‘Captain Marvel’: Too Small a Film for Its Feminist Super-heroine

It’s Marvel Studios’ first movie in which the spotlight is on a superheroine, but female representation aside, it’s an expensive action film that fails to break new ground

Brie Larson in "Captain Marvel."
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

When the film “Wonder Woman” was released, the comedienne Michelle Wolf said that a small part of her hoped the movie would be a flop. Appearing on “The Daily Show,” she claimed it wasn’t fair to pin all the hopes of the female gender on one film as the embodiment of equality.

On the contrary, she said: “You know when we’ll feel women are equal at the box office? When we get to make a bad superhero movie and then immediately make another bad one…. No one left crappy ‘Batman v Superman’ saying, ‘Well, I guess we’re done making ‘man movies.’”

Wolf’s crack two years ago again became more relevant with the release of “Captain Marvel” this month. Quite a few characters have tried on the superhero suit created about 50 years ago by Stan Lee. Captain Marvel started off as a man (who was accused of too closely resembling the competition – Superman). The character went through several iterations before becoming Carol Danvers.

The brave and determined test pilot became Captain Marvel in a relatively new series of comics dating from 2012, and now she’s starring in a new movie -- not just any movie, but the first in the Marvel Studios universe to focus on a superheroine without a superhero sidekick.

To understand the heroine and the movie that bears her name, it’s essential to consider the universe she was born into. Marvel Studios’ movies, which are all set in the same fictional world, are rapidly approaching a major turning point. “Captain Marvel” is only a way station a larger plan by the studio’s president, Kevin Feige, who approaches movies like he’s playing chess. Each move contains the seeds of the next ten. A year after the great drama of “Avengers: Infinity War,” Carol Danvers provides major support for the universe, with a view to next month’s release of “Avengers: Endgame.”

Consistent with Marvel Studios’ zealous maintenance of the internal logic and uniformity of films, the Captain’s story was written with an eye to not disrupting the time line. The story goes back to 1995 -- to avoid contradictions with the world of “Iron Man,” which was launched in 2008.

A scene from "Captain Marvel."
Chuck Zlotnick / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

That being the case, the picture has a double aim -- providing the story of Carol Danvers’ origin and at the same time giving her discharge papers for “The Avengers.” In an effort to add a twist to the original story – the Achilles’ heel of every new superhero – the plot jumps backwards and forwards in time.

Crashing to Earth

Brie Larson is Danvers, a soldier in the army of the Kree nation of aliens. She has no memory of her past, but receives guidance from an entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, embodied by Annette Bening, and also undergoes combat training with Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Major complications set in as a result of a war with other aliens, the Skrulls. She therefore finds herself on blue planet C-53, known to its inhabitants as planet Earth.

Her crash into a Blockbuster retail store is a fine start to a journey of self-discovery in the spirit of the 1990s. She’s quickly joined by Nick Fury, the young agent played again by Samuel L. Jackson, with a hefty layer of pixels that shave two or three decades off his age.

He’s constant comic relief, she’s a fish out of water, and together they adopt a 1990s dynamic amid a tsunami of references to that decade. What with grunge attire, all-female rock music and endless jokes about beepers and CD-ROMs and whatnot, the plot takes its time before finally assuming a rhythm of its own. As Carol Danvers begins to fulfill her destiny as Captain Marvel, the character’s great potential is increasingly revealed.

Larson infuses Carol with a rugged toughness consistent with the image of a veteran soldier whose brash self-confidence wouldn’t put any combat pilot to shame. The process the character undergoes, which includes learning how to listen to her gut feelings instead of the advice of malicious men, gets cooking on a small, exacting flame until the need for a blowup occurs.

Larson carries it to fruition splendidly and convincingly. Even though most of the punch lines go to the young Fury, Danvers also has her share of comic moments, as we’ve learned to expect from Marvel heroes. Also on hand are Carol’s old friend Maria and her daughter, who teach her to rediscover her humanity after she returns from space. The Skrulls provide surprises for the movie audience too, with the emotively entertaining ways that are particularly in evidence in their leader, played by Ben Mendelsohn.

The directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also co-wrote the script, are well aware of the immense cultural baggage that “Captain Marvel” comes with. It’s also hard to ignore the measure of cynicism demonstrated by the studio and its marketing campaign, which portray the film as an important feminist cinematic event. It’s not an accident that its release date in the United States coincided with International Women’s Day.

Jude Law and Brie Larson in  "Captain Marvel."
Chuck Zlotnick / Walt Disney Stu

Marvel, the maker of the most successful series in movie history, still waited 11 years and through no fewer than 21 films before realizing that a woman could bear the weight of a superhero picture. As “Wonder Woman” attests, the competition, DC Films, which lags behind Marvel in every respect, was earlier in understanding the spirit of the times.

Making a good Marvel film

That said, “Captain Marvel” is of value as a milestone of popular culture, not least because the superhero genre is the most widely viewed of the century. It’s shaping an entire generation of young people – boys and girls.

The Wonder Woman portrayed by Israel’s Gal Gadot broke the glass ceiling, but only on the first floor. Captain Marvel, despite its second-place finish, expands the narrow bounds of heroines in a world of male heroes.

One particularly lovely moment, which includes a 1990s-style montage, is genuinely moving. It’s when Carol remembers all the times when she had fallen in her life, only to get back up again. Such segments, mostly small but beautiful, are interspersed throughout the film and intensify its messages.

"Captain Marvel" trailer

At the same time, if we set aside issues relating to representation of women and recall that this is a big-budget film produced by Marvel Entertainment, the bottom line isn’t really glowing. The aliens’ wars, the chase scenes in space and the villains themselves are too much of an echo of films from the past, including “Star Wars” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and they do so in an artificial manner, as engineered as plastic.

Creating a movie that makes a statement of both form and content at a big Hollywood studio is a challenge for any director. Creating a Marvel Studios movie, which needs to make reference to dozens of films from the past and future and not call the rules of the universe into question, is far more of a challenge.

The profitable cinema universe serves as a movie assembly line, and the whole enterprise tends to swallow up its directors and make them disappear. Few have managed to leave a distinctive impression. Boden and Fleck are no exception.

“Captain Marvel,” which doesn’t depart from the Marvel format, isn’t a bad movie, but it’s also not extraordinary.

If I were to rank the 21 Marvel Studios films that have been released to date, it would probably be pegged in a reasonable position in the middle -- not as low as “Thor: The Dark World” or “Iron Man 2,” but also not even approaching “Black Panther” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Marvel fans might feel a sense of déjà vu in watching “Captain Marvel,” but they will get their money’s worth. And the Captain has a future. Larson’s Danvers is an intriguing character who is imprisoned in a movie too small to accommodate her persona. Something in the unrealized potential stirs heightened interest ahead of her official entry into the world of the Avengers. If they don’t stand in her way, she may yet become the biggest star in the universe.