Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Lashana Lynch
It’s been eleven years since Iron Man, the first movie within the MCU, was released, and in that time we’ve met many Marvel heroes, mostly male. There have of course been a few kick-ass females, including Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and The Wasp amongst others, the last of which co-headlined her own movie with Ant-Man. But now we finally have a Marvel female superhero fully in the lead role and title of her own movie. In the same way Black Panther brought attention and change in ethnic diversity within the MCU (and riding on the changing tides of cinema in general), Captain Marvel is putting forward an effort from Marvel Studios to encourage gender diversity within its films and the wider industry. As much as a huge step forward as this is in terms of progression, does Captain Marvel still manage to stand on her own two feet, or do Marvel still having something to learn about getting the balance right?
The Earth year is 1995, and Vers (Brie Larson) is a Kree soldier fighting against the Skrulls, a race that are hell-bent on wiping out the Kree. She follows the command of her superior and mentor, Yon-Rogg (Law), and trusts him implicitly. During a mission to rescue one of their spies, Vers finds herself captured by the Skrulls, eventually breaking free and ending up on Earth. It’s here that she first meets Nick Fury (Jackson), and Fury gets his first real taste of what and who is out there beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Once proving herself to Fury and gaining his trust, together they embark on their own mission to find out exactly who Vers is and where she came from, her vivid dreams and flashbacks having plunged everything she knows (and doesn’t know) about herself into doubt and disarray.
It would be difficult to write about this film and not go into the fact that this has come around at a time when female representation in movies (both in front of and behind the camera) is becoming more important and demanded than ever before. Captain Marvel not only boasts a singular female lead and strong female supporting actors, but also the MCU’s first female co-director (Anna Boden), primarily female screenplay/story writers (Anna Boden, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Nicola Perlman and Meg LaFauve), a mostly female-vocalised 90’s soundtrack (such as No Doubt, Des’ree and TLC) and the first MCU movie to have a score composed entirely by a female (Pinar Toprak). These are all fantastic milestones that are sure to set a precedent not only for future MCU movies, but also within cinema as a whole (or so one would sincerely hope and believe). And with the talented and popular Brie Larson being the face of the movie, there was never any doubt that Captain Marvel would break records, including the sixth biggest opening weekend of any movie ever as well the highest-grossing opening for a female-led movie. Whether or not the film was amazing, OK or poor, these are all reasons for all involved in the movie to be incredibly proud of it.
Moving away from the record-breaking and equality achievements, the film itself is sturdy, more or less, but perhaps not entirely what you may expect of an MCU film when it comes to standards. Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel herself is a strong and likable character, and virtually everything you could want from a lead character. She leads you through the movie in an entertaining yet poignant way that most, if not all, other MCU lead heroes have also done, so here we have a success and consistency (particularly regardless of gender). The story surrounding Vers/Danvers/Marvel, however, isn’t the strongest. Hers is an origin story with a difference – she already possesses her superpowers, and in effect she has to trace backwards in order to discover her own origins, which is actually rather an interesting way to contextualise a superhero origin story. But in comparison to the likes of Captain America: The First Avenger, Doctor Strange and Black Panther, it lacks an element of mystery or surprise because we already know who she is; the point of the story is finding out where she came from, and that itself is pretty obvious whether you know anything about the Marvel Comics character or not as the film makes it clear fairly early on. There’s also nothing that really makes her story stand out: where Steve Rogers was a human guinea pig and then frozen for a while, Stephen Strange a scientist-turned-magician, essentially, and T’Challa living in a secret kingdom that is set to become his with a wealth of power, we already know about the Kree and Skrulls through the appearance of Ronan the Accuser in other MCU movies and through general name-dropping, not to mention already being very familiar with the characters of Nick Fury and Phil Coulson (Gregg). What does help the film however is a particular twist that really throws Vers off her course and helps her decide who she wants to be after discovering who she has been. Also, the flashbacks throughout her life that show events in which she has been metaphorically knocked down over and over again only to come back stronger are great for character development, but also get to the point where they feel a little patronising. By the time we understand the character we’re still being told of her struggles due to being disobedient, a bit of a rebel or, of course, female. Perhaps from a female perspective, we don’t need to know that we can face many struggles due to simply being female because we face it in reality so often, some much more than others, however perhaps this is an important aspect of Vers’s past to showcase to male audiences (preferably again in a non-patronising way – many men are aware of the plight of women, though obviously not all). In this sense, perhaps Vers’s own story is up to personal opinion as to whether it was too much, the right amount or, possibly, not enough.
Larson’s casting as the titular Captain was as spot-on as ever for Marvel Studios, who have rarely (if ever!?) gotten it wrong. As an actress she’s well-known enough to pull in her own core audience but also flies far enough under the radar to portray the character with no real preconceptions from fans and audiences. All she’s really known for is being an exceptionally talented actress, and she fully gives the film its heart and soul, truly the glue that holds it all together like a hero. She’s not overly-feminised in the way a lot of female characters are and she is a good role model for young girls who want to be more than society has told them they can be. A digitally de-aged Jackson is a fun support to Larson as a younger Nick Fury (pre-eye patch) and he brings the humour where it sometimes lacks in Vers’s character. We also have great female support in Lynch as Carol’s best friend Maria, a strong single mother and loyal friend, and Bening as Wendy Lawson, a character whom Carol always looked up to as a role model in the same way young girls will look up to Captain Marvel, showing the chain reaction strong women have on each other. Law is making his first foray into the MCU as Vers’s mentor, and it’s something a little different for the actor, particularly in the way his character develops, and it does work for him. It would be good to see him in a similar role or possibly back in this one. And just like Jackson as Fury, Mendelsohn as Talos is entertaining and is somewhat of a good counter to Fury in their interactions. The comedy that often ensues between certain characters is reminiscent of that of Guardians of the Galaxy, which is never a bad thing at all.
Of course, the whole point of this movie is to introduce Captain Marvel into the wider MCU, in which we know she is going to play a pivotal role after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, and so it is really here to cater to audiences who are unfamiliar with the character, with no need to necessarily outscore its predecessors in the MCU. Captain Marvel is filling a void where all other main Avengers have also had their own origin movie except for a female (we could probably do without one for Hawkeye or even the Hulk in his current incarnation, but Black Widow would be an interesting one – some may even argue that hers, should she have one, should have come before Captain Marvel’s). As an introduction to the character, Captain Marvel is an entertaining and informative film, it just stands weaker overall in its story in general and compared to other MCU films. And as great as it is to showcase the talents and capabilities of women within the making of the film, it will be good when this fully becomes the norm and we can relax in the knowledge that women are well represented within cinema, rather than having to point it out every time it happens. For now, though, it’s important to do so in order to disprove any misconceptions (and misogynists) wrong and give women that deserved chance to show off their capabilities. Between this and Captain Marvel as a character, there is definitely more to look forward to from her.