Dang it. I really wanted to like this movie.
I mean, come on: It’s Captain Marvel! The 21st entry in Marvel Studios’ revolutionary, culture-defining war on the box office record books, and the first to be starring a female superhero.
And don’t get me wrong: Captain Marvel is not a bad movie. It’s a Marvel movie, which, even at their worst, is still reliably entertaining, competently produced popcorn fare. That’s what this is. It has great action sequences — both of the pew! pew! laser gun space ship variety and the kapow! rock ’em sock ’em punchy variety — top-of-the-line visual effects, a sparkling supporting cast that more than delivers and, of course, that trademark Marvel humor.
And I don’t mean just the expected, witty one-liners or the occasional, wink-to-the-audience “Hey, we get it: This is< all a little silly, isn’t it?” gags, although there are a few of those. But there were some genuinely surprising and delightful little moments. I won’t spoil them here, but I will say the combination of aliens, Samuel L. Jackson and cats is not something I ever knew I needed in my life, but I need it so hard.
So, what’s wrong with the movie? Part of it is the expectations. As I mentioned, this is Marvel’s first female flick. And following the critical and commercial success of last year’s Black Panther (an unfair but inevitable comparison), expectations were high for this latest blockbuster. Speaking of which, Blockbuster Video — rest in peace — gets a nice shout-out from this 1995-set film, as does Radio Shack, dial-up Internet, AltaVista and boxy desktop computers.
Like with Black Panther, I’m going to be sensitive to the fact that this is not entirely my story. White American dudes have plenty of Marvel movies featuring guys who look like us (well, not exactly like us — sorry, ladies — but you get what I’m saying) to pick apart if we so desire.
This one was for the girls, and if for no other reason than women and the younger generation now have another example of a gal who can kick butt without playing second fiddle to a leading man, I’m glad that it exists.
But, where Black Panther felt like its knowledge of and pride for black culture went all the way to its core, Captain Marvel feels more like its leading lady was slapped on at the end, with a small rewrite. Where I walked away from Black Panther with a much deeper understanding of both the culture and struggle of black Americans, Captain Marvel did not seem to say all that much about women or femininity.
Part of the problem is Marvel’s stated aversion, since about 2016’s Doctor Strange or so, to doing another origin story. And in some ways, I get it. Yes, movie audiences probably don’t need to see a fifth or sixth origin story for Spider-Man. We get it: he got bit by a weird spider thing and it gave him spider powers.
But Captain Marvel has never been on the big screen before, and especially this version of the character — Carol Danvers, who was originally known as “Ms. Marvel” — is not well-known even to comic book fans. I was a big Marvel comic nerd as a kid, and I don’t recall ever touching a Captain Marvel comic book.
And yet, it’s treated on screen as if it were a familiar story, recalled in an increasingly implausible series of dream sequences and flashbacks, since Captain Marvel herself is suffering from amnesia (a trope that is ironically even more overplayed than the superhero origin story). Most tragically, this gives the incredibly talented Brie Larson little to work with for much of the film. The movie starts with the super-powered, elite space cop version of the character, then tries to sprinkle in a little humanity ad hoc through three-second clips of her crashing a go-kart as a kid or falling off a rope in basic training. It just doesn’t work all that well.
In the end, Captain Marvel — the character — suffers from a bit of the Superman syndrome: she’s too powerful and too morally pure to be particularly interesting. Humanizing Carol Danvers should have been much easier than Superman. She is, well, human, after all. But though, “You’re only human” is literally one of the lines spoken at a pivotal moment of the climax, as an audience member I had trouble believing it. I hadn’t seen much evidence of it on-screen.
But don’t take my word for it. Check it out when it opens at the Canby theater this weekend, and let me know what you think. The only thing you can’t disagree with me about is the Ronan subplot. It was absolutely terrible, and I hated it.
Photo courtesy Disney/Marvel Studios.