There’s a lot riding on Captain Marvel for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The burden this one film carries is very heavy: it is the first Marvel movie to be led by a female character; the character carries the Marvel name and will become a flagship for the MCU moving forward after ‘Avenger’s: End Game;’ and most of all, the film precedes the much-anticipated ‘Avengers: End Game’ and has to bridge fan expectation for the upcoming finale of the first three phases of the MCU.
The DC Expanded Universe has already beaten the MCU to the punch in being the first to release a woman-led blockbuster superhero movie. ‘Wonder Woman’ wasn’t just a mega-hit, it was a critic’s darling as well.
And it is with a heavy heart that I feel that ‘Captain Marvel’ buckles under the pressure of all this expectation. The timing of its release -- just a few months before ‘Avengers: End Game’ and a couple of years behind the super successful ‘Wonder Woman’ (who is expected to release its sequel at the end of this year) means that the anticipation for this film is extremely high and ‘Captain Marvel’ has to be nothing less than extraordinary.
And maybe if the circumstances were not as such, the film would stand a little firmer on its own. But a film’s context and ability to resonate to its audience is affected by the zeitgeist. As we’ve witnessed over the years, some films we consider classics now -- ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘2001: Space Odyssey,’ ‘Fight Club’ -- were all box office flops on their release. Either people did not come to watch these movies in the theaters and/or critics hated them at first viewing.
At its very core, ‘Captain Marvel’ suffers for its lack of character development and conflict. While there are many interesting scenes in the origin story of what appears to be one of the most powerful (if not most powerful) character in the MCU, the film in itself fails to truly make the heroine human and accessible. In an effort to make her inspiring and marvelous (pun intended), they made her infallible thus making her unreachable.
None of this is Brie Larson’s failing. As the pilot-turned-hero Carol Danvers, Larson is tough, fearless, impulsive, yet still steadfast in her moral center. She’s an enduring, tireless soldier. The film begins with her already in the battle with the alien race called Kree as they are set to decimate the race of shapeshifters known as The Skrulls. Her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), is constantly reminding her to let go of her emotions so that her mind is clear, that intellect is the key. But Larson’s Carol Danvers won’t have any of it. She makes jokes and charges head-on despite having no memories of who she was before the Kree found her.
In her mission to stop the Skrull forces, Carol Danvers finds herself on Earth and discovers that a lot of her lost memories that come back in short bursts are connected to this planet. As she hunts for the Skrulls that have used their shape-shifting abilities to hide in Earth, she meets with Nick Fury (a CGI de-aged Samuel L Jackson), who is still new with SHIELD as the story is set in 1995 and pre-dates all the MCU movies in chronology except for ‘Captain America: The First Avenger.’
The story splinters between the Skrull invasion and picking up the connection of her lost memories and throughout all of this, Carol Danvers remains completely the same character. Her character’s journey involves more about her getting back her memories. When she does, she finds her true place in the war but it does not change her. Her struggle is plot-driven, not character-driven, and so there is very little for us to hold on to and connect with. She has no real struggle except the meaning behind her lost memories. Her character and her motives are never put in question.
From the beginning of the film until the end, Captain Marvel remains fierce, fearless, and a force to be reckoned with. There is no real growth for the character so we don’t feel we have anything real to root for.
In that way, it feels as if directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had played it safe. There are some wonderful moments like the big finale fight scene and the scenes in the trailer of the repeating motif of Carol Danvers getting up that works wonderfully as a visual but because it is not accompanied in the narrative by a storysense of the character’s growth, it lacks the full context of triumph that should come with it.
For such an important film, ‘Captain Marvel’ suffers from poor pacing, messy editing, fight scenes without energy, and a whole lot of exposition. It feels like there was such an effort to deliver a woman superhero from the MCU that people can cheer on and Brie Larson is exactly that, but they forgot to give her a reason for us to root for her--except that she’s a super-powerful superhero played by Brie Larson.
I feel bad because I was shocked by my own reaction to this film that I wanted it to be better. I was willing to forgive any faults it may have to champion what this movie represents, which elevates the roles of women in the MCU and the global audience. For such a powerful force of representation this movie offers, all it had to be was good for it to expand the boundaries of the genre. But by being safe, by choosing to keep Captain Marvel from growing as a character in her origin story, it curtails her chances of being the flagship for the MCU in its next phase of its cinematic journey and that is a shame.