Captain Marvel Review: Carol Danvers Is Tony Stark, Superman, and Han Solo Combined
The latest film in the MCU canon, Captain Marvel is an eagerly anticipated movie with a lot of eyes on it for a lot of different reasons. The most obvious reason is that this is the first film put out by Marvel studios to feature a female heroic lead. Another reason is that this is the character directly referenced by the post-credits scene in Avengers: Infinity War. It’s a totally new character for the films as well. Like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel (any version) is an obscure hero that, like Superman, has a power set that’s difficult to craft a story around. There is no question that she will play a major role in Avengers: Endgame, arguably the most-anticipated Marvel movie of all time. Finally, because we can’t have anything nice anymore, there is a huge “political” controversy because star Brie Larson dared to speak up on demographic diversity where her press junket was concerned. Still, the only thing that really matters is this: Is it a good movie? The answer to that is yes.
Eventually, we will have to get into light spoiler territory, but not right away. The reviews for this film are mixed, yet the damn politics of it all clearly colors both the glowing and negative reviews. This is not a movie without flaws. Captain Marvel is, essentially, a Phase One Marvel film that just was delayed by 10 years. Yet its flaws are minor and have little to do with the hero or the actor who portrayed her. After about 20 years in the modern era of mostly male-led superhero stories, audiences have a kind of vocabulary for them. It’s no accident that the first Sam Raimi Spidey film makes a big deal out of the “with great power comes great responsibility” line, and Into the Spider-Verse makes a big deal about it not being said. With the exception of Wonder Woman in the 1970s, the entire history of big-name superhero films and series have featured male stars. Because there are fewer examples of female-led superhero films, our vocabulary for those stories is not as evolved. If it feels strange or obvious to see those moments of empowerment in this film, that’s at least a part of the reason why.
There was a lot expected of this film, almost to the point of unfairness. First, it had to tell an interesting origin story about a character the average MCU fan is not familiar with. The movie has to establish that Captain Marvel is the Superman of the MCU. By this, I mean she is so overpowered that it makes creating conflict and raising stakes almost impossible. The film also had to fit into the shared universe, but it’s the earliest film chronologically save for the first Captain America movie. This movie also had to set-up the character for her appearance in the next Avengers film, despite not having anyone but Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) as the only connective tissue to the wider MCU. While doing this, it also had to adequately explain Carol Danvers’s absence from the events of the past three Avengers films. The movie has to do all of this, and that doesn’t even address the gender and politics angle of it all.
The film accomplishes all of these tasks with varying degrees of success. At it’s core, this film is a throwback, and that has nothing to do with its 1990s setting. This is a classic Marvel origin film with one major difference. Almost every Phase One Avenger (save for Hawkeye and Black Widow) face an enemy in their solo film who matches their power set almost exactly. Usually, this enemy has a deep personal connection to the hero. Just like in Christopher Reeve’s first Superman film, there is no individual villain even close to Captain Marvel’s power level. This is partly what inspires the inevitable call of “Mary Sue” that comes with female-led movies in traditionally male-led genres (yes, even Wonder Woman). Yet, it would not be fair to say that this story doesn’t involve a metaphor for gender politics historically. We’ll get into that more in the spoiler-y portion, but the villain that Carol Danvers has to beat is not a person but an entire system.
Larson’s portrayal as Danvers is a unique combination of character traits that are present in plenty of other beloved, male heroes. The connection to Superman is obvious. She is the most powerful which means that she feels the most responsibility. Unlike Supes, she doesn’t hang around Metropolis flirting with Lois and stopping bank robbers. She takes on a much bigger mission that serves the character’s story and sufficiently explains her absence. In other scenes throughout the movie, when Carol is not questioning everything she believes, her character is very like Tony Stark. She’s confident, snarky, and arrogant in a way that can be simultaneously adorable and off-putting. Robert Downey Jr. is a master at playing the type of character who everyone would undoubtedly think is an asshole unless you’re his friend. There are shades of that in confident Carol. Finally, she’s also got a bit of Han Solo in her. Not only is she a great pilot, but if she finds herself at a disadvantage, she’ll try to talk her way out of it (at least, until the shooting starts). Yet, for some reason, certain fans accept those sort of attitudes from those other characters and not Carol Danvers.
For those not driven mad by YouTube videos published by channels that have things like “Gentlemen” and “The Mad” something-or-other in their names, Carol Danvers is a great character. Larson’s portrayal of Carol Danvers is muted, but this is by design. It’s not a story problem or an acting problem, but rather a marketing problem. The “big mystery” that drives the character for the first half of the film is one the audience knows the answer to, almost immediately. Carol is basically alien special forces, so the quiet way she plays her confusion, anger, and fear, as she unspools this mystery, can be lost on members of the audience who have figured out the big secret already.
Okay, now it’s time to get into spoiler-y territory. So, if you’ve not seen the film yet, bookmark this page, bail out, and return once you’ve seen it.
The biggest problem in the film is that its great mystery, that Carol Danvers was once a human fighter pilot on Earth before she got these amazing powers, is revealed in the above trailer. For eagle-eyed MCU viewers, the scene of how she gets her power is a huge spoiler, too. We’ve seen that sort of feathery, blue energy before, with everyone’s favorite MacGuffin from Phase One: The Tesseract. Unfortunately, these details as they relate to the plot of the film are all saved for the latter part of the second act. It can be useful to give the audience more information about the story than the characters themselves, but that’s not what happens here. This is a genuine case of the marketing department spoiling the big moments of the movie.
So, when Carol is being secretive and dealing with her quiet terror at discovering clues that suggest she is human, the audience is in a different place than she is. Thus, much of the emotional tension meant to drive this part of the film is lost on viewers. We know what she doesn’t, and it disconnects us from Carol’s experience. Another big surprise spoiled in a less subtle way is the grand reveal that sparks Carol Danvers’s final leg of the journey to becoming a hero. Anyone who has seen Guardians of the Galaxy and the other MCU storylines that deal with the Kree, specifically on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., already knows that they are assholes. Thus when Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos reveals that the Skrulls are fighting genocide and trying to find a homeland, that surprise also falls a bit flat. At least this marks a departure from the comics storylines, where Skrulls are decidedly bad news.
Other than these two twists which some viewers will see coming, the movie is impeccably well-done. We are introduced to Carol as “Vers” (again, played as a mystery despite being obvious), one of the toughest members of the Kree Starforce. We are introduced to Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, her mentor and friend, through a chummy fighting session. This fell a bit flat for me, as well. It felt like the scene was punching the audience in the face with their playful mentor-mentee relationship. Yet, it does the necessary work it needs to do. It establishes who these characters are to each other and the conflict of their relationship: that Carol is “emotional,” and Yon-Rogg believes she’s a poorer soldier for them. This is a big theme throughout the movie and one that many reviewers cite as the kind of on-the-nose female empowerment bits that “took them out” of the story. But remember what we talked about above when we discussed the vocabulary of these films.
There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of stories where the idea that “emotions” (particularly compassion, kindness, and altruism) are a weakness, only for it ultimately be revealed that they are what makes the protagonist a hero. However, much to the chagrin of “Men’s Rights” crusaders across the internet, the way society treats women and their emotions are unique to their gender, sometimes in horrifying ways. So, even though heroes in the past like Luke Skywalker, Superman, and others have been told to keep their emotions in check, there is a different context for that when it comes to the female perspective. The end result is different, too. Because while male heroes often use their emotions to check their great power, tapping into emotion is actually what fuels Carol Danvers’s incredible cosmic power. She is able to destroy a larger fleet of alien warships than the Avengers did in their first film, all by herself.
The climactic heroic fight of the film, however, is not that armada-obliterating sequence. Instead, it’s a mano-a-mano showdown between Carol and Yon-Rogg, a not-so-subtle callback to the opening of the film. Carol’s mentor challenges her to fight him without her cosmic powers, urging her to prove to him that she can beat him on skill alone. This scene, actually, is very reminiscent of the fight between Cap and Batroc in The Winter Soldier. Instead of just slinging his shield into Batroc’s face and putting out his lights, Steve and he have a good-old-fashioned punch-out. This leads to him chiding the Black Widow for being off-mission and endangering everyone. (Of course, he’s the one who left the bad guy on the ground while he scolded Natasha.) Instead of giving into Yon-Rogg’s obvious ploy, Carol just blasts him with her laser-fists. Her hero line is one that lays the kind of foundation female stories in the future can use to build more subtextual messages of the same kind. “I have nothing to prove to you,” she says. This is a great message for kids and fans of all genders, but one that will especially resonate for women who often have to prove to their male colleagues they belong in their job, office, and so on.
The real villain in this movie is neither Yon-Rogg nor the Kree battleships that come ready to destroy the Earth. Rather, the thing that Carol Danvers has to fight throughout the film is the entire system under which she’s lived for the past six years. She’s been lied to, accused of being too emotional, forced to fight for something she doesn’t believe in, and held back in her development by her oppressors. As an allegory, it’s not all that subtle to the ways in which women have had to fight to exist on the same field of play as men throughout the centuries. Ultimately, Captain Marvel ends up where other stories of this genre end up: freedom is good, killing people is bad, and the things that make you different from others can be your greatest strength. What makes this version of that tale worthwhile is that it comes from a perspective we don’t usually get to see. Male viewers will get the message. Some may relate more than others, especially if they’ve been told they are “too” emotional about things or teased simply because they cry. Female viewers, however, will undoubtedly relate to Carol’s specific path so much more. These are not reasons to be angry with the film, but rather another reason to celebrate the power of stories. In taking us on the same journeys, but via different pathways, we deepen our ability to empathize and relate with one another. That’s the mission statement of Marvel comics of the Lee/Kirby/Ditko/Buscema era, and Captain Marvel will inspire a whole new generation of True-Believers.
Maria Rambeau, played by Lashana Lynch and mother of Monica (a character who was my first Captain Marvel back in the early 1980s) is the lodestar for Carol Danvers’s journey to becoming the hero she’s meant to be. She is the one who talks her down from her anger and panic at the discovery that she’s been lied to by the people she’s trusted for the past six years. This is an important relationship in the film, that arguably deserved a bit more screen time. However, Carol’s relationship with Fury is the one that truly lights up the film. Jackson’s performance of a young Fury, aided by truly magical de-aging technology, is a delight. He’s still a capable Agent of SHIELD, but he’s free to be silly and almost joyful in ways that the one-eyed version of the character never gets to be. Of my many hopes for Endgame, I can now add Carol reawakening that part of the Fury character to the list. Also, Fury’s affection for kitty cats earns a laugh almost every time the writers and directors go back to that well.
Whereas Black Panther was a revolutionary film because of the story it told, its villain, and the Afro-futurist setting, Captain Marvel is a run-of-the-mill superhero origin story. This is not a criticism. There is a writing aphorism that applies here: you can tell an odd story, or you can tell a story oddly, but rarely can you do both. The origin-story format is a way to make these wild stories with far-out concepts easily accessible to both the super-fans and the popcorn munchers who never picked up a comic book in their lives. Captain Marvel is the first new character to get a solo movie without an appearance in another MCU film since Ant-Man first appeared. A character this important needs a film like that, as every person who didn’t enjoy Justice League already knows. It’s not a ground-breaking revolution of the form, but Captain Marvel is equally a necessary story to tell and well worth the time it takes to watch it. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers is a worthy addition to the growing pantheon of Marvel characters. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she does next.
Updated because I mixed up my Marias and my Monicas.