Of the twenty-odd Marvel Studios movies out there, I’ve seen maaaaaaybe five or six of them. I’m all-in for the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, and like the rest of the world, I loved Black Panther. I watched Avengers: Infinity War in time for this year’s Oscars, and I guess it was fine. It all means that I don’t know much about the universe of superheroes and intergalactic battles; at least, not as much as die-hard fans who can connect every film in a timeline or find every easter egg hidden throughout.
And you know, I’m OK with that. My head is already packed with way too much minutia about Hamilton and John Mayer to make space for Marvel trivia. And besides, any movie worth the film it’s shot on should be able to stand alone as a narrative arc and cinematic experience, regardless of how it does or doesn’t connect to a larger fictional universe. Taking in a film with just a passing knowledge of its context and subject matters happens all the time; why should a comic book movie be any different?
All that to say, I came to Captain Marvel, the studio’s first major production with a female hero at its center, with my own set of expectations and interpretations, different as they may be from someone analyzing it as the latest entry in a long-standing and ever-growing cinematic landscape. Sure, I’m as intrigued as anyone to see how this mainly white, male franchise expand its offerings with a woman at the center of the action. But generally speaking, I sat down for an IMAX presentation of Captain Marvel with a desire to be entertained and impressed. You know, basically the mindset I bring to any film I get to see.
I’m happy to report that Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson in the title role as a woman discovering the scope and depth of her own power and just how much agency she has to push back against those who’d suppress it, does indeed entertain and impress. Is it bound to be a genre-breaking global phenomenon a la Black Panther? Probably not. But that shouldn’t take away from the film’s overall appeal, as it nicely balances its weightier themes with just enough wit and humor throughout. Boasting a solid cast surrounding Larson (Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Samuel L. Jackson and Annette Bening among them) and a timely storyline about the plight of refugees and personal investigation into the narratives shaped by governments and leaders, as superhero films go, it’s a winner.
Larson is Vers (as she’s known for most of the film), a warrior of the Kree race, part of an elite team (lead by Law’s Yon-Rogg) fighting back against the Skrull, a race of shape-shifting terrorists attacking the Kree planet in retaliation for past bad acts. Vers is as loyal as they come, and though she’s got an advantage in an inexplicable energy pulse she can summon in her fists, Yon-Rogg encourages her to learn to fight fair, without the use of the extra energy. When the team heads out on a rescue mission to bring home a spy being held captive in Skrull territory, the operation quickly goes south and Vers is captured by the enemy. As she tries to fight her way out, we get our first glimpse at the character’s style, as brutal and intense as it is playful and resourceful.
Following the brawl in the Skrull ship, Vers tumbles down to Earth below, and it’s the first glimpse we get that we’re watching a bit of a period piece. She crashes into a Blockbuster and breaks into a Radio Shack to get the parts she needs to repair her communicator. Yep, it’s 1995, with the pop and grunge-centric soundtrack to prove it (for better or worse).
Setting us this far back in time allows for a few interesting plot points to emerge. For one, Jackson’s Nick Fury, an agent with SHIELD who, with Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, becomes a staple in future Marvel offerings, is still young and naive; they’ve both even been “de-aged” via CGI worth that surely cost a pretty penny, given Jackson’s significant screentime. There’s also the fact that though it’s just a few decades ago, a lot was different for women in the mid-1990s. Vers learns more about her history (tiny spoiler alert: she’s not Kree, and her name is Carol Danvers), including a subtle but important plot point about how she came to be the skilled pilot that she is. Since the Air Force didn’t then allow women to be fighter pilots, she and her best friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) instead went to fly for a private entity headed up by scientist Wendy Lawson (Bening). Bet none of Marvel’s male characters ever had to worry about that…
As Carol learns the truth of her own past and as the motivations of those around her come to light, Larson leans into the character’s expanded worldview. Gone is the blindly loyal soldier with unwavering faith in her superiors; what emerges is a woman more confident than ever in her own abilities, even if the responsibilities they come with scare her a bit. One of the most powerful moments in the film comes as Carol faces off with Yon-Rogg, as he challenges her to prove to him just what kind of warrior she is, mano-a-mano. Larson takes just a beat before thrusting the full force of her photon punch directly at him, then, as he struggles to stand up from the blow, delivers a withering, wonderful “I have nothing to prove to you.”
Making my way into the theater for the screening I attended, I passed by a kiosk for that American mall staple, Build-A-Bear. Already in stock days before the film actually opens in theaters were bear-sized Captain Marvel costumes, perfect for some lucky kid’s new stuffed friend. And that’s just what Captain Marvel inspires, both the film and the character. After facing (and conquering) the evil in this chapter of her story, Carol knows she’s got more work to do, work she cannot ignore given her newfound powers. Maria, Fury and the others around her know it too. And so, she’s off––to take on the bad guys, and to take her seat at the (superhero) table.