Every Marvel origin story must tick a few standard boxes. First, transform an ordinary civilian into a shiny new vigilante through happenstance or a billion-dollar invention. Next, engage aforementioned superhero in witty banter with a lesser sidekick and hand-to-hand combat with a certified evil nemesis who allegorizes one of the seven cardinal sins. Finally, induct the superhero into the ever-expanding roster of Spandex-clad Avenger affiliates.
21 films into its ludicrously profitable hero saga, the capitalist steam engine that is the Marvel cinematic universe shows no signs of slowing. Yet with a global audience as vast as this one, which includes a crop of savvy audiences and canny critics, the formula is so airtight it’s getting suffocated. With a few, subversive exceptions — last year’s Oscar-winning “Black Panther,” for example, or the superbly animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” — the superhero origin plot has dragged itself through one too many half-hearted battles. Marvel must now either subvert the formula in some subtle way, or else fall back on masquerading the same tired plot under ostentatious special effects.
Helmed by indie film veterans Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, “Captain Marvel” does a little of both, primarily by foreclosing the origin story from its own titular heroine. On Hala, home planet of the Kree alien race, Vers (Brie Larson) trains in combat under the guidance of her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), in preparation for a mission against the Skrulls, shapeshifting enemies of the Kree, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). All the while, Vers consults the all-knowing Supreme Intelligence (who takes the form of Annette Bening) about her enigmatic past — which is so mysterious that even Vers cannot remember it.
When the Skrull mission goes awry, Vers crash-lands on Earth, also known as “Planet C-53,” through the roof of a Blockbuster in Los Angeles, 1995. A high-speed train chase sequence and the introduction of young Nick Fury (a convincingly digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) later, Vers learns that the Skrulls are after Dr. Wendy Lawson, a now-deceased scientist whose secretive studies may contain the seeds for a powerful weapon. But when Vers discovers photographic evidence that she herself may have had a life on Earth, uncovering the truth about Lawson’s work becomes a personal mission. With the help of Fury, a few old friends, and a cat named Goose, Vers must learn to navigate a world of rapidly changing loyalties and uncover her true identity.
Admittedly, “Captain Marvel” relies on the same formulas as its predecessors. Besides a little tampering with the plot conventions and a midpoint plot twist, it barely toes the lines of the strictures of its genre. But Larson commands the screen with a loose energy and casual verve more typical of her male counterparts than, say, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow or Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch. Its retro vibe textures the film with throwback nostalgia. Boden and Fleck pack the lion’s share of its runtime with knowing nods to ‘90s pop culture, from the Radio Shack next door to Blockbuster, to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” which plays winkingly over a battle sequence. “Captain Marvel” is not the greatest superhero film to grace the screen, but it is immensely fun. And when was the last time a Marvel superhero had this much fun?
Undeniably, the absence of a Marvel female superhero standalone film — given the constant proliferation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has thus far included three actors playing versions of the same character — has always felt like a notable void. Yet coupling Carol Danvers and Captain Marvel as the same entity is a relatively recent invention, the work of comic book artist Kelly Sue DeConnick. DeConnick gave a feminist revamp to “Ms. Marvel,” who previously donned knee-high boots and a swimsuit with midriff-baring cutouts. That history is telling in itself: Even now, “Captain Marvel”’s origins make it hard to map modern feminism onto an antiquated persona. DeConnick’s revision of Carol Danvers complexly imagines the character as a U.S. Air Force pilot. In the iconic uniform, Larson lends a steely-eyed determination to Danvers, giving her a certain devil-may-care edge. Or as Fury puts it, “You look like someone’s disaffected niece.” It’s telling, too, that Captain Marvel has no boyfriend, as a story of self-discovery and self-definition replaces a tired heterosexual love arc. Unlike Black Widow’s skintight black Lycra jumpsuit or Wonder Woman’s gold metallic bustier, Captain Marvel’s suit is protective and androgynous, her hair scraped into a battle-ready mohawk. In short, it’s not the kind of costume conducive to interview inquiries about the wearer’s underwear.
Yet Larson, who won an Oscar in 2015 for her performance in “Room,” also makes room for the heroine’s vulnerability. As authorities in her life insist again and again that she must learn to reign in her impulses and control her temper, the great thematic twist is that Captain Marvel weaponizes emotion into her strongest suit, slightly more convincingly than DC’s 2017 Wonder Woman.
Danvers’ duality between strength and vulnerability carries her beyond the level of stock character, even if only slightly. Too often, regular women (let alone female superheroes) are emotionally policed to the brink of exhaustion: for not smiling enough, for being “shrill,” for being a nag, a bitch, a slut. Even before its theatrical release, “Captain Marvel”’s apparent feminist subtext had already earned the film a legion of hateful Internet trolls intent on sabotage. Before the film was even released, a teaser trailer met misogynistic backlash because Captain Marvel didn’t smile once. This film treats female emotion not only as legitimate, but as immensely powerful.
Despite all this supposed progress, it’s certainly possible to object to the film on the terms of its self-identification as a feminist fairy tale. It feels insidious for a major motion picture to stylize its feminist bent as an earnest attempt at updating the superhero mythos for the post-#MeToo 21st century, rather than what it likely is: a carefully calculated move by Disney studio executives after months of focus groups and market research, designed to maximize box office profits for a company whose leadership is largely comprised of men — an effort that has, in part, been shadily abetted by the U.S. army.
So, does a studio’s self-serving motive efface the effects of releasing a big-budget superhero flick starring a powerful female lead? Not necessarily. Even a middling movie can be a type of victory, symbolic of a narrative ecology capacious enough to let some female-driven films fail or merely achieve mediocrity. And the implications for its viewers — particularly the impressionable, young, female demographic — are certainly hard to ignore. Imagery and dialogue gesture at women’s advancement in the sciences, as well as the power of female role models. “Maybe I’ll build a spaceship,” a little girl tells Fury during the film. “You don’t know.”
“He doesn’t,” Danvers affirms knowingly.
Ultimately, whether the film succeeds as a work of feminist literature and whether it succeeds as a high-quality superhero movie are two different questions. The answer to both is, frankly, a halfhearted shrug. Idealizing the film as an answer to a long-standing feminist question feels incorrect, but so does disparaging it as inconsequential. “I’ve been fighting with one arm behind my back,” Captain Marvel realizes out loud toward the film’s conclusion. What would it be like to be finally set free?