Captain Marvel breaks the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s glass ceiling this weekend, starring Brie Larson as the first female superhero to get a solo entry in the massively popular blockbuster film series. Like Wonder Woman before it, Captain Marvel was preemptively trashed by misogynist trolls on a mission to sink the film’s Rotten Tomatoes audience score, because girls. That very mature, extremely rational party has since been broken up by Rotten Tomatoes, and Larson, unruffled by the so-called controversy, is pushing for inclusion for female critics on the red carpet and in interviews for the film.
So what did the women of The A.V. Club think of this latest entry into the Marvel movie canon? As the ranks of female heroes finally begin to grow, how does Carol Danvers fit in with the likes of Black Panther’s Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri and Wonder Woman’s Diana Prince? And how about that adorable little ginger cat?
Captain Marvel is the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it sure looks like it. Sadly, that doesn’t mean “accomplished” so much as “well-worn.” I say “sadly” because, as someone who grew up reading comics and has seen all 20 of the preceding films, I was pumped for Carol Danvers’ (Brie Larson) big-screen debut. But directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck stick with the Marvel house style, with all the pros (great casting, quipping, and inspired pairings) and cons (flat lighting, dull fight scenes, and an overabundance of villains) that entails.
Overall, it was engaging—and funny!—but after such a prolonged wait for a standalone female superhero film in the MCU, I guess I was just hoping for more than just seeing her dropped into the Marvel template. I also felt the script, from Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, gave Carol’s backstory short shrift; I would have liked to know more about how she and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) became friends, especially given their chemistry. And why did we see her asshole father in a flashback, but nothing about her mother? I realize many fans might not have wanted another origin story—certainly not heading into the big payoff for the last 10 years of tentpoles—and that the film’s message was ultimately anti-militarization and anti-imperialist, but like Carol, I needed someone to fill in the gaps about how she ended up in the Air Force.
Somehow, though, all that just makes Larson’s performance—equal parts bravado, cleverness, and compassion—even more noteworthy. Marvel has had a great track record in casting its Avengers and their associates, and Larson is the latest feather in its cap. In a hall of heroes that includes Okoye, Shuri, Nakia, Wonder Woman, and Black Widow, Carol Danvers is just as competent and unflappable as her fellow badasses. And even though I’d already seen the sequence ad nauseam thanks to the trailers, I got choked up watching Carol stand up across different time periods and galaxies.
What sold me more than anything on this characterization, though, is the humor: I was pleasantly surprised to see that Captain Marvel is the funniest character in her own movie. In the midst of all this fighting, she gives off a John McClane vibe: the smirk, the will, the one-liners. She’s determined, yes, and has been entrusted with a noble mission. She also drinks, fights, and cracks wise. Larson has fantastic chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson, who gets to play a much less battle-weary Nick Fury, as well as with Lynch and Ben Mendelsohn, who never met a scene he couldn’t steal. After seeing Captain Marvel in action, I don’t just believe in her—I really like her, and want to see her in all kinds of settings, whether or not the stakes are high (and especially if she and Maria appear in a rom-com).
While you got a John McClane vibe, Danette, I got a Hal Jordan one: the cocky, funny test pilot who gets drafted to a life in the stars. I was awfully happy to see this female Top Gun as the star of her own movie, ably commanding the whole thing, blasting opponents left and right. Like you, Danette, I enjoyed Larson’s performance so much (especially her martial arts work, like in her fights with Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg); it helped me gloss over the stuff that bugged me. The tech jokes were spot-on, especially for those of us who remember the agonizing waits that accompanied the dial-up modem. But one flannel shirt tied around the waist does not a ’90s wardrobe make. I found the soundtrack hit or miss as well. For every song I was happy to hear, like Garbage’s “Happy When It Rains,” I felt pummeled by the too-bright gimmick of No Doubt’s “Just A Girl.” Couldn’t Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” have been moved up from the credits to become a worthy battle score instead? And I would have preferred all-’90s riot grrrl hits, kicking Nirvana to the curb—get some Veruca Salt and Liz Phair in there!
I also choked up at Danvers’ refusal to stay defeated at any age, on any planet, but my favorite moment in the whole movie is when she tells Yon-Rogg, “I don’t have to prove anything to you.” As women, it’s not just on us to keep rising to our feet over and over again, even as some asshole tells us why it’s called a “cockpit” (really enjoyed her laser blast at that one). We have to cast off all these decades of subservience, of patriarchy, of doubting our own self-worth when faced with unbelievable odds and unsupportive surroundings. As with Wonder Woman, I can’t wait to take my daughter to this movie, to encourage her own warrior self. Her favorite part by far will be the cat. (He was a huge crowd-pleaser with the audience when I saw the movie, but I didn’t really get the cat. Where is he from again?)
I mean, Captain Marvel didn’t even have a love interest clogging everything up, not even a will-they/won’t-they flirtation, which also made me extraordinarily happy. Unless I’m missing something?
Textually, Gwen, you didn’t miss a thing. Subtextually, however, Captain Marvel gave ’shippers more material than your average Jo-Ann Fabrics in the relationship between Carol and Maria. That being said, there’s no evidence that Maria was being euphemistic when she described herself and Carol as “best friends” that’s in any way canon—not even in the wishy-washy way that other franchises (I’m thinking specifically of another one of Jude Law’s blockbuster roles here) have handled the mere possibility of LGBTQ relationships in their films. And the film’s winking refusal to acknowledge the ’shipping possibilities wasn’t the only thing that felt familiar: As you pointed out, Danette, Captain Marvel is very much a Marvel movie with a capital “M.”
As someone who started falling behind on the series’ continuity around the first Avengers movie, I had a lot of questions during the mythology-heavy first half. Thankfully, the film eventually answered most of those, though I did have to ask a colleague to explain how the Skrulls, which I understood to be villains, became oppressed galactic refugees. (Apparently, this is all laid out in Guardians Of The Galaxy, fellow MCU simpletons.) The Kree/Skrull conflict, and Captain Marvel’s place in it, also helped alleviate another concern I had going in: that Captain Marvel, which was made with the cooperation of the U.S. Air Force, was going to be essentially a commercial for the military-industrial complex, but with a female lead to give it a sheen of progressivism. But not only did the sci-fi elements overshadow the military ones in terms of screen time, they took precedent thematically as well.
I wouldn’t call the film anti-war, per se. It does present the U.S. military as good and noble—good and noble despite itself, in some cases, but good and noble still. But then again, so does Captain America. Overall, Captain Marvel’s message was anti-jingoist and against blind obedience to authority, acknowledging that the “good guys” usually have blood on their hands just as much as the “bad guys” do. The film even mildly criticized the Air Force, by working in a line about how Carol and Maria ended up working with Annette Bening’s character testing experimental aircraft because they weren’t allowed in combat at the time. And Bening’s character says her goal is not to win wars, but to end them forever by working from the inside. You see? Good despite itself.
That’s one thing I was thinking about as I let a dozen unseen movies’ worth of mythology wash over me. The other is that, buried inside of this oddly paced, muddily shot, visual effects-heavy sci-fi blockbuster, there was actually a very enjoyable odd-couple buddy comedy: I agree that Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson have great comedic chemistry, and her character’s cockiness played off nicely against his exasperation. And Jackson’s vocal affection for ginger cat Goose was also so charming that the question of why this cat was still hanging around a top-secret military facility six years after its original owner died didn’t even occur to me until after the film. All of which is to say that the charismatic leads made Captain Marvel entertaining enough to be worth it for me, even if I thought it was just okay filmmaking-wise.
I, too, have boarded the S.S. Carol-Marie (because it’s a ship, get it?) and wish the film had spent more time on the act in which Carol learns about her past and the hugely important relationships found therein. And like Gwen, not all the musical choices wowed me, though I suspect the inevitable “Just A Girl” needle-drop would have landed better had there not been so many other “Now That’s What I Call” moments leading up to the first strains of that familiar chirpy guitar. Still, quibbles aside, I really enjoyed my time with Captain Marvel—it entertained, surprised, and occasionally moved me, with more levity than I expected and some rich thematic stuff ripe for exploration (particularly for women and femme-identifying people—more on that later on this very internet publication).
Of all those boxes checked, it’s the surprise that most surprised me—the Marvel movies have certain formulas, and when you’ve seen all 20 (now 21), what’s tried and true becomes easy to spot. And yet some revelations caught me off guard (and not just whatever the hell is going on with the Tesseract, one of many MacGuffins I now refuse to track.) There’s a clever subversion that happens with Talos (Mendelsohn), that hinges in part on a general knowledge of Mendelsohn’s career. It’s a superhero movie, and he’s in it, so the big bad—or one of them, at least—is clear. Mendelsohn, King of Glowering Assholes! Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.
That’s not what Captain Marvel does. And the twist doesn’t stop with, “Whoops, he’s a good guy after all.” Boden, Fleck, and Robertson-Dworet’s screenplay pushes past that “history is written by the victors” reversal to an even more interesting one, and one which is particularly well-suited to an actor like Mendelsohn: He’s not (unlike ’90s queen Meredith Brooks) a sinner or a saint. He’s a soldier, and his hands are bloody, too. The pure pleasures of Captain Marvel are nice, but that’s a level of thoughtfulness that bodes well for the future adventures of Carol Danvers.