It seems, at this point, that Marvel’s moviemaking machinery is incapable of producing a genuinely terrible film. There’s no “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” or “Suicide Squad” in the Marvel filmography, just “Thor: The Dark World,” “Ant-Man” and “Doctor Strange” — movies that are fine but forgettable.
Still, I wanted more than that for “Captain Marvel,” and I suspect that I’m not alone.
That’s because, after 20 films, Marvel Studios is finally giving a woman top billing. It’s “Captain Marvel,” full stop, in the first Marvel title directed by a woman — Anna Boden, who co-directed and co-wrote the film with her regular collaborator Ryan Fleck. As a result (and in response to star Brie Larson’s laudable efforts to make the press tour more inclusive), the movie has attracted a predictable swarm of online trolls.
So it’d be nice to report that “Captain Marvel” is an absolute triumph. The fact that it’s not has nothing to do with Larson, who plays Carol Danvers (the current incarnation of Captain Marvel) with a winning mix of charm and determination. The problem, I suspect, lies in the movie’s depiction of the Captain Marvel character.
When the story begins, she isn’t Captain Marvel yet. Instead, she’s an amnesiac soldier-in-training known as Vers, who fights alongside an alien race known as the Kree in a war against their shapeshifting enemies, the Skrulls. (I will never stop being grateful to Marvel filmmakers for embracing the crazy sci-fi quality of the comics.)
Empowerment has two definitions: To be given power by someone or something, and to realize one’s own potential, to empower oneself. Many heroes rely on the former. Captain Marvel embodies the latter.
The story eventually brings us to Earth in the 1990s, where we learn more about Vers’ past. But her backstory and her pyrotechnic powers remain abstract: When the credits rolled, she still felt like a blank slate. And while Larson absolutely sells the big, heroic lines that the script gives her, they feel more like generic messages of empowerment, rather than dialogue that shows us who the character is.
Luckily, though Captain Marvel remains a cipher, she’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn (perhaps the most reliably delightful presence in the current wave of blockbusters), both transformed — Mendelsohn into a goblin-like Kree Skrull soldier, Jackson into a younger version of Nick Fury, the secret agent who eventually spearheads the Avengers.
In fact, the CGI technology that Marvel has been using to de-age its older actors is given its best showcase to date, largely avoiding the uncanny valley feeling that I got in “Captain America: Civil War” (with a scene that turned Robert Downey, Jr. into a sulking teenager) and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (which gave us flashbacks to a middle-aged Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer).
And the story’s middle stretch, which pairs up Jackson and Larson on a buddy comedy-style road trip — with a shockingly cute cat along for the ride — is probably the film’s highlight.
Unfortunately, the genuinely funny character moments have to share screentime with a by-the-numbers Marvel plot, rote action scenes and tired jokes that harp on the ’90s setting. (To be fair, my preview screening audience enjoyed the period humor a lot more than I did. Maybe it depends on whether you find the sight of a Blockbuster Video — or Brie Larson wearing a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt — to be inherently funny.)
If anything, this illustrates how lucky we were to get “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther,” back-to-back: They broke down barriers in on-screen representation, but they managed to be fun, memorable, good movies (or, in the case of “Black Panther,” a genuinely great one) at the same time.
With “Captain Marvel,” on the other hand, we get the first in what may be the new standard. Now women and minorities can star in their own superhero films, and they can be just as unremarkable as the ones with white guys.