Oh, would that Captain Marvel had been made in another era. If ever there was an entry in the Marvel superhero stable begging for the kind of fearless imagination that B-movie sci-fi used to thrive on, it’s this one. A loopy 80s premise involving rubber-suited alien factions shooting lasers and shapeshifting while carrying their incomprehensible war to mid-90s Earth has the potential for a ton of silly fun à la cult classics like Buckaroo Banzai, but the film never cuts loose, constricted at every turn by boring characterizations and the assembly-line sterility of the 21st-century Disney machine. Desperate to prove its boldness yet never straying outside the boundaries of safety, the resulting wannabe romp is perfectly serviceable — thanks mostly to some spirited performances and a couple of well-staged action set pieces — but it’s also one of the most shoulder-shrugging Marvel movies to date.
Prospects initially look bright; trippy dream sequences set up the mysterious past of Vers (Brie Larson), a soldier-in-training for a race of hive mind aliens called the Kree. She is plucky and impulsive, traits her commanding officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), apparently disapproves of. He lectures her that warriors must control their emotions, you see (never mind that valid reasons for this are never properly demonstrated), and so Captain Marvel sets up its theme of The Man keeping folks down, suppressing their true natures. Meanwhile, Vers is also plagued with amnesia so that the story has some actual impetus, and after being finally granted her first mission, she quickly proceeds to be captured and interrogated by Kree enemies called the Scrull. These cast-offs from Star Trek: The Next Generation find memories locked in her brain that point to a life on Earth as an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers, as well as involvement in the development of secret technology that may have incredible power.
If this plot sounds at all ridiculously convoluted, that’s because it is, — and that’s part of the early, cheesy fun. Early on, Captain Marvel barely tries to be coherent as it hops from planet to planet, breezing through the politics of war, establishing half-hearted motives while the CGI equivalent of cardboard cutout spaceships zooms about, unexplained energy beams blast out of hands, and talking bat-people rewind memories like they have them on VHS. On the surface, it’s the kind of old-fashioned mess that would have certain viewers poring over every detail as they catch a midnight showing. Yet, the filmmakers never truly lean into the odd moments, never lose themselves in the goofiness — there’s too much control.
Eventually, this ragtag group of ETs find themselves on 1990s Earth, and after Vers plummets through the roof of a Blockbuster Video store (how quaint!), she questions the bewildered shopping center security guard, uses Radio Shack parts to build a communications device, and is confronted a young Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged, two-eyed Samuel L. Jackson) in an energizing back-and-forth that establishes a quirky comedic contrast. The stage is set for a whole slew of fish-out-water interactions as this young space warrior slowly uncovers her identity and place in the universe. Those moments end up fleeting, however, sacrificed to origin story exposition.
Captain Marvel lives right on the edge of entertaining, paying just enough lip service to its best bits that viewers won’t lose interest, but glossing over them in a way that continuously elicits disappointment. Clever banter often feels curtailed, usually devolving into contrived one-liners or forced jokes that would have been old even in the time in which the story is set. Tricks perpetrated by the shape-shifting Skrull whet the appetite for visual identity games, yet more often than not they fizzle out, as if tossed in for canon purposes instead of filmmaking ones. Sure, these movies are manufactured products, but they’ve usually had a better sense when to roll with something that works.
Much of the blame can be put squarely on the writing, with a script that falls well below the studio’s standard fare. Not only is the dialogue less snappy, but far too many elements lack awareness in how to translate ink to live-action. It’s one thing to accept the heroes themselves breaking the laws of physics (they’re ‘super’ after all), but it’s another to watch a transport plane swoop and roll like a fighter jet, all while its passengers remain comfortably on their bench seats. Why even set this in the real world at all?
The biggest casualty of the script, however, is Vers/Danvers/Captain Marvel herself; while it is about time that a woman leads a Marvel movie, could they have created a less interesting character? Captain Marvel has immense physical power, but nothing personal to focus it on, no real growth to achieve other than to be herself — to remember. That’s not much of a flaw, and without human weakness to overcome, why should we care? She’s Superman without the threat of kryptonite, Galahad without a real grail. These sorts of films are loaded with sassy quips; what else ya got? Some obligatory pathos is shoehorned in via a former pilot friend (Lashana Lynch, who does her damnedest to stir up feelings), but simply parading old photographs is Captain Marvel‘s idea of establishing a deep emotional relationship.
This is a shame, as Brie Larson brings some real spark in her performance. She injects otherwise dull dialogue with an acerbic quality that isn’t on the page, and boy, does she squint at people like no one’s business. Those often hilarious expressions deserve better than lazy moments like sizing up a sexist motorcyclist. The rest of the cast is there for various levels of comedic support, and do the best they can, especially the always-reliable Jackson, and the scene-stealing Ben Mendelsohn as the Skrull leader. When these three share the screen, that early promise of wacky sci-fi fun returns, poised to present a classic oddball moment any second. As soon as they come close to the edge, however, they are reined back in by a force as restrictive as those rubber suits.
At just over two hours, Captain Marvel whisks by fairly quickly but fades just as fast. Outside of an ending that devolves into the usual special effects fest, the action is small-scale and well-executed (a knock-down brawl aboard a train is particularly amusing), but lacks that gonzo quality that a story like this really needs to be memorable (another fight set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” is a wasted opportunity for wonderful zaniness). One can’t shake the feeling that this story just isn’t being true to itself. Captain Marvel could have taken its own advice and unleashed the wild child within upon unsuspecting movie audiences. It plays things too Marvel-safe, however, a wasted opportunity for real razzle-dazzle that instead stands out in the crowded MCU for the wrong reasons.