There are a lot of superhero movies nowadays. Just take a look at the difference between 2012’s The Avengers and 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. What used to be six heroes fighting in downtown Manhattan has become an entire galaxy of people from all walks of life, banding together in a huge ensemble event. Marvel’s expansive on-screen universe is completely unmatched. They’ve done a terrific job of turning the grand scale of comic-book storytelling into a captivating, cultural moment.
But there’s something missing. Or rather, someone. Where are all the women? Certain individual films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 have done a great job with their female characters, but the only Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) property in which a female superhero is the lead character is Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Until now, that is. It’s been a long time coming, but Captain Marvel, the first female-led superhero movie, is finally here.
It is quite possibly my favourite Marvel movie. It’s certainly in my top three. It’s not revolutionary in terms of narrative, but it comes from a unique perspective that makes it genuinely refreshing. This one of very few superhero movies that finds a good balance between big action set pieces and grounded character narrative. It may not reinvent the genre, but it doesn’t have to because it’s one of the best iterations of that genre.
As I’ve mentioned, Captain Marvel’s story is rooted in character. More specifically, it’s about who Captain Marvel actually is. We’re introduced to Vers (Brie Larson), an alien (known as a Kree) and soldier involved in a long running war with the shape-shifting Skrull. Oh, also, she can shoot lasers out of her arms but her mentor (Jude Law) wants her to control her emotions before she can use them. There’s also a little chip on the back of her head that can apparently take those powers away if she steps out of line. So there’s that.
This setup does a great job of making you feel like something is off. Even the trailers make it clear that Vers has some connection to Earth and sure enough, early in the film we discover that Vers is troubled by memories that she can’t quite place. She has no idea what they are, but anyone who has seen Top Gun will recognize that Vers was once a human fighter pilot. This is one of the things that separates Captain Marvel from movies of its ilk. Other films would focus on the big, flashy action of the Kree-Skrull war, but this film is really about Captain Marvel. Finding out who she is also reveals some dark secrets about the war; the two storylines are brilliantly woven together.
The whole film is permeated by the men who surround Vers trying their best to put her down or keep her in check. Her aforementioned mentor is the best example. He deliberately withholds information from her, expecting her to blindly follow him without ever justifying himself. On Earth, too, Vers’ memories are tainted by men who were convinced that she could never be a pilot because she’s ‘too emotional.’ This background radiation of misogyny helps to make Captain Marvel feel more emotionally grounded, which is its greatest strength. The bigger names in the Marvel canon have often struggled to get audiences to invest in their characters (Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming being notable exceptions). More than anything, this film is a journey of self-discovery. As I mentioned, something feels off in the opening, which is in part because the movie doesn’t take a lot of time to introduce you to the alien world that we’ve visited. It’s a consistent problem in Marvel films that it will introduce incredible sounding locations and then refuse to explore them. Even the city of Wakanda doesn’t get explored very much. This is less of a problem in Captain Marvel though, in part because it becomes very clear that Vers doesn’t know that much more than we do about her world, or even our own. The audience is learning alongside her. So it doesn’t matter that we’re not invested in the wider world, because we’ve become so invested in Vers herself.
It helps that Vers is one of most enjoyable characters in the entirety of the Marvel canon. Brie Larson is such a captivating screen presence. She’s funny, but genuinely funny as opposed to the sometimes off-putting snark of the likes of Iron Man. Vers is sure of herself (and more than capable of proving herself), smart and incredibly engaging. Larson also handles the emotional scenes brilliantly; the weight of the information she learns makes a clear impact on her through later scenes which is an impressive feat for an actor to accomplish. Larson joins the ranks of Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland as being perfectly cast for their role. Captain Marvel leans into that strength and it pays dividends. There are two moments in every superhero movie that you absolutely have to get right: the moment where the iconic costume is revealed and the moment when they are finally able to unleash the full extent of their powers. Neither of these moments will ever be cooler than they are in Captain Marvel. The former is a touching, personal moment that tells you everything you need to know about the character. The latter is just awesome. I have already watched this movie three times and at two of those screenings, watching Captain Marvel soar through space and make mincemeat of the enemy received cheers and applause.
There’s a lot of other great characters here, too. Vers’ fellow Kree (including Jude Law’s character) are, sadly, a little underdeveloped, but there are so many others. Lashana Lynch and Annette Bening play two different people with a connection to Vers’ past. The chemistry between them and Larson is great and I only wish there was a little more of them in the film. Ben Mendelsohn, playing a Skrull, is also delightful both as comic relief and a surprising emotional anchor. Of course, Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg return as Nick Fury and Agent Coulson, fan favourites of the series. But the film is set in the 90s, so Fury has a full head of hair and both of his eyes, which is actually kind of hilarious to look at. The 90s setting is also handled brilliantly. In terms of aesthetic it’s not too in-your-face but you can tell that it’s a different time. They also get some great comic mileage out of dial up broadband and Blockbuster.
If you’re sick of superhero movies at this point, no one can blame you. There are so many and at this point, no Marvel movie is going to be enough to change your mind. But I urge you to give Captain Marvel a shot. There are some typical pitfalls that it doesn’t avoid (such as a lackluster antagonist and a few pacing issues) and it certainly doesn’t do anything outrageous with the genre. But the film’s approach to the material is what makes it so refreshing. The focus is on character and, for the most part, the pomp and circumstance typical of a superhero film becomes the background to a personal journey. Even the usual superhero nonsense has some twists that makes it a surprisingly emotional story. Captain Marvel is pretty much the best a superhero movie can be. Brie Larson is a stellar talent who deserves all the success that this role will surely bring her. This film feels like an important moment in the MCU. In a couple of decades, a lot of these films won’t be worth going back to for anything other than marathoning the whole story like a TV show. However, Captain Marvel stands out amongst the rabble. If you’re tired of superhero movies, this movie might be able to rekindle that fire for you.