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A subverted superhero origin story made with love

Captain Marvel feels like a love letter to the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself, and tells an empowering tale along the way

Marvel’s latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe carries a lot of weight on its shoulders; not only the weight of the MCU franchise, being a prequel to nearly the entire Avengers Initiative, but the weight of its place in the cultural moment as Marvel’s first female-led flick. DC has already shown us how to make an excellent movie about a woman superhero with 2017’s Wonder Woman, filled with inspiring and well-written characters that stand up to authority. Did co-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden create a movie to shoulder all that weight?

In short, yes, and they have made a movie that seeps with affection for all of the stories Marvel has told to date. It is packed with the trademark snappy Marvel dialogue, giving us two hours of flash and awe and perhaps some of the most heart we’ve seen in a Marvel movie yet. Plus, as a prequel to the entire MCU, most of the movie takes place in the 90’s and comes with a killer 90’s style, full of leather jackets, pagers, and the music of Nirvana, Hole, and No Doubt. If “Into the Spider-Verse” was a love letter to Spider-Man, Captain Marvel is a love letter to Marvel’s cinematic universe.

Captain Marvel is an origin story, but it’s different from most other superhero origin stories in its story structure; after a very touching Stan Lee tribute, the film opens on our hero (Brie Larson) and her trainer (Jude Law) duking it out in an alien training hall. The man, Yon-Rogg, takes her down and harps that she must learn to “control her emotions” to truly defeat him in combat. She gets back up, begins sparring again, and then lets loose a blasts of fiery energy from her hand that blasts her master into a wall. Oh boy.

Captain Marvel starts in media res, with the titular protagonist (who goes by Vers) already having her powers. Vers is a member of the alien race known as the Kree, who are known as a race of heroes at war with the shape-shifting, brain-picking Skrull. The first act of the movie does not waste time getting to the action so that we can wait to learn how the superhero became so super. It’s marked by Tarantino-esque cuts of flashbacks and memories as Vers struggles to understand her past and why she can only remember pieces of it. The audience is presented with a lot of information in a short time; it can be a little confusing, and occasionally I found myself ready to move on and get to the main plot.

After a mission goes wrong, Vers crashes on Earth. She lands in a Blockbuster—the lingering shot of the Blockbuster hilariously makes sure you KNOW it’s 1995—and rewires a landline to her specialized space-jumpsuit to try to contact her team out in space. The fledgling S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives to investigate the crash; a digitally de-aged Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows Vers his badge and stares at Vers in confusion (with both eyes! And all his hair). Young Samuel L. Jackson a strange sight at first (“Say what again!” echoed in my head throughout the experience), but you forget about it quickly. The de-aging special effect is actually quite good.

As are the rest of the visuals. Besides all of the multi-million dollar special effects and bombastic fight scenes, Captain Marvel has a real 90’s flair to it (“Grunge looks good on you”) and stands out because of that. It’s really fun, and 90’s kids will love the references to little things like Fresh Prince and Radio Shack, and all of the stellar music. One standout fight scene is set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” as Captain Marvel beats the snot out of some bad guys—and patriarchal expectations of her to sit down and be quiet!

Vers teams up with Fury to defeat the invading Skrull who followed her, and they become a surprising odd-couple as they try to escape the cunning shapeshifter Talos with an inexplicable Australian accent (Ben Mendelsohn), who could be anybody on Earth down to their DNA. Talos is a compelling character with surprising depth to him. Vers and Fury bond over human emotions as she tries to find her past. Their dialogue is funny and surprisingly emotional at times as Vers, who we learn is really Carol Danvers (many viewers will know that going into the film), learns that humans’ emotions and resilience are their real strength.

Fury also discovers Goose the cat in an infiltrated military base, and let’s be clear, Goose is the best character in the whole movie. He is by far the standout member of this cast and is so powerful that he had to be played by four separate cats!

The movie’s second act is full of discovery and touching moments. Carol finds her long-lost best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), who runs up to hug her and calls her “auntie Carol” to Carol’s bewilderment. Maria gives Carol a much-needed pick-me-up and they share many heartfelt moments. Maria is understandably hurt by the fact that Carol can’t remember her, her best friend. Maria and Carol’s past relationship is one of Carol’s driving motivations to understand who she is, and it’s a strong story point.

Carol and Maria are both incredibly strong women and well-written characters. There is not a hint of romantic subplot for either of these women and the narrative is all the stronger that way. What we get are two badass former air force pilots teaming up with aliens and a rogue agent and a kitty cat to protect Earth. Monica is also the rare well-done child in a movie; she is funny and cute, all while being a great character to give her mom the boost she needs.

The first and second act of the movie felt just a tad slow sometimes but were more than held up by witty dialogue and a lot of wonderfully heartfelt moments. The last act is where this film truly shines. Carol discovers the true origin of her powers and finally finds out who her former teacher really was: the Kree agent Mar-Vell, and the original captain Marvel. Mar-Vell was Carol’s mentor in the US Airforce and had developed technology meant to end the war with the Skrull. To save the Earth, the ragtag team of Carol, Fury, Maria, Goose the amazing perfect cat, and one more fan-favorite character whom I won’t spoil, go to space to fight for their planet. It’s a jaw-dropping and emotional ride all the way to the end, and we wind up getting a really beautiful story about survival and family. There is one very memorable supercut during the final fight of Carol standing up to all of the authoritative men throughout her life who told her what she couldn’t be in the flashbacks from earlier, as she stands up one final time to take on the main antagonistic force; it’s an incredibly powerful scene, and extremely empowering.

Captain Marvel knows its legacy; the movie is full of tongue-in-cheek jokes about the other Avengers movies (Carol and Fury argue over whether it’s pronounced “Marvel” or “Mar-Vell”). As a prequel, it sets the stage for why Fury created the Avengers initiative, with a knowing shot of Fury at his computer in front of a document titled “The Protectors Initiative.” The scene pans to him smiling as he finally figures out what to call this program to protect the earth; he highlights the word “protectors” and types 7 letters. We don’t see what he types, but there is a triumphant fanfare and a camera shot that says, “you already know what he wrote.”

The movie explains some key things for the MCU, like what the technology Fury had at the end of Infinity War is. It shows a lot of love for the MCU that an audience member who has kept up with the story will really feel and appreciate. There is just so much heart dripping from this movie. If you haven’t seen all the movies, though, fear not; neither my girlfriend nor the friend I saw the movie with have seen all of the MCU films, but they had no trouble keeping pace with Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel occasionally feels a little like a run-of-the-mill superhero movie during the slow parts at the beginning, but this is a stellar movie full of standout performances. Sometimes I wish Carol had some more depth (for being constantly told to be less emotional, Danvers doesn’t actually show that much emotion), but she is still a well-written badass woman character. The subversion of superhero origin stories works so well for this movie, and though it is an exciting movie moment for women, this is a movie that can be enjoyed by anyone of any gender or age. It’s utterly Marvelous.

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Spencer Carrol


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