Oh Captain! My Captain? Marvel’s Cinematic Universe re-begins in Captain Marvel (2019)
Pity poor Marvel. Their greatest enemy isn’t Thanos, or the Red Skull, or Loki. It’s not even the whiny bitter minority who somehow take offence at the very idea of a female superhero, or at least one that hasn’t been Zack Synder-approved. No, their mortal foe is Kano and with every passing movie, his model grows stronger. It’s hard to even imagine a time where Marvel movies have been left in the dust, but they’re a victim of their own success; a track record of over twenty movies and counting means that what comes next has a near-impossible hurdle to clear. Amazing becomes great, great merely good, good is expected – and nobody’s ever been delighted by getting exactly what they expected. And all this is happening at the same time as the DCEU is on an upswing because of a reverse Kano model where the ‘achievement’ of not being actively terrible has become some kind of triumphant relief.
Fortunately, “Captain Marvel” isn’t just good, it’s great, because of – or in spite of – the crucible of expectation, cultural weaponization and vitriolic online discourse. All that sound and fury ultimately signifies nothing because the film succeeds on its own merits, both as a standalone introduction to the character and as a building block of the wider MCU.
One thing Marvel have never really delivered on is their promise to be ‘done’ with origin stories, except perhaps saving us yet another do-over of the whole spider bite/ Uncle Ben rigamarole in “Civil War” and “Homecoming” and here we’re presented with not one, but two origin stories. There’s the obvious one of how Vers rediscovers herself as Carol Danvers but, as a bonus, we get to see Nicholas Joseph Fury become the Nick Fury we know and love.
The movie opens in outer space, the cosmic setting matching the aesthetic of Gunn’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy” movies although some of the vibrancy of those movies and its only really once the film finds its way to planet C-53 (that’s Earth to you and me) – and gets past the scenes used in the trailers – that it really hits its stride.
Larson brings Danvers to life, walking a fine line between likeable and cocky, always staying just on the right side of the divide and not afraid to let her character’s flaws show, knowing that they accentuate her virtues. With so many other superhero movies, we have to accompany the newly empowered on a journey to learn responsibility and/ or humility but Carol’s journey through this film is an intriguing inverse of that – she already has the moral compass and it is her own power she needs to learn to embrace, throwing off those who would seek to limit or suppress her. Quite the metaphor.
With their de-aging technology now approaching witchcraft, Marvel transport Samuel L Jackson back to his “Pulp Fiction” prime (although without the jerry curls) and he and Larson develop a pretty good mismatched buddy cop chemistry, even as another sidekick waits in the wings (an ever-so-slightly-less-successfully de-aged Clark Gregg as freshman S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson). The wider supporting cast separate into two distinct groups: the antagonists, where the leads Jude Law as Kree Yon-Rogg and Ben Mendelsohn as the Skrull leader Talos get a fair bit to do but their respective followers are somewhat wasted and underdeveloped, and the remnants of Carol’s earthbound life. The latter group, including Annette Bening as Dr Lawson, Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau and Akira Akbar as her daughter (and no-doubt significant future MCU player) Monica. It’s heavily signposted that a “Captain Marvel 2” will be fully cosmic (as it would need to be if it takes place alongside the MCU as we know it, explaining her absence until “Avengers: Endgame”) but that would be a shame because of the great supporting cast assembled here that may have to sit on the sidelines until a potential “Captain Marvel 3” finally brings the character back to Earth post-Avengers.
Of course, it’s Goose who steals many of the scenes and provides some of the film’s biggest laughs, although the humour is noticeably more restrained than other recent MCU entries. There’s an underlying sense of seriousness, a metatextual awareness of what’s at stake for the movie itself and superhero movies in general that keeps it from truly relaxing into its full potential, something that will no doubt blossom in future sequels and appearances.
The film’s minor weaknesses come from a slightly muddled middle act but mostly from its position as a prequel. It renders some parts of the story predictable and a little formulaic although it still manages to deliver a few surprise twists and adds to the lore of the MCU in some unexpected and interesting ways, tying Carol’s origins directly into the central MacGuffin of Phase 1. It’s also a little heavy-handed with the 90’s nostalgia nods (visual and musical) and there are moments when the comedy doesn’t quite land as such as the Nerf joke which seems cut more with a view to showing off the product name than landing the punchline.
Any minor shortcomings, though, are more than compensated by the overall product and there’s even a touching tribute to Stan Lee to open the whole show and set the stage for his first real posthumous cameo, a curiously prescient and serendipitously poignant appearance as himself, for the first time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Brie Larson may not have made this movie with me in mind, but I know she won’t mind at all that I had a pretty great time watching it, as did Mrs Craggus and Mertmas. And I’m pretty sure she’d be very approving of how excited I am to take the Littlest Craggling to see it, her first ever cinematic superhero experience. However “Avengers: Endgame” shakes out, it looks safe to assume that Captain Marvel can propel the Marvel Cinematic Universe higher, further and faster. ‘Nuff said.