Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 124 minutes
In Marvel comics, the character of Captain Marvel has a long and complicated history: The mantle has been held by a white man (Kree warrior Mar-Vell), a black woman (New Orleans cop Monica Rambeau), various genetically engineered offspring, aliens from alternate realities, and in the most recent incarnation, by blonde Earthling Carol Danvers, who was formerly known as Ms. Marvel, a title now held by Muslim teen Kamala Khan. Confusing enough? Co-writers and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, along with screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet, tap into this identity crisis in CAPTAIN MARVEL. Engaging, entertaining and empowering, this new and terrific iteration spotlights a strong, complex, fearless woman finding her voice, power and place in the universe.
The feature hits the reboot button on the Carol Danvers version of Captain Marvel, giving this origin story a supremely innovative kick by starting comic book fans and those new to her lore on the same page. This risky but refreshing choice pays quite a few dividends – the biggest of which are renewed vigor and universal appeal. Known to her Kree elite Starforce colleagues as “Vers” (Brie Larson), she’s introduced already possessing superpowers, but suffers from muddled memories hinting at a former life – one we recognize as human.
Vers’ commanding officer Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) sympathizes with her plight, but even he can’t crack the code of her past. However, when they’re attacked by their longtime foes, an army of shapeshifting Skrulls led by General Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), evidence of her true identity as U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers begins to emerge. During the tense showdown between the warring factions, Vers finds herself thrust back to Earth – not only to explore the mysterious past that haunts her, but also to save the galaxy from impending doom.
The narrative does an efficient job at contextualizing Vers’ struggle for identity. She’s someone stuck between two worlds – an alien one and home. The ensuing mystery is which is which. She bleeds like a Kree, but her exterior and memories are clearly human. We can feel the push-pull of her inner-drive as she fights to resolve her tenuous situation. Her agency is always kept at the forefront the action, whether she’s physically fighting and using her wit to get out of sticky situations, or uncovering what’s plaguing her internally. From the scene where Vers is told to “smile” by a man, to the ways in which abusive, toxic oppressors keep her from reaching her full potential, there are plenty of moments where the target market (and beyond) will see themselves reflected. Wholly satisfactory one-liners she drops in the climax provide inspiration – specifically for female filmgoers’ liberation from guilt and doubt.
Subtleties not often found in other MCU films make for greater impact. Though the film revolves around its titular heroine, the filmmakers upend the “black best friend” trope with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). She’s far from the stereotypical supporting character and carries tangible narrative weight as this film’s beating heart and soul. She’s dealt the heavy lifting when it comes to the emotional aspects of being a warrior, capable single mom, and intelligent career woman. Setting the film in 1995 acts as a subtle nod to a generation stuck in a transitional phase with Gen-Xers similarly figuring out their identity. It also allows primo soundtrack cues from the era to be used – songs from Garbage, No Doubt, TLC, En Vogue and Nirvana.
Despite the character being the “shero” we need right now, that doesn’t totally absolve the filmmakers from missteps taken with the film’s identity. Once Vers lands on Earth, the picture has a hard time figuring out what type of genre mash-up it wants to be. The tonal qualities of the relationships indicate it’s a road trip movie with “buddy cop” and “fish out of water” elements peppered throughout. However, the filmmakers don’t dig down deep enough to really explore those elements to turn them into earned moments for the characters. Vers’ relationship with a young, eye-patchless Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is left wanting more. Their banter and repartee could use another pass to take it to the next level. The inherent comedy of Vers’ situation being a stranger in a strange land mostly goes unmined. While the spectacle of the outstanding de-aging technology provides most of Fury’s external razzle-dazzle, he isn’t given much in the way of internal stakes or conflict to give us a full portrait of where he is early in his career. Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) role also doesn’t add much beyond a sounding board for Fury. Plus, the supporting actresses roles are a smidge lopsided. Annette Bening is perfectly cast as “Supreme Intelligence,” but Gemma Chan is a tad underutilized as “Minn-Erva.”
Yet, even without those ingredients, CAPTAIN MARVEL imparts a general feeling of major exhilaration.
CAPTAIN MARVEL opens on March 8.