One of the nice parts of living in an Asian country is that most Marvel movies actually open a week earlier here than they do in the United States. Not all of them open early but most do, I don’t know why. One of the bad things is that people you meet as a foreign worker will inevitably depart your proximity, whether you are the one who leaves or they are. To mark one such departure, a friend and fellow movie lover asked if I wanted to join his last visit to the largest multiplex IMAX screen in the world. Thus I traveled four hours from my current residence to see my first IMAX film since Spider-Man 3 and my first 3D film since Hugo. All of this is a way of apologizing for not reviewing Captain Marvel earlier, as it was the first Marvel film in years which didn’t open early, and to state that my viewing of the film was truly an event, although, not as much of an event for the film itself as it should have been.
Marvel as a company has no shortage of strong female characters, which has makes it baffling that until now the company never made a solo film centered on one of these figures, more baffling still that they’ve had a proven star in Scarlett Johanssen (at least, before Ghost in the Shell) playing the intriguing Black Widow. Granted, most of their strongest female characters have been under the control of Fox as far as films go, but it is reassuring that finally, after ten years, twenty films, and the literal bifurcation of their character line-up, the House of Ideas finally decided to have a solo film lead by someone who represents the other half of the world’s population. While it’s debatable whether or not Carol Danvers in particular is the right character for this, seeing as she is not as emotionally endearing or engaging as other characters, there is no debate that Brie Larson, who earned every bit of her Oscar for Room, is the right choice to lead this film. She may have been odd at first given her previous career in comedies and indie dramas but the same has been done with Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd. Further, with how Larson comports herself in the film, deftly negotiating Danvers’s mixture of uncertainty and confidence, a case could be made that Marvel wasn’t so much waiting for the right character as their first female lead as they were waiting for the right actress. Larson’s Danvers isn’t an instant hit like Robert Downey’s Tony Stark, but she’s at least an intriguing core for the Marvel Universe to expand around.
One of the most notable elements of Captain Marvel is that while it follows many of the same beats as previous Marvel first films, Danvers isn’t yet another variation of the quippy, borderline arrogant lead of so many others. As much as we may love them, Star-Lord, Spider-Man and Ant Man are all very similar to each other, Thor eventually became another irreverent joke teller, and Tony Stark and Stephen Strange are basically the same person, even down to the facial hair. If Danvers is similar to any previous Marvel solo lead it would be Black Panther in that while she is funny she isn’t constantly using humor to undercut the seriousness of the situation. This isn’t to say that the movie lacks humor, it definitely doesn’t, much it coming from Samuel L. Jackson (in a nice juxtaposition to the man Nick Fury would later become) and the scene-stealing Goose (who has an almost carbon-copy of Groot’s best scene). Problem is that without the same level of humor as other films, Captain Marvel‘s weakness comes through in an unremarkable first act. The visuals look great (particularly in 3D on a giant IMAX screen) but much of the beginning set-up just doesn’t meet the lofty bar set by many of Marvel’s previous films, nor does it have the genre-bending which made Ant Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, or Spider-Man so refreshing. It seems that Captain Marvel‘s main points of separation would be its position as the first with a female lead and the second as a period piece. Thankfully, despite its 90’s setting being one of its identifying traits, Captain Marvel doesn’t drench itself in cheap nostalgia.
In addition to giving us a chance to see a younger Nick Fury, the 90’s setting of the film offers a glimpse into the background of the Marvel Universe in a way that no other film to this point could. Rather than feeling like a gimmick, or piling on the “Hey, remember the 90’s?” references, Captain Marvel‘s setting feels necessary. Of course there are plenty of chances to add references, with Nine Inch Nails shirts, jokes about slow computer loading times, and No Doubt very obviously punctuating a fight scene, but never does Captain Marvel seem to go out of its way to jam 90’s popular culture into its runtime. As someone who generally views nostalgia as admittance that one’s life has peaked, I didn’t find Captain Marvel in any way manipulative in its past setting. If anything the 90’s references could’ve been used even more considering much of the film is set in Los Angeles, home of gangsta rap, and Samuel L. Jackson’s big breakout came one year before the film takes place. There are a few anachronisms which arise (I don’t remember people fist bumping in ’95, and why would someone whose music knowledge ended in 1989 be comforted by the sounds of Nirvana?) but we are given an absolutely brilliant Stan Lee cameo. If nothing else, it’s nice that a film which takes place in the past doesn’t use ruby-colored glasses to cover for obvious flaws. Those flaws – occasionally unremarkable action, a predictable storyline, and yet another forgettable villain among them – are on display for a long time but do eventually come together.
Captain Marvel achieves its greatest success in the third act when its characters, story, setting and themes form a wonderful whole. The long-speculated directions of the Kree and the Skrull are given some truly surprising and interesting implications, Goose gets his time to shine, and Danvers’s story moves from one limited to herself to one which could and should resonant as broadly as T’Challa’s did. Like last year’s Black Panther a certain portion of the potential audience has decided to judge this film long before release based solely on who they see in the trailer. As much as I’d like to avoid the topic of representation and just focus on the film itself, there is a reading of the Captain Marvel which makes such separation impossible. This is, after all, Marvel’s first movie with a female lead.
During one particularly poignant sequence, the one most obviously designed as a female empowerment moment, I couldn’t help imagining my friend in the seat to me showing his two-year-old daughter the film and the broad smile on her face upon realizing that she too can stand up every time she’s knocked down. With that one exception, the pro-women messaging is rarely so blatant that, if one is inclined, it could be argued that the scenes pertain solely to Carol Danvers herself. Yet anyone who finds this message offensive is merely admitting that they have more in common with the villains of the film than with the heroes. The vaunted “feminist” agenda of the movie leads to the radical thought that humanity as a whole benefits from not placing limits on any of our number. That we are made better through our combined potential rather than our divided incapability. Anyone who thinks Captain Marvel is an anti-male film probably thinks every woman in the world owes them a smile when asked for one. They don’t. They never have. And it’s about time women are allowed to give the disguised reply they are entitled to. What Captain Marvel, like Wonder Woman before it, makes abundantly clear is that one’s strength isn’t determined by what is between their legs, but what is between their ears and within their chest. And anyone who is offended by such a message is admitting their own weakness. They can go listen to Richard Spencer wallow in their nostalgia.
That said, while Captain Marvel is another entertaining film, it’s unfortunate that the film isn’t just a bit better. As with Black Panther, it could be that the perceived responsibility of addressing hundreds of years of social inequality unfortunately, and ironically, limited the film’s potential. Personally I found the film better than several of Marvel’s other solo origin stories (outpacing First Avenger, Thor, Doctor Strange, and, if we want to count it, Incredible Hulk) however the bland elements of the first half put it behind such films as Homecoming and Guardians and its unremarkable villain leaves it behind Black Panther. In all, Captain Marvel is on par with Ant Man in a ranking of Marvel solo debuts. This isn’t a bad place to be, but it is a bit underwhelming considering the hype we’ve had for the character, and that it’s taken so long to reach this point. Hopefully, and this is just one almost-40-year-old white guy’s opinion, with her shackles thus thrown away, Captain Marvel can now reach her potential.