REVIEW – ‘Captain Marvel’ is an imperfect but supremely entertaining blast

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken many interesting turns over the last few years. We’ve seen the dazzling efforts of Ryan Coogler to inject Black Panther with an authenticity that provided black cinematic representation like never before. We’ve witnessed the quirky adventures of lesser-known entities like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. And we’ve seen the culmination of the entire franchise with last year’s gloriously devastating Avengers: Infinity War.

In 2019, Marvel Studios maps a course through uncharted territory by finally placing a female character as the lead in their latest blockbuster. With all sorts of ridiculous controversy and backlash behind it, Captain Marvel arrives in a cultural landscape desperate for female-led films. While the end result may not reach the lofty heights set by many of its predecessors, the film is an imperfect but supremely entertaining blast. With an endearing heart that’s impossible to resist, plenty of exciting action sequences to delight any viewer, and a glorious leading lady steering the ship, we’re setting a course for the future of the Marvel franchise. Thankfully, it looks to be in good hands.

It’s always rather difficult to summarise the plot of any Marvel film because they’re often so overloaded with spoilers, so let’s try and keep this as light as possible. Set during the halcyon days of 1995, Captain Marvel begins before our heroine takes her titular moniker and is instead known as Vers (Brie Larson), a brash but inexperienced member of the fierce Starforce warriors on the planet Hala, the homeworld of the Kree. Trained and mentored by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), the wise and seasoned commander of Starforce, Vers continually experiences dreams of a past she has no memory of.

Visions of a possible former life as a fighter pilot known as Carol Danvers on a foreign planet make little sense to Vers but are quickly dismissed by Yon-Rogg as a disadvantage that will cloud the control of her newly acquired powers, which include super strength, energy projection, and the ability to fly. He needs her full focus on the Kree’s ongoing war with their archenemies the Skrulls, a shape-shifting race of aliens hellbent on galactic domination. On a mission to rescue one of their own, Vers, Yon-Rogg and their Starforce compatriots Korath (Djimon Hounsou), Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan), Att-Lass (Algenis Pérez Soto) and Bron-Char (Rune Temte) are ambushed by the Skrulls, with Vers taken hostage by their nefarious leader, Talos (a sublime Ben Mendelsohn).

After an attempted escape from the Skrulls goes awry, Vers crashlands on planet C-53 (we know it as Earth) and immediately draws the attention of two low-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who she promptly warns of an imminent Skrull invasion. With the help of Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), a former friend and colleague of Danvers, Vers must uncover the truth behind her mysterious past and the accident which gave her superhuman powers in order to prevent a galactic conflict which could destroy both Kree and C-53. Oh, and she reconnects with an orange tabby cat named Goose who threatens to steal this entire film every chance he gets.

Standing as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first foray into a female-led film, Captain Marvel has a hefty weight of expectation, particularly after the roaring success of DC’s similar property Wonder Woman. While many will likely compare the two, there’s little in common here. Sure, they’re both led by enigmatic and powerful female characters. They both stand as origin stories to bring two of the comic world’s most beloved icons to the big screen. But Captain Marvel charts a different course. It’s one rooted in space mythology where the search for one’s origins is equally as important as the fight to save the universe.

There’s little point in pointing out the film’s bombastic action sequences and spectacular visual effects, as these have become synonymous with the Marvel franchise. We know they deliver the goods in this department, and, once again, they offer up plenty to delight the senses. The moments in space are typically loud and uproarious, with dazzling spaceship dogfights aplenty. Back on solid ground, the brutal fighting choreography is electrifying and entertaining, particularly a thrilling chase sequence aboard an above-ground railway train and Vers’ escape from the Skrull spaceship where she battles numerous lackeys all by herself.

But action is not enough to create a truly rounded blockbuster, and Marvel has consistently shown concerted efforts to offer more than just fights and explosions. In Captain Marvel, we witness Carol’s complicated and frustrating search through her puzzling past that provides the key to who she truly is and where she’s ultimately heading. It’s a journey for her inner power that many around Carol are constantly attempting to quell for their own selfish motivations. A pawn in a game she’s unwittingly playing, Carol’s path to glory is a sight to behold and one that takes many unexpected twists and turns to continually keep an audience guessing.

With Oscar-winner Larson at the helm, Marvel Studios have found the right leading lady to bring Carol Danvers aka Vers aka Captain Marvel to life. From the moment she was cast, Larson inherited this responsibility with incredible verve and the end result is up there on the screen for all to see. She’s powerful when she needs to be. She kicks ass at every opportunity. And she brings a tremendous amount of heart to this role that results in a performance that’s infectiously endearing and wonderfully charming. If Marvel is seeking a new female hero to lead this next phase of its franchise, they’ve found the right girl in Larson.

With no love interest in sight (an overdue change for the MCU), Carol’s focus is thankfully elsewhere, gifting Larson with more opportunities to shine than just going gooey-eyed over a male co-star. Her connection with best friend Maria is all sorts of gorgeous, allowing Marvel to showcase the power of a platonic female-to-female relationship that’s downright refreshing. It’s an empowering message for young girls that a finding a man should not be one’s ultimate goal in life, particularly when finding your own strength provides much greater satisfaction. Coupled with Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Scarlett Witch, and the fierce females of Black Panther, there have never been more cinematic female warriors to provide inspiration for the next generation.

Surrounding Larson is a terrific supporting cast that combines to create an exhilarating ensemble. Jackson is typically magnanimous as Nick Fury, although without a little of the swagger the character has known in other films. He’s still relatively new to the beat of S.H.I.E.L.D, providing Jackson with the chance to showcase the character’s origins before the corrupt bureaucracy of the agency affected his spirit. His chemistry with Larson is a delight, with the two forming an almost buddy cop style relationship that provides plenty of levity and humour to balance the action. It’s wonderful to see Gregg as our beloved Agent Coulson again, especially for those of us who have skipped the television adventures of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Bonus points have to be given to the special effects department for effortlessly de-aging both Jackson and Gregg by 25 years. The result is perfectly seamless.

Law, Chan, and Hounsou aren’t given a whole lot to do, but they each make the most with what they’re given. There’s nothing much one can say of the intriguing performance of Annette Bening without spoiling her secretive involvement in the plot, but it’s always a joy to see that legend up on the screen. But the real star here is the ever-reliable Mendelsohn who all but steals the show as the deliciously wicked and surprisingly empathetic Talos. His character journey takes numerous delightful turns, which Mendelsohn handles with aplomb. There’s a tremendous volume of light and shade to his performance, creating a villain of substance that’s as dimensional and fascinating to watch as anything else Marvel has dished up, thus far.

The screenplay is injected with plenty of humour and several laugh-out-loud moments (namely those involving Goose) and, unsurprisingly, there’s a substantial dose of 90s nostalgia that thankfully never feels too heavy-handed. A Gameboy here. A “Rock the Vote” poster there. A trip to Blockbuster where a cardboard cutout of True Lies takes centre stage. A stab at the achingly slow speed of computers and dial-up modems will hit home for any of us 90s kids who struggled through the early days of the internet. The soundtrack is naturally dotted with the occasional 90s rock anthem, namely those from female-led bands like Garbage and Hole. But the use of No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” over one fight sequence goes a little too eye-rollingly far for comfort.

It’s not all quite as perfect as many may hope. With a running time of over two hours, the film drags slightly towards the middle and several of the fight sequences seeming to exhaustively repeat themselves, leading to a few unimaginative moments that feel a little stale. But the narrative wisely flips direction with a plot twist that leads to a conclusion that’s richly satisfying and serves to connect the dots between past and present. Minor quibbles aside, Captain Marvel is a total riot. It’s enormously fun. It’s overflowing with heart. And it introduces the world to a hero this cinematic universe so desperately needed. Look out, Thanos. Carol is coming.

Distributor: Walt Disney
Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Producers: Kevin Feige
Screenplay: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Music: Pinar Toprak
Editor: Debbie Berman, Elliot Graham
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: 7th March 2019 (Australia)