Review: Captain Marvel (2019)

It’s a bit of a mess: the pieces are all there, but they’re deployed in the least effective ways possible.

It isn’t fair that Captain Marvel had so much work to do, but we are here – in a world, no less, where Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther had by this point proven that comic book movies can say and do more than previously expected or warranted – which makes Captain Marvel all the more of a disappointment. I wanted this movie to win. Sadly, Captain Marvel isn’t everything it could, and by rights should, be. So it’s hard to “have fun with it” when it missed such an important opportunity.

First up: What I Liked

Even a messy Marvel movie is still a good time. Ben Mendelsohn‘s Talos is even more enjoyable than Samuel L. Jackson‘s pretty-well-de-aged, lighter-hearted Nick Fury; I wanted to see more of Gemma Chan; and Jude Law brings the right mix of qualities to his portrayal of Yon-Rogg just effortlessly. And just when I’d come to accept that “good prequel work” isn’t a thing that happens, there’s the efficient, satisfying way this film explains why Captain Marvel will be absent for the next 20 years.

As an MCU film though… hooboy.

Telling, Not Showing

Captain Marvel is more concerned with establishing Captain Marvel as the most powerful character in the MCU than with introducing Carol Danvers as a character at all. The film is an example of the worst things about the episodic nature of these films. Its first priority is clearly to set up Avengers: Endgame, its second to be a solid film in its own right.

Captain Marvel is a Phase Two sequel-teaser dressed as a Phase One origin story.

Carol (Brie Larson) has no arc. She doesn’t inherit her powers for any thematic reason – unlike Cap, Thor or even Tony, she doesn’t earn or learn from her gifts. Unlike Banner or Wanda, there’s no element of danger or risk to her using her powers. Unlike Natasha or T’Challa, there’s no legacy to wrestle with or weight of moral responsibility which, as with certain other friendly neighbourhood heroes, comes with said power.

Captain Marvel falls short in filmmaking 101: “Show, Don’t Tell”. We’re told Carol is many things – funny, emotional, underestimated, altruistic – but not shown. Her jokes land less like Tony’s and more like Doctor Strange’s (i.e. not well); her emotionality is never dangerous or unstable like Hulk’s; she displays little of Thor’s hubris or Cap’s valor. There’s no real personality, either to invest us in her hero’s journey, or to at least make us care when she ultimately realises her full power. Her breakthrough isn’t about personal growth – and for someone with such a game-breaking level of power, it really needs to be. Once we see her dispose of a barrage of alien missiles with a single gesture, the stakes vanish; we’re no longer afraid for her (if we ever were), and now nothing means anything.

Sexism

In Captain Marvel, sexism is shown as individual, not systemic. We see a dude make a crack about “cock”pits, and other individual men tell her she’s not good enough because she’s a woman… but we’re not shown, in practice or demeanour, how sexism has held her back, how she may have internalised this, or any way in which it’s helped shaped her life.

On the contrary: we see her told often how special and “gifted” she is, and we watch her move only with decisive determination. Her “getting back up” montage may resonate with audiences for broader cultural reasons, but it’s not set up or paid off visually, emotionally or thematically within the film itself.

Captain Marvel’s ultimate breakthrough isn’t about personal growth – and for someone with such a game-breaking level of power, it really needs to be.

While Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch, who does a whole lot with very little) mentions that female pilots are denied access or opportunities, the flashbacks show mostly happy, generic pilot imagery less about struggle or inequality and more like another Hollywood military recruitment collaboration (which, if you don’t know, is very much a thing). Maria says Carol flew her ill-fated mission because it was “right” and because of her selflessness, but it plays more like a Top Gun Maverick moment (featuring a cat named Goose, because References): she did it because she could, because she wanted to, and because she was around. Which is fine – and a fine opportunity for character growth – but by the film’s end, Carol’s decision to help others is because of their stories, not her own.

Dr Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) didn’t choose Carol, the way Dr Erskine chose Steve Rogers, because of the quality of her character, or because something in her as a person meant she was destined for greatness and heroism. She didn’t choose Carol at all – so the accident which gives Carol her powers isn’t fated narratively or thematically, so it doesn’t resonate.

Racism

The Kree / Skrull conflict takes an unexpected turn – not from a storytelling perspective, that’s telegraphed pretty heavily on the Kree side, but with which characters this movie chooses to imbue its emotional stakes. The film’s commentary on racism, refugees and genocide is certainly timely, but it also feels kind of… inserted into a movie already full of ideas that haven’t been properly fleshed-out. Meanwhile, Thor: Ragnarok manages to deliver many of the same themes within its Trojan horse of comedy and shenanigans, ultimately and masterfully revealing itself to be about these things on a deeper level.

Quick thought experiment: if Captain Marvel were a man, how would you describe him?

Music & Tech

The needle-drops are a neat microcosm of what’s wrong with Captain Marvel. As artistic choices, the music cues are so on-the-nose, so distracting, that they pull you out of the movie. I had my issues with the use of music in Guardians of the Galaxy (less so in Vol. 2) to deliver the emotional maturity the writing did not – but at least in those movies, like Baby Driver, the songs feel baked into the film’s very DNA, and the choices at least relate to the scenes they’re in thematically or emotionally. Captain Marvel‘s music cues, by comparison, could be swapped around at random, and the scenes they’re in would remain unchanged. The music supervision doesn’t seem to extend far beyond a quick Google search of “’90s rock and pop hits” – or, perhaps more likely, it’s simply the sound of Disney saying, “We can afford any song we want. What else sounds ’90s? Nirvana? Garbage? Elastica? TLC? Hole? You got it.”

In fact, nearly all the ’90s references are irrelevant to the story, and their comedy is more Family Guy than South Park: red-herring cutaway gags, rather than thoughtful or just, y’know, not lazy. A better film would have a firmer hold on our emotions when, in a potentially emotional, expositional moment, it pauses to joke “How laughably slow is ’90s tech? Dial-up modems, CD-ROM drives, amirite?” to no greater dramatic or thematic benefit.

Two-for-One, but Half-Baked

Each of the major characters in Captain Marvel also plays a character. Vers becomes Carol; Talos plays Keller, and goes from bad guy to good guy just as Yon-Rogg goes from good to bad; there’s Dr Wendy Lawson’s reveal, but also that she is the form Supreme Intelligence takes in her exchanges with Captain Marvel; and of course, the the reveal of the true nature of the Kree / Skrull war.

Beyond the fact that it’s a bunch of good actors each getting to play two characters in one film, it’s also clearly a theme of the story: duplicity, prejudice, and the racial, political and emotional stakes therein. Yet somehow, the final film doesn’t seem to make as big a deal of this. And just on a basic, theatrical level:

Captain Marvel potentially had Jude Law-, Annette Benning- and Brie Larson-level actors more giving us two performances each within the one movie – yet we get barely half of that.

Aside from Mendelsohn’s hammy-then-sensitive Talos, none of the other performers here gets time or treatment to be both their characters fully enough to make their reveal all that dramatic. The film suffers for it, and we’re deprived because of it. What a waste, what a shame.

Why So Harsh?

Both within the MCU narrative and for culture more broadly, Captain Marvel should be a better film and Captain Marvel needs to be a better-drawn character. I fear it will only feed the hateful appetites of incel trolls that the first solo female superhero film in the MCU is so muddled (despite having five credited writers) because it’s more focused on setting up the next story than on telling its own.

Quick thought experiment: if Captain Marvel were a man, how would you describe him?


Further Viewing

Rowan Ellis’ queer reading of the relationship between Carol Danvers and Maria Rambeau is more compelling than you may expect (not least for her urgent delivery – “glitter!”), and its implications for both the MCU and for culture more broadly are profound:

In case you missed it: those incel trolls I mentioned? They said Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel should “smile more”, and Brie responded:

Brie Larson first caught attention (mine, at least) in the TV series United States of Tara as the sassy, angsty, scene-stealing Kate (no mean feat, considering she’s opposite Toni Collette playing a character with multiple personalities). It makes me even sadder that Carol Danvers was not written with more meat for Brie chew on:

Prior to Captain Marvel‘s release, Comic Book Girl 19 (admittedly, in uncharacteristically unstructured and catty fashion) predicted why the film wouldn’t work, either with its main character or as the MCU’s response to DC’s Wonder Woman (2018):

An example of Comic Book Girl 19’s assertion that the most interesting things about Captain Marvel are the awful things other Marvel characters do to her: The Weekly Planet podcast discusses an episode of X-Men: The Animated Series which tells another tale of Captain Marvel’s sustained abuse at the hands of Rogue: