Just when I think my MCU exhaustion is almost complete, Captain Marvel arrives to pull me back in.
The 21st movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe stars Brie Larson (Room, Short Term 12) as Vers, a soldier in an intergalactic space force with strange, unexplained memories of time on Earth as an Air Force pilot. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story) write and direct, with help on the screenplay from Geneva Robertson-Dworet. These may not be the first names you thought of for this sort of project, but the fact that they turn out to be the perfect fit is only further evidence that Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige is the true auteur of this massive franchise. He identified Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau as the correct actor-director pairing to kick things off with 2008’s Iron Man, managed to find similar matches for most of the series’ other properties, and has once again brought together the right star, filmmakers, and source material here. Boden, Fleck, and Robertson-Dworet have delivered a slyly structured origin story, while Larson summons a cocky charisma that I, for one, didn’t know she had in her.
Captain Marvel distinguishes itself in the way it narratively and visually employs Vers’ perplexing memories of Earth. Early on, after being captured by shape-shifting aliens known as Skrulls, Vers is subjected to an invasive mind-reading procedure in which she is hung from her legs while electric feelers probe her past. After we see snippets of her previous life, Vers breaks free by shooting photon blasts from her hands, a potent power she can’t fully control or explain. Escaping to Earth, she discovers she indeed had a life there as Carol Danvers, a Top Gun-type pilot. (There’s a nice moment in which she rifles through a box of old photographs, a low-tech bit of memory recovery that serves as a counterpoint to the high-tech mind meld she endured earlier.) As Vers learns more—with the help of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who at this point in the MCU timeline only has the Avengers as a twinkle in his eye—Captain Marvel draws equally on The Bourne Identity, The Right Stuff, and Memento.
It also adds a dash of humor to that mix. There are Jackson’s quips, of course—apparently Fury has always treated cataclysmic events as mild annoyances—as well as plenty of gags riffing on the film’s 1990s setting. (Carol’s first stop on Earth is a Blockbuster Video store.) This, of course, is part of the MCU formula, but the surprise to me is the light touch Larson brings to the role. Her best performances thus far have been rooted in a certain seriousness, an earnestness, but here she balances her natural intensity with a quick-witted playfulness (when a threatening alien growls at her, she teasingly snarls back). Maria (Lashana Lynch), a former fellow pilot on Earth, describes Carol as “smart, funny, and a huge pain in the ass.” And that’s exactly how Larson plays her: driven, competitive, and stubborn, as apt to scowl at you as she is to roll her eyes.
Like Wonder Woman, the only other female-led superhero film we’ve gotten in recent years, Captain Marvel wears its feminism lightly, mostly allowing it to arise out of Carol’s distinct personality. In an opening training sequence, her superior officer (Jude Law) tells her to keep her anger in check—essentially saying, “Don’t be so emotional.” Flashbacks reveal Carol has been hearing variations on this her entire life, the implication being that she’s not fit for whatever she’s doing—riding a go-kart, playing baseball—because she’s a girl. Aside from this thematic thread, the movie’s feminism can mostly be found in little flourishes—including a great little emasculation gag involving a cardboard cutout for True Lies in that Blockbuster.
Admittedly, much of the action in Captain Marvel is underwhelming. An early military sequence is especially murky and muddled, while the movie concludes with yet another MCU/CGI space battle that has as much personality as an acronym. But Boden and Fleck do deliver a crackerjack, climactic comic-book sequence that stands as one of my favorite moments in all of the MCU. At this point, Carol has once again been subdued and subjected to another psychological invasion. Much like a comic-book spread depicting parallel actions on the same page, the sequence involves three visual layers: a shot of Carol encircled with glowing restraints; a vision of her facing off with the adversary inside her head, who is trying to convince her to submit; and recurring images of Carol as a child rising to her feet after being knocked down during an activity “meant” for boys. Drawing on her stubbornness and ire (her emotions), Carol fully ignites her powers and once again bursts free—this time, both pissed and glorious.