MARCH 27, 2019
“Captain Marvel” has been in theaters for nearly a month now, and I’ve been kicking this review around in my head for the past few weeks. As faithful readers of this column know, I’m not the biggest fan of Marvel movies (and DC Comics movies even less so) as film after film follows a regimented formula. In each film, Act I usually sets up the film’s premise and gives the writers a chance to create some fresh characterization. In Act 2, the plot machinations kick in, and Act 3 devolves into a CGI robot-fest. Rinse, lather, repeat.
“Captain Marvel,” though, is much better than that. Given all the online guff that the film was taking from fanboys before the film’s release, I was expecting a threatening female-empowerment plotline along the lines of DC Comics’ successful “Wonder Woman.” So I was surprised to see that “Captain Marvel” is just another Marvel adventure that just happens to have a female superhero as its lead, the way it probably should be. I’d probably rank the film somewhere in the middle of the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU), not nearly as good as “Black Panther” or the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” but miles better than “Thor: The Dark World” or those awful “Iron Man” sequels.
For the remaining three people who have yet to see the film, Captain Marvel is introduced to us as Vers, a Starforce member who is intensely loyal to the Kree Empire. (Stay with me.) Vers is ordered by her commander and mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to rescue an undercover agent who has infiltrated the Skrulls, the arch-enemies of the Kree. Before she leaves, Yon-Rogg reminds Vers to keep her emotions in check. (Just like a man, don’t you think?)
Vers is captured by Skrull commander Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who, while she is being given a memory probe, escapes the Skrull ship and crash lands through the ceiling of a Blockbuster Video store. (It’s 1995.) Awaking dazed and confused, Vers’ arrival soon comes to the attention of agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Nick, who at this point in time is merely a low-level staffer, and Phil, then a rookie on the job, show Vers evidence of her past life on Earth as Carol Danvers, an Air Force fighter pilot who survived an accident that gave her the power of superhuman strength.
The evidence also shows Vers who the Skrulls really are, as well as the uncomfortable truth about those whom she believed were her own people — the Kree. The news turns her world upside and only strengthens her determination to fight back.
What follows is an exciting Saturday afternoon at the movies, no more no less. Yes, there’s the usual Act 3 CGI letdown, but the computer-generated images are less obnoxious here than in most Marvel movies.What saves it, I think, is the intelligent direction of the indie filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who most famously led Ryan Gosling to his first Oscar nomination for their 2006 film “Half Nelson.” (I love how Marvel keeps looking toward independent film directors to helm their movies.)
Boden & Fleck do the action stuff just fine but make time for more character-based moments, particularly those between Vers/Carol and her fellow Air Force pilot Maria Lambeau (Lashana Lynch), a single mom whose young daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) idolizes Carol. Larson is terrific in her scenes with Lynch, who brings a beating heart into the film, which by this time sorely needs it.
But in other scenes, I really don’t fully understand Larson’s character, which is why it took me several weeks to formulate a review. No fault of the actress, but it’s the character as written who remains a bit of an enigma. Vers is haunted by a series of dreams involving an older woman who seems to be mentoring her but to what end? On earth, she realizes that the woman about whom she is dreaming is Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) who designed the plane in which Carol crashed and who in reality Mar-Vell, an artificial intelligence who is actually the ruler of the Krees. Plagued with a bit of amnesia, Larson’s Vers spends so much of the film trying to figure out who she is herself that at times she feels absent from the action surrounding her, which is at times a real problem for the film. Perhaps Carol can figure it out before she appears in Marvel’s upcoming “Avengers: Endgame” next month.
At least we have some Sam Jackson to step in, which is always welcome. In fact, even though this isn’t his film, it’s the largest part that the actor has had so far in the Marvel universe. Until now, we’ve only known Nick Fury as an angry, eyepatch-wearing mystery figure in the MCU, but here he is a spry 30-something agent with two working eyeballs. You may wonder how 70 year-old Jackson can convincingly play a character 40 years his junior. The answer comes from a new CGI de-aging process that removes all wrinkles and other signs of aging from a character’s face. It’s been used in Marvel films before but never this successfully.
To make the whole effect work, however, is all up to Jackson, and he comes through with a lithe physical performance, moving his frame the way a 30 year-old would with an easy walking style that shows no sign that a septuagenarian is doing all the work.
Law is a little too sneery in the film’s last act for my taste, but Mendelsohn proves to be the film’s big surprise in a surprisingly touching turn as Talos, a twist that helps to ground the second half of “Captain Marvel.”
Granted “Captain Marvel” is an origin story for an important Marvel character, and as such, it is jam-packed with back story that can make your eyes spin if you think about them too much. My advice is…don’t. Just go with the ride, have an enjoyable evening at the movies and let the Marvel honchos figure out the rest for the next “Captain Marvel” film. I suspect that they will.