Editor’s Note: semi-spoilers in this review; you’ve been warned.
When the credits ended at the Captain Marvel screening there was dead silence, no applause, no whistling and no cheers. It was a good 90 seconds before I heard anybody clapping and that petered out quickly. I’ve screened just about every single superhero movie to come out of Hollywood in the last five years and I have never seen a more tepid response to a film (And I sat through Aquaman). Was Captain Marvel really that bad a movie? Was it just the wrong audience that night ? Or maybe, despite my love of comic book movies and the genre, am I just not the right guy to write a review for Captain Marvel? I think the answer to all three questions might be yes.
Captain Marvel debuts in a precarious moment in pop culture. It’s the first Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) solo film since 2018’s global phenomenon Black Panther, and it’s the first big budget superhero film starring a woman after D.C. Comic’s wildly successful Wonder Woman in 2017. However, unlike Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel isn’t an 80-year-old American icon, and while other minor heroes like Thor and Dr. Strange benefited from the lead star power of Chris Hemsworth and Benedict Cumberbatch, Brie Larson (Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel) isn’t even close to a household name. Toss in sexist critics and fans determined to hate any female-led projects (Rotten Tomatoes turned off comments to prevent trolls from “bombing” the movie’s rating) and Captain Marvel had a lot to overcome. Even though the film’s tagline is “Higher, Further, Faster” Captain Marvel doesn’t rise to the occasion.
This underwhelming movie is more Captain Meh-vel than Captain Marvel. Ostensibly it’s the story of Carol Danvers, a human woman fighting for the Alien Kree Empire against their sworn enemies, the shape-shifting Skrulls. “Vers” as she is called by the Kree, has no memories of her life before the empire. Yet her commander Yon Rogg (played with typical smarm by Jude Law) tells her not to worry about it and to instead focus on harnessing her mysterious energy powers for the empire. When a routine mission goes wrong, Vers ends up on Earth in 1995, her memories start to come back and she begins to realize that maybe she’s been fighting for the wrong side all along. This is a great movie set up, so how does it go so wrong?
First, Brie Larson has absolutely no screen presence as Captain Marvel; her delivery is bland and forced, and her fight scenes were filmed with the kind of camera tricks directors use when three months of stage-fighting classes didn’t quite take. I grew up watching Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, Lucy Lawless as Xena and Freema Agyeman taking on Daleks in Dr. Who, badass women who took control of every scene. There’s just no excuse for a casting misfire as bad as Larsen.
If only casting a mostly indie film actress was the only part of Captain Marvel that didn’t make sense. How is it that one minute Earth is foreign to Danvers and the next minute she’s cracking jokes with a young Nick Fury and rigging a Sprint pay phone to call outer space ? What exactly are her powers and why did the Kree put a high tech nicotine patch on her neck to suppress them? By the end of the film, does she have all of her memories back or just enough to move the plot? All of this leads to the biggest question of Captain Marvel: What in the hell were the makers of this movie afraid of?
I’m reluctant to write this as a man since there is a better than average chance that parts of this film just flew over my head, but Captain Marvel was a women’s empowerment movie that was afraid to be a women’s empowerment movie. If Black Panther could launch a thousand think pieces about different forms of black nationalism and Wonder Woman literally had an entire scene explaining why men weren’t really necessary for anything other than procreation why couldn’t Captain Marvel lean in to being a film about a kick-ass feminist hero?
In Carol Danver’s whole life, people told her what women couldn’t do. In the film she says she’s a test pilot because women aren’t allowed to fly combat missions (which was actually not true; Captain Marvel takes places in 1995, two years after the ban on women combat fighters was lifted and the first female combat pilot Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) flew a mission in ’95) and her Kree commanders say she’s too “emotional” to use her powers. You’re waiting for that final Lemonade moment but it never comes. When No Doubt’s 1995 hit “I’m Just a Girl” starts playing during the climatic battle scene, it should feel like a cathartic anthem; instead, it feels like a cheap market tested GRRRLLL Power moment. Captain Marvel gives you Spice Girls with Halle Berry’s Catwoman when the plot demands Dixie Chicks with a sprinkle of the Dora Milaje.
Speaking of chocolate sprinkles, the racial dynamics of Captain Marvel are really problematic. First, the majority of the alien Kree have blue skin, but for some reason, all of the leadership, from Jude Law to Captain Mar-Vell (played by Annette Benning), are played by plain old white people. So even on an alien planet the colored people are the underclass? Brings a whole new meaning to #BlueLivesMatter. Plus I must confess, the only Captain Marvel I acknowledge is Monica Rambeau. I grew up reading comics about a powerful black woman from New Orleans who rocked braids, led the Avengers and could transform herself into the entire electromagnetic spectrum (There has to be a black woman out there to write this comic!). Lashana Lynch plays Maria Rambeau, Danver’s best friend and former pilot, but she spends most of her onscreen time wistfully staring at her amnesiac friend. It took almost 14 Marvel movies before a black woman got more than three lines of dialogue but Lynch’s performance feels like a throwback to the pre-Thor: Ragnarok days. (At least her daughter Monica is a perfect set up for a super powered sequel set in 2020!)
As underwhelming as I found Captain Marvel to be, I realize that my privilege might be getting in the way of my review. There are dozens of movies about male heroes and even a few black male heroes now. I have the luxury of looking at Captain Marvel as just a “movie” when for women and girls who’ve waited decades to see a movie about a super powered woman with a heavily female cast (Sorry, Wonder Woman) Captain Marvel is probably a dream come true, and that matters. Even with the rest of the theater quiet, you know the only people who clapped at the end of the Captain Marvel screening I attended? A group of 30-something-year-old white women sitting in the seats in front of me. They loved Captain Marvel and got something out of it that I didn’t. Captain Marvel may not be the best MCU movie ever, but it might be the most important for the superhero genre moving forward, and that alone is worth the price of admission.