I keep going back on my promise to quit superhero movies (or at least to quit reviewing them). I first broke my self-imposed moratorium with Black Panther last year and was rewarded mightily. Black Panther proved that not all superhero movies were going to be overly bombastic, mind-numbing testosterone fests, so I felt a bit better about making a new promise right then: only go to superhero movies that look interesting.
Which brings us to Captain Marvel.
I’ll be totally honest with you. I had never even heard of Captain Marvel before. I’m not nor have I ever been a comic book person, but at least I had heard of characters such as Captain America, Thor, the Hulk and Spider Man. But this Captain Marvel was a complete unknown to me. And even though I enjoyed the heck out of Black Panther, the whole Avengers saga has been totally lost on me. I watched Avengers: Infinity War just because I wanted to be in on the conversation, but I found it to be another cookie-cutter piece of CGI brain noise. With the exception of Black Panther and the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, I can truly take or leave the Avengers and all their iterations. But when it was announced that Marvel Studios was casting a woman to play the originally male titular superhero and Avenger Captain Marvel, I was intrigued. And when it was then announced that the woman who would play her would be Brie Larson, I was in.
See, that’s what Marvel keeps getting right: they keep finding ways to attract new audiences while maintaining their loyal ones. Brie Larson’s casting was yet another step in this Studio’s march to industry dominance. Prior to her casting, the entire Marvel universe had only two Oscar winners in their midst, Gwyneth Paltrow and Lupita Nyong’o, neither of whom have starring roles in any Marvel movie. Brie Larson, however, is a Best Actress Oscar winner carrying a Marvel superhero movie—there are so many things in that sentence that are groundbreaking, and I love every one of them.
So, not only did Marvel change it up by making Captain Marvel a woman, they changed it up by casting an actress who had critical success, but not too much mainstream recognition. Larson won her Oscar for a little-seen independent movie, Room, and her first attempt at a big Hollywood blockbuster, Kong: Skull Island, bombed*, so I can’t imagine the Disney (Marvel Studio’s parent company) big shots were thrilled at the idea of this possible flash-in-the-pan being the one to carry a franchise on her shoulders. But Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, has been given the keys to the kingdom, so whatever he wants, he gets. And, as always, Feige has done it exactly right.
Larson may have been the reason I went to see Captain Marvel, but, surprisingly, she’s not the sole reason I liked the movie. She’s great, I want to make that absolutely clear, but I always knew she would be. It was absolutely no surprise to me that she could handle this role and all its challenges, but what did surprise me was how affable and unassuming this whole movie was. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and screenwriters Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet take the time to build a world here, and they make it intimate and relatable. There is the perfect amount of ‘90s nostalgia, the perfect amount of modern girl-power resonance, and the perfect blend of superhero mythology and organic, earth-bound humanism. There is humor and charm everywhere, and there’s even a cat who literally steals the movie.
Speaking of the cat, I loved the intentional or unintentional callbacks to science fiction classics that are scattered throughout the movie, from Star Trek to Alien to Star Wars. I love so many things about Captain Marvel, I just wish that I had been able to follow it a bit better. Even though it is the ultimate Marvel Comics Universe origin story, I still felt like I was lost without knowing all the mythology. There are so many references to characters and plot points that I felt like I was not in on the secret and some of the twists lost their effectiveness.
What Wonder Woman achieved through familiarity, Captain Marvel achieves through sheer will. While the movie is squarely a superhero movie cut from the same cloth as Captain America and Thor, the hero of this movie is completely different. Her powers may come from the outside, but her strength is all from within, in relatable tropes of kickass womanhood: fighter pilot, tomboy, athlete, friend. She is neither a lover nor a mother. She is a woman, identified not as an attachment to anyone or anything else but singularly dependent on herself for survival and identity. It feels odd to me to point this out, because this sort of feminist ideal is such a no-brainer in my life, but when I think about how rare it is to see in movies like this, it really is extraordinary.
There are some oddities about Captain Marvel that contribute to its unevenness, like the digital reverse aging process they use to make Samuel L. Jackson 30 years younger and the weird fight sequences that make me wonder why alien life forms are fighting each other with guns and hand-to-hand combat, but these really are quibbles. It’s made up for by so many great things, including Jackson reminding us that he really is funny, and Jude Law and Annette Bening shining in roles that highlight their strengths.
Overall, Captain Marvel is an enjoyable escapist movie that happens to check all the boxes for a modern progressive audience and delivers humor and action in an easy to watch, slickly made package that maybe even the fanboys might like. If superhero movies aren’t your thing, I certainly understand, trust me. But if you want to go out on a limb and give one a try, well, that one still should be Black Panther. But Captain Marvel won’t disappoint you either. At the very least, you’ll know that you are supporting a sea change in what a movie superhero can look like. And it’s about time.
*correction: While Kong: Skull Island didn’t make back its money domestically ($185 million budget and it only make $168 million here), it did bring in nearly $400 million overseas, so it can’t be technically considered a bomb. But my point still stands that it under-performed against expectations, at least domestically.