Movie Review: CAPTAIN MARVEL – the latest in the Marvel Studios juggernaut is enjoyable thanks to Brie Larson’s charm, but lightweight.

Carol Danvers, much like Tony Stark in 2008, was a comic book character largely unknown outside of the increasingly insular world of comic book readers, but thanks to her inclusion in the cinematic Marvel Universe, now over $1 billion worth of people know the name worldwide, bringing with it untold fame and riches for its Oscar-winning star, Brie Larson.  More importantly, the movie introduces Marvel’s first female headliner and positions the character as potentially the most powerful in the entire franchise.  Unfortunately, in today’s sociopolitical climate, the very notion has been met online with the kind of outraged-male bile all too common.  I’d have preferred not to put this kind of spin on my reviews, but it’s unavoidable.

But fun stuff first!  Who is Captain Marvel?  It’s a sure bet that unless you’ve been reading comics for a long time (as long as me!) you won’t even know the character has gone through a surprising amount of change.  In fact, Carol Danvers wasn’t always Captain Marvel – this is a relatively recent phase in the history of the character.  In fact, Captain Marvel (Marvel’s version, that is) goes back to the 1960s, which is also when a non-powered Carol Danvers made her first appearance, in Marvel Super Heroes #13.

And Captain Marvel was a guy – a Kree soldier named Mar-Vell.  Seen above in his human identity of Walter Lawson, this character was rejigged in the 1970s to look more like a traditional superhero, and through the work of writer/artist Jim Starlin became one of the more interesting characters in Marvel’s roster.

After Carol Danvers got super powers, thanks to an explosion, she joined the ranks of superheroes as Ms. Marvel, sporting this costume (a variant of the then-existing Captain Marvel), seen on the cover to #1 of her first solo comic series:

Not long after, she got a whole new costume that to this day remains my favourite costume design of all time, created by Dave Cockrum.  What do you think?  Pretty great, wouldn’t you say?

The series was short-lived, and soon Ms. Marvel became a member of The Avengers, an association that continued, over various periods, for decades.  In between she appeared in the pages of the X-Men under a different identity, Binary, a part of the character’s history I don’t care for.  I’ve mostly always liked the character, although I wasn’t reading comics much when she moved into her latest incarnation of Captain Marvel in 2012.  This pretty much brings us to the present, and if you want to know about her wide and varied history, the Wikipedia entry makes for good reading.

Now we’re in 2019, and the movie has just passed $1 billion worldwide.  How much of that is due to the Marvel franchise as a whole, and how much is due to the rising wave of female empowerment, the #MeToo movement, and further visibility of gender equality?  It’s a safe bet that it’s probably 75% of the former, and 25% the sum of everything thereafter, but box office alone is no yardstick of quality – proven by Aquaman and Venom, which are bad movies no matter how you slice it.  In terms of where Captain Marvel stands as an entertainment piece (which is only how I can judge it), for me it ranks alongside Captain America: Civil War, somewhere above Black Panther and Dr. Strange, and somewhere below Thor: Ragnarok.  Square in the middle, in other words.

I went in expecting to like it more than Wonder Woman, it’s spiritual sister, and I did.  That movie only had one thing going for it – Gal Gadot was inspired casting for the part, and imbued the movie with a strong sense of identity and authenticity, but the story and screenplay were awful.  At least with Marvel, the worst you can say about most of the movies is that the stories swing at the easy pitches and are mostly content to not rock the boat too much.  I wish they could all be as great as Captain America; The Winter Soldier, but I can’t complain too much about most of the movies in the franchise to date.

Positioning the movie as chronologically the first in the series, Captain Marvel is set in the mid 90s, a decision probably made to squeeze fresh juice out of the whole nostalgia thing, knowing that the 80s is probably a little dry by now.  For me, it was a case of

every time the movie yukked it up at the expense of things we took for granted at the time, and I quite like this aspect of the movie.  Probably the biggest thing about the era was the digital de-aging of Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury character, an effect that has appeared in a number of the more recent movies in the franchise, and something I get a kick out of.  It’s done pretty well here, I think – I never once stopped to think about it, just completely bought into this being a 90s-era Sam Jackson.  96 Fury looks nothing like Zeus Carver, Jules Winnfield, or Ordell Robbie, but maybe with a little weight gain in that stage in his career, it’s probably pretty damn close.  I thought seeing the character back than, and how different he was to the Nick Fury everyone is familiar with, was a big part of why I liked the movie.  It also helps that he has a good, natural on-screen chemistry with Brie Larson, who is the main reason I ended up enjoying the movie as much as I did.  She is surprisingly good in the role, and I don’t know if it was intentional misdirection on the part of Disney’s marketing department, but the trailer’s depiction of her as a po-faced, humourless bore is not the fairest view of the character.  I thought she had a lot of charm and at times a playful personality, in direct contrast to Wonder Woman, who is written with precious few personality traits.  As the movie progressed I started enjoying Larson’s performance more and more.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s a cute blonde in a superhero costume, but don’t worry, that’s about as sexist and objectifying as I’ll get – I just really enjoyed this character quite a lot.

So what of the story itself?  Typical of Marvel, there’s nothing groundbreaking here, and the plot frequently seems cobbled together, and the more grounded approach to their characters often feels too safe and toothless.  The perfect example of this is Annette Benning as the Kree Supreme Intelligence.  In one of the two moves that borrow from the work of legendary comic book creator John Byrne, the Supreme Intelligence’s form is perceived differently by whoever sees it.  In a classic Fantastic Four story, Byrne attributed the same concept to Galactus, the cosmic devourer of planets.  In Captain Marvel it lacks the visual flair and interesting look of the Kree Supreme Intelligence shown in this depiction by co creator Jack Kirby:

While Annette Benning is pretty easy on the eye, she’s nowhere near as interesting to look at as the comic book version of the character, and that disappointed (but didn’t surprise) me.  In the other nod to Byrne’s Fantastic Four work, and again with Galactus, the Skrulls reveal the recent destruction of their homeworld – this happened in Fantastic Four 257:

Byrne’s work on the Fantastic Four has been cherry picked by a number of Marvel movies, including Guardians of the Galaxy 2‘s climactic scene.  Given he was more than partially responsible for the immense success of the X-Men’s rise to dominance in comic books, particularly the appeal of Wolverine (X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Days Of future Past, and the upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix are all based on stories Byrne co-plotted and drew), it’s inconceivable that the Fantastic Four movies have failed as miserably as they have, given that so much of Byrne’s work on that titled is considered among the best of the entire run.

Nerd diversion over, when the destruction of the Skrull homeworld is revealed by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), it changes the plot from that point on with a mostly satisfying – if not entirely unpredictable – reversal.  Mendelsohn is pretty good in this, a far cry from his forgettable milquetoast corporate villain in Ready Player One.  He brings some pathos and humour to the character, which I found reminiscent of the Guardians movies, and somewhat unexpected.  In fact, there’s a fair bit of character-based humour in Captain Marvel, with some it arising from Larson’s engaging portrayal, especially in how it grows along with the relationship between Danvers and Fury – it seemed like an organic friendship, not just two characters reciting lines to each other, and that allowed the “true” personality of Danvers to emerge from behind her militaristic, driven, shell.  It’s seen earlier in the movie too, before the scene switches to Earth.  Another thing I liked about the character is that Marvel allowed her to express the knowing, willful arrogance she would naturally acquire as a result of being a powerful character – in that respect she’s an interesting counterpoint to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.  It’ll be interesting to see how those characters interact in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame.

About the only thing I didn’t like was the CGI used to show Danvers’ powers.  They look so obviously CGI in certain scenes, and the visuals made me focus on that rather than what was happening, but really, it’s a small dislike and the movie didn’t suffer because of it.  After the dust settled I came away with a feeling that a movie I was unsure about from the mediocre trailers ended up being mostly enjoyable, and mostly because of Brie Larson, who fits the role well.  It’s just too bad that the polarizing social media-polluted world in which we live has forced a certain vocal minority into feeling the need to express loathing for the movie simply because of some gender-equality based opinions she has every right to have and express.


© 2019, Andrew Hope

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