Somewhere in Captain Marvel, the heroine (Brie Larson) sits down to chat with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Earth has been invaded by shapeshifting aliens, and to prove he isn’t one, Fury rattles off a string of backstory details and character quirks. He then asks the good Captain to do the same, but instead of telling him anything about herself, she blasts a hole in the wall with her energy powers.
It is not too difficult to extrapolate a few things about Captain Marvel based on this scene alone. There is a rote, token rehearsal of “personal” information, which is quickly forgotten in favor of some flashy (yet similarly forgettable) special effects. This is not a human interest story so much as a spectacle, about as profound as your average fireworks show, and considerably longer and less exciting. To anyone who has seen a Marvel movie in the last couple years, none of this is likely to be cause for surprise, though if the studio is going to stick to this modus operandi – and why should they not, considering the financial rewards? – they would do well to put a little more thought into the spectacle. Not a single set piece or display of superpowers in Captain Marvel evokes anything beyond the most superficial excitement, anything approaching the sense of awe or wonder that films like this are, at their best, capable of.
It sounds as though I dislike the movie, and I suppose this is true – but really, dislike seems too strong a word. There’s simply not enough here to inspire genuine aversion. Any “controversy” surrounding the film is predictably ludicrous. On the one hand, it is too thin and insubstantial to merit any sort of serious outrage; on the other, as Steven Greydanus aptly puts it in his review, “Cheering for Captain Marvel because it stars a woman is like Christians cheering every faith-based film that comes along: it’s settling for too little.” (For my part, I will simply offer that I think Wonder Woman is better than 9 out of 10 Marvel movies.)
I am aware that there is a somewhat disgruntled tone lurking in these paragraphs. I suppose it is the bitter mood of a former believer who has fallen from the faith, who feels he has been taken for the proverbial ride; one need only rewind the clock two and a half years, give or take, to find me thinking rather highly of Doctor Strange. Although there are still some Marvel movies I cherish fond memories of, and some that I will call good, it only becomes more apparent with time that Marvel never did, never will, and was probably never going to produce anything truly great. Nevertheless, Captain Marvel did nothing to make me angry. It merely wore me down, and within a few days, it will likely fade from my memory completely. The Marvel Cinematic Universe can readily be compared to fast food, considering the insistently paced manufacture of its products and their generally disposable quality, but this one seems unusually dull. If Avengers: Infinity War was as hefty yet nutritionally empty as a Big Mac, Captain Marvel is about as weighty and nourishing as a potato chip. These movies can usually be depended on for a few cheap guffaws, at least, but the biggest reaction Captain Marvel got out of me was a gasp of delight upon spotting a VHS copy of The Hudsucker Proxy in the background of one scene, followed by the wistful realization that I’d rather be watching (and reviewing) that film instead.
The plot is standard Marvel boilerplate. There is a generically good-hearted hero with dazzling abilities; a colorful cast of allies and friends; a fantastic new world/galaxy/dimension; a powerful item everyone wants; at least one authority figure to be defied. Quips and blows are exchanged. Captain Marvel makes at least one unique, interesting choice – to structure a typical superhero origin story as a mystery. Instead of a linear progression showing us Carol Danvers’ backstory and how she became Captain Marvel, the film slowly reveals information about her past and the true nature of her powers. Alas, any fresh energy this approach might inject into the material is diluted by the transparent obviousness of the plot twists, and how little the solutions to the puzzle register any emotional significance. (Superhero origins usually hinge on some kind of pseudo-scientific contrivance, but this one seems particularly arbitrary.) Moreover, while Brie Larson gives a fine performance as the heroine, gamely doing whatever the script tells her, Carol simply doesn’t cohere into a character who feels convincingly human, whatever climactic epiphanies she might have about her biology.
The cast is doing solid work all around, but the closest thing to a standout is Ben Mendelsohn, whose career for the last few years has consisted entirely of elevating sneering villains to be the best parts of their mediocre movies. In Rogue One, he was Director Krennic, the most compelling new Star Wars character to grace the silver screen since George Lucas departed from the galaxy far, far away; in Ready Player One, at least it was fun to watch him get kicked in the groin. Here, he’s given the juiciest part on paper, a mustache-twirling villain who also gets the opportunity to display some pathos. Unfortunately, while his Australian drawl still comes through as thickly as ever, Mendelsohn’s emotive features spend much of his screentime buried under layers of alien prosthetics that hamper his ability to make an impression; indeed, he’s most fun to watch when his shapeshifting alien Talos impersonates the appearance of a human Ben Mendelsohn. (Incidentally, the actor gives a truly great performance in another film by the directors of Captain Marvel – 2015’s Mississippi Grind, which is much more worthy of your time.)
Speaking of alien makeup, one of the Marvel films’ purer selling points is the promise of seeing a comic book’s imagination writ large. Sadly, Captain Marvel is lacking even in this arena; the alien worlds and cityscapes it visits are among the most drab and boring you’ll ever see, and the creatures and spaceship interiors share a cheap aesthetic that more readily recalls a Star Trek episode than a multimillion-dollar blockbuster. Given the film’s ‘90s setting, this resemblance may be a deliberate throwback, but one can hardly give a movie a pass for looking bad just because it’s trying to look that way. I do not much like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but at least they produced some colorful, inventive imagery from time to time.
The plot proceeds along predictable lines and arrives at a place where several plot threads are left dangling, to be picked up somewhere down the interminable line of sequels. Of course, there are also references to past Marvel films – after Thanos collected them all last year, I thought we could get through one of these without any Infinity Gems, but I was wrong. We are also treated to clumsy explanations of where the Avengers’ team name came from, and even if you never wondered how Nick Fury got his eyepatch, Captain Marvel will fill you in. As the unneeded explanations mount, the film begins to feel rather like the Dutch boy using his fingers to plug the holes in the dike – holes that moviegoers would have just as happily ignored. In a movie franchise like this, few things are less interesting to me than continuity. Glaring errors are one thing, but it rarely enriches a story to know how one colorful stone changed hands offscreen, or how a character’s moniker originated. Did the Romans get hung up on the Aeneid because a couple details didn’t line up with the Odyssey? This inane obsession with the textural details of a film only sidesteps the question of what really matters. No amount of tie-ins and crossovers can fill the absence left by a lack of well-drawn characters and meaningful themes.
Captain Marvel has one thematic point to make, and it hammers it home with ungainly fervor. Within five minutes, Carol’s mentor – Jude Law as a fellow named, ahem, (checks notes) Yon-Rogg – has told her at least three times that emotions make her weak. Surprisingly enough, by the end of the film Carol learns that feelings are not something to be suppressed, but the source of her greatest strength. This is all delivered with such cartoonish bluntness that it can’t resonate with any kind of depth, nor does the film pursue this thematic throughline to a robust, mature, meaningful conclusion. Instead of bringing reason and emotion into a good, proper balance, Carol essentially forsakes the former for the latter. (Fury praises her ability to “go with her gut” even when it means disobeying orders, and it is no coincidence that the main villain is called the “Supreme Intelligence.”) In the end, then, Captain Marvel is less a story with a moral and more a juvenile power fantasy. Nor do I think I am holding the film to an unfairly high standard. To some degree, the glorification of power is built into the superhero genre, which trades on the appeal of having special abilities. Yet most (if not all) of the good superhero stories are not ultimately about becoming powerful, but about learning to use power judiciously. At best, Captain Marvel gestures halfheartedly in this direction while its interest runs the other way. Its climax hinges not on any moral choice, but on its heroine’s self-empowerment. Instead of “With great power comes great responsibility,” its mantra is simply “Higher, further, faster.”
Higher, further, faster – but to what end?