Captain Marvel represents the first of many milestones for Marvel Studios. For one, it’s their first female-led superhero movie in the franchise. But it’s also the first in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to draw a targeted attack campaign from online users, likely men’s right activists, who attack leading star Brie Larson and threaten the movie with a boycott. Of course, this isn’t the first movie where online trolls have harassed female actors and review bombed IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes in protest (The Last Jedi and 2016’s Ghostbusters come to mind). And with Wonder Woman in 2017, it isn’t even the first major title to feature a female superhero.
The significance of Captain Marvel has less to do with its cultural impact, and more to do with how a media behemoth like Disney will finally handle the first female protagonist in Marvel’s canon.
Captain Marvel tells the story of, uh, Captain Marvel? Well, that’s not necessarily right; she begins the story as “Vers” (Brie Larson), a Kree Starforce warrior. But upon being captured by Skrull adversaries, she ends up on Earth, where she rediscovers remnants of her old life as U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers. With the help of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), she goes on a search for Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), a scientist in the Air Force who formerly served as her mentor.
It is rather unfortunate timing that Captain Marvel has to follow up Wonder Woman after only two short years. But however unfair the comparison may be, Captain Marvel does feels a lot like Wonder Woman, for better or worse. Both stories are set in a particular time period, with a heroine retrofitted into the story of the overall franchise. More importantly, both contain a generic story that fails to leave a lasting impression.
This isn’t to say that the movie is outright bad. But like any highly anticipated Hollywood movie, I honestly wanted Captain Marvel to astound me. With that said, the movie does have the components for a great story; looking at the individual pieces, I would argue Captain Marvel has a better set of story beats than Wonder Woman, at least on the surface.
Let’s start with the obvious: Larson and Jackson make a great comedic duo in this movie. The two are able to elevate the dialogue with their unique sense of charisma, resulting in a delightfully charming on-screen friendship. If anything, it resembles a buddy cop comedy, but between a galactic space warrior and a hapless secret agent instead of a veteran cop and a fresh-faced rookie.
The way Captain Marvel cleverly handles its key conflict also deserves praise. Throughout the movie, Captain Marvel battles against the Skrulls, a race of shape-shifting aliens most commonly known as the generic bad guys in the Fantastic Four series. Think of them as the alien counterpart to the grunts in James Bond movies. But the movie has a couple tricks up its sleeve, which it uses to great effect to advance the plot in interesting ways.
Yet so much of Captain Marvel amounts to nothing but empty texture. The movie very deliberately depicts California circa 1995, going so far as to recreate a Blockbuster video store and load the soundtrack with music hits from the ’90s. But without these relics of the past, is there really much of a difference between 1995 and today? And do these emphatic references actually add anything significant to the story?
That’s the biggest issue with using the ’90s as a setting; it doesn’t really work as a period piece. The only thing truly unique about the ’90s was its pop culture, something that will inevitably fade into obscurity over time. And once we remove Captain Marvel’s ’90s nostalgia, all we’re left with is a few bland action sequences, a bunch of forgettable side characters, and a climactic finish that doesn’t feel as impressive as it should.
These days, our pop cinema is packed with nostalgia bait. From Star Wars to Pokemon, nostalgia is used to remind millennials of their childhood and milk them for all of their money. In many ways, superhero flicks are no different. Too often, a superhero movie would introduce a popular character to great fanfare, as though their mere presence is supposed to be enough to impress me. But without functional storytelling to support it, that pomp and circumstance ends up feeling hollow.
Yet underneath all of those Easter eggs, Captain Marvel does have a functional core. By the final act, all of the plot beats come together to challenge Carol’s preconceptions of good and evil. In other words, Captain Marvel is a story about a woman discovering her true identity. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do enough to dramatize Carol’s identity crisis. Outside of some chasing and hand-to-hand combat, the action scenes say nothing about Carol’s character arc. And as far as backstory goes, we get short, detached glimpses into Carol’s past.
Come on, at least Wonder Woman gave us a detailed flashback of Diana’s childhood to kick off the first act.
Once again, that’s not really a fair comparison. With its major plot twists and self-reflexive charm, Captain Marvel is a wholly different beast from the mythology-driven Wonder Woman. And in the end, Captain Marvel is okay; it’s fun in all the ways we expect a Marvel movie to be. But when Disney studio execs hesitate to produce a female-led superhero movie because they don’t think it will sell, Captain Marvel has a statement to prove. And frankly speaking, “okay” doesn’t cut it… even if it is to the tune of a $300 million+ domestic box office yield.
I want this movie to inspire me. Heck, I want this movie to prove all the haters wrong! But with so many obligatory Easter eggs shoehorned into the runtime, not even a soaring space warrior sparkling in photon is enough to energize me. My hope is that Avengers: Endgame and future Marvel movies will focus less on cheap gratification and more on cohesive storytelling.
As of now, I’m not feeling particularly optimistic.