At this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its origin story game down to a science. With so many heroes to inaugurate, the studio has invented a variety of scenarios and perspectives to introduce whatever its newest hero may be. As the genre continues to augment, superhero origins have become tougher and tougher to build. Only so much can be done to standout, but that’s where Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel has an ace up its sleeve. Captain Marvel does adhere to Marvel’s formula to some extent, but it brings so much to the table that is also fresh and crafty that it holds up with the universe’s most well-rounded origins.
The MCU’s twenty-first installment achieves this sense of variety by condensing the backstory of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and interweaving that necessary block of information with a fun romp through space that transforms into a 1990’s set buddy film midway through. The balance is struck mainly because of its characters, as Carol Danvers is an easy conduit to investigate. The story follows the intergalactic soldier through her training to become a Kree officer before crash landing on Planet C-53, or Earth, only to come to the realization that she may have had a life on the planet. Her exploration of her past leads to a chance encounter with a young, biocular S.H.I.E.L.D. operative named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who helps his new ally unlock the secrets of her past.
When constructing the original iteration of The Avengers, Nick Fury instilled in his fellow soldiers a singular belief in the need for heroes. Now with the benefit of further context, we learn that Fury’s faith comes from the time he spent with Carol Danvers. Thanks to terrific work from Brie Larson, Captain Marvel’s portrayal is equally stoic and sensitive, which is offset with an exterior of snarkiness that suggests she can hold her own in a verbal volleyball match with the likes of Tony Stark. Larson must maneuver some tricky material at times, but she shows a new dimension to what Marvel’s heroes can showcase while bringing a unique perspective on identity that has yet to be seen in the MCU. If for nothing else, she is a ton of fun to watch when she goes into full one-woman army mode.
Carol Danvers’ place in the universe is firmly established because of her empowered characterization, but it would do very little for the character if she were shrouded by a forgettable or bland movie. Rightfully, Carol’s story is compacted into a bright, fun package that always has something new to throw at its audience. As a possible act of defiance to the classic hero setup, Captain Marvel opens its story in what feels like the midpoint of a separate narrative, dropping in without hesitation or needless explanation. If the chic soundtrack didn’t tip you off, Captain Marvel is set in the 1990s. But other than serving as a warm backdrop, it’s one of those rare big Hollywood period pieces that shows off its era but doesn’t feel the need to beat you over the head about it. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck introduce a new sector of the MCU’s cosmic realm, and it is a refreshing change-of-pace to see an MCU space adventure that isn’t Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 silly or Thor: Ragnarok goofy. And, unlike those recent sequels in the canon (and I’ll even throw Ant-Man and the Wasp into this blender as well), Captain Marvel strikes a tone that is aware of exactly when to tell a joke without corrupting the film’s dramatic tension.
The problems with Captain Marvel occur when it comes time to figure out what to do with those moments. It may know precisely when to go for a joke, but that is not to say the humor always connects. The movie is good for a series of chuckles but it frequently feels unnecessarily campy when it takes those larger swings. This speaks to some moments where the actors seem hampered by problematic material that leans too heavily on cheese. There is also one particular instance of running into the classic prequel trap of answering questions that weren’t asked in the first place. MCU references are at a plenty, with younger versions of known characters popping in to great fanfare. But Captain Marvel’s status as a prequel means it runs the risk of needlessly meddling with lore and giving definitive reasons for things that were better left ambiguous. And while is successfully puts its own spin on certain plot points, it can’t completely escape the restrictions of the origin story formula.
It should tell you something that I have yet to openly gawk over the de-aging technology done on Samuel L. Jackson, which is some of the most amazing CG work you’ll ever see on an individual performer. Outside of that landmark achievement (one that shows that the industry is all the way there with this technology), Captain Marvel has qualities that make it worthy of an investment, but is just on the cusp of the MCU’s upper echelon. Truth be told, Captain Marvel is more on the level of Marvel’s Phase One titles, emulating an era where the studio was still properly carving out this universe. That being said, it is definitely a more complete picture than the franchise’s more spare origin stories that give characters and style priority over telling a full story (Ant-Man and Doctor Strange come to mind). It doesn’t re-invent the wheel in any regard, but it takes an admirable swipe at re-tooling the wheel to highly entertaining results.
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