Writers: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (screenplay by); Nicole Perlman & Meg LeFauve and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story by)
Stars: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Captain Marvel is special.
Within the constraints of the somewhat-rigid template Disney uses for its standalone superhero origin stories, it manages to be a love letter to the 90s “riot grrrl” aesthetic, an empowering story about healing from emotional trauma and a war picture where the real heroes are the ones who don’t simply follow orders, but instead allow their own moral compasses to guide them.
As the opening action sequence in Captain Marvel unfolded, I briefly entertained the idea that, after 20 successful films, this might be the one that finally breaks the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s unparalleled winning streak. Our story begins by somewhat awkwardly thrusting us into the life of Vers (Brie Larson), a super-powered Kree soldier living on Hala and fighting as part of an elite force lead by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). The Kree are engaged in an endless war with a race of shape shifting aliens known as Skrulls. The film throws a dense backstory at viewers while serving up action that feels like a (admittedly, visually-impressive) video game cut scene that you wish you could skip.
However, once Vers is captured by the Skrulls, things get good. I won’t go too deep into the plot in order to avoid any major spoilers, but the Skrulls use their advanced alien technology to probe inside Vers’ brain and we learn that things aren’t quite what they seem. What follows is a quest for our hero to discover who she truly is, which leads her to Earth in the 1990s, where she’s quickly teamed up with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) for the buddy comedy you never knew you wanted.
The entire ensemble really shines in this film. Brie Larson is an absolute delight as Vers/Captain Marvel. She knows the character she’s playing and effortless imbues her with charm, humor and gravitas. Samuel L. Jackson is unsurprisingly similarly brilliant as Fury, a character who he has plenty of experience playing who is more fleshed out in this story. Ben Mendelsohn gives a layered and charismatic performance as Talos, Captain Marvel’s Skrull captor. Annette Bening turns in a memorable performance playing a character that the less you know about going in, the more you’ll enjoy her. And Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar are really the heart of the film as a mother/daughter duo who help Vers to fill in the gaps of her missing backstory.
Plus, as anyone who has been following the trailers or posters online already knows, there’s an Orange tabby cat named Goose that steals the whole show. (Goose fans will be happy to know the cat is given ample time to shine throughout Captain Marvel.)
The film has a rather nuanced take on war. It never vilifies the soldiers who are following orders, but it definitely makes it clear that the real heroes are the ones who don’t just blindly do as their told. Marvel fans who enjoyed the moral complexity of Captain America: Civil War will likely appreciate the way this film makes you question which side you should be on.
This is also a film about female empowerment that deals with heavy concepts like emotional trauma, gas lighting abusers and smaller, but still insidious misogynist actions like telling women they should smile more. Judging from some of my fellow male critics at the screening I went to, these are themes that may not resonate with male moviegoers, but are likely to mean a lot to the women in the audience. (My wife, for example, was brought to tears by a moment during the climax where Captain Marvel finally confronted the male adversary who had been gaslighting her the entire film.)
While these large themes are there just below the surface, it is entirely possible to enjoy Captain Marvel as nothing more than escapist entertainment. It never hits you over the head with these themes. In fact, it manages to maintain a fairly light tone, all things considered.
There were a few small thing that bothered me about the film. One was how much it leaned into 90s nostalgia. I’m a huge fan of 90s culture and loved the use of music from the era and Vers’ styling as she stole Earth clothes to fit in, but I could have personally done with more subtle homages to Blockbuster Video, RadioShack and dial up Internet.
Also, while the CGI effects used to show us Captain Marvel’s powers and to morph the shape shifting Skrulls into people around them were top notch, the prosthetic used to depict the Skrulls in their natural form were surprisingly stiff. Poor Ben Mendelsohn seemed to struggle to deliver a few of his lines from under the heavy prosthetics (though he managed to make the character compelling nonetheless).
Minor quibbles aside, Captain Marvel is a wonderful film that will specifically resonate with female moviegoers, but still has the broad appeal you’ve come to expect from a Marvel movie. There is also a really fun tease of what’s to come in Avengers: Endgame during the closing credits, which means Disney’s win streak isn’t likely to end anytime soon.
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org