cameos by younger versions of characters from previous movies, and a scene-stealing cat.
Of course, this is a Marvel movie, so it does not stand in isolation. Captain Marvel tries way too hard to make its protagonist the most powerful superhero evah and crowbar her into the cinematic universe audiences fell in love with over the past decade – there were audible groans in my theater when Carol’s call sign as a fighter pilot was revealed–but she will probably become more interesting when she has other superheroes to bounce off of. Captain Marvel is on the board now, and when we see her again in a couple of months, she’ll be in the hands of the guys who made Civil War. ‘Nuff said, as Stan Lee would put it. (Hats off to the studio for the beautiful tribute to Stan in Captain Marvel’s opening credits.)
Marvel seems incapable of making a movie that isn’t at least fitfully entertaining, and that’s pretty much Captain Marvel in a nutshell.