The Marvel Cinematic Universe films have become quite epic, what with the cataclysmic events of Avengers: Infinity War and movies like Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Age of Ultron threatening whole planets and civilisations like it’s no big thing (Alderaan schmalderaan). This has created a certain level of expectation and as a result Ant-Man and the Wasp coming right after Infinity War with its relatively small story (ba-dum tish) felt like a bit of a disappointment. To be fair though the MCU movies have always been built more around character than spectacle and this, more than the action and the effects, is their trump card. If you are expecting Captain Marvel to be a huge film, as well you might because we’ve been told how powerful she is and we know she’s going to play a key role in Avengers: Endgame, well then you might feel a little let down. If you want something more about the people and less about their powers though then this is a great success. This isn’t to say that we don’t get to see what this lady can do but the movie has so much more to offer.
As it is, I felt that the character driven approach worked especially well here. After Infinity War’s cliffhanger we were left wondering how in the heavens The Avengers would prevail against an enemy who appeared to have won pretty conclusively. The post credit sequence of that film promised that this new hero would bring the solution so inevitably we were itching to meet her. How great then that this movie allows us to get to know her quite well before all of the massive battles and sprawling multi character narrative of Infinity War’s sequel. It reminded me of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and how that focused on establishing the people and their relationships before the ultimate show down in Part 2. That served nicely as the calm before the storm and I suspect this will too.
It is also particularly important that we get to know this woman precisely because she is a woman. After twenty previous movies this is the studio’s first to centre entirely on a female hero and it is great that they are taking time to show what she is like rather than just holding her up as a spectacle to be looked at in wonder. While I was one of those people underwhelmed by Ant-Man and the Wasp I thought it worked really well that we’d got to meet Hope Van Dyn in the previous Ant-Man film before she became the Wasp. We got to see her strengths as a woman before we got to see her strengths as a superhero and I’m pleased to see that Captain Marvel does the same thing. One of the problems with these kinds of films is that the picture of femininity they present is unrealistic because most women don’t have superpowers. Fortunately this studio is going to some lengths to showcase what is great about these women beyond their outlandish abilities. This of course was one of the problems with Wonder Woman. She was born into a warrior race of superhuman women so there’s little to identify with there. Carol Danvers, the protagonist of this film, was very grounded before she could fly and as a result is an even more valuable role model. Captain Marvel does more to explore the common female experience but still feels like a less demonstrably feminist film which is better. This isn’t a story about superior women, it is just one where the most highly skilled person in the room happens to be female as is often the case in real life.
We’ve had a number of different personalities in these films to date and one of the joys is to see them all coming together. It is remarkable that each of the people on Marvel’s ever expanding roster of heroes and villains have felt distinct and with Brie Larson’s Space Agent we get something new again. I won’t describe what she is like here because the joy of the film is in discovering that but she is engaging and is the thing that holds everything else together.
The elements that revolve around her are all well handled too. The big action sequences when they come are exciting and there are plenty of smaller ones leading up to it. They have fun with the 90s setting as well and aside of the title character, there are plenty of other strong performances from a varied cast. Jude Law and Gemma Chan’s parts as Danvers fellow soldiers are quite thinly sketched but Lashana Lynch makes a good impression with relatively little screen time as the best friend and Ben Mendelsohn is entertaining as the antagonist. Mendelsohn has played a number of bad guys recently but here he is able to do something different. We also get to see a bigger than normal role for Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury who is de-aged with some mostly effective CGI. What we’ve got here is a nice little origin story for a previously established character without having to do anything as clumsy as an origin story for a previously established character. (Solo schmolo!) and it works because it has a relevant context. It also adds some surprising detail to Fury’s line in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where he said ‘the last time I trusted someone I lost an eye’. Then there’s Annette Benning who also appears in a role that does something interesting and very feminist with a key player from the comics. The comic book fans who edge toward misogyny will hate it but that can only be a good thing. For more detail on this go to the comments below.
They have done something very different with the Skrulls too. These shapeshifting aliens are among the worst villains in the comics and are key to Captain Marvel’s narrative so they kind of had to introduce them here. Of course the danger of bringing this race into the movie world raises the question of you never knowing if the person you think you are looking at is genuinely the person you are looking at. It is tiresome to have this possibility hanging over all subsequent stories so I’m glad they’ve found a way of sidestepping the problem.
Then there is the standard mid-credit sequence which is tantalising too, especially if you’ve got an eye on the endgame. It says nothing but promises everything. Oh, and this movie has the best performance by a cat since Breakfast at Tiffany’s so it’s win, win, win from my point of view.
Finally, finally there is the best possible tribute to Stan Lee right at the start and in his cameo he finally and appropriately gets to play himself. Our new Captain has a nice reaction to him as well which I suspect they reshot after he died.
I had thought that I’d enjoy this one more than Endgame (I ranked Black Panther higher than Infinity War) but I don’t think that’ll be the case; it doesn’t play with genre conventions like the best of the Marvel films. I really liked it though and it was an especially great film to watch with my daughters, which in the end is the only thing it needed to be.