The stage is set. Avengers: Endgame looms on the horizon, its plot shrouded in mystery, following on the heels of Infinity War, a gargantuan (or, some would say, titanic) crossover epic. In between the two films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe gave us nothing but a solitary pair of movies: The Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel. One a sequel to a goofy light-hearted superhero heist, the other a complete unknown to moviegoers. Many of us wondered who this woman was, and even comics readers puzzled over what role her film would play in the larger movieverse.
Well, we have our answer, and I won’t hold you in too much suspense: Captain Marvel was some of the most fun I had with an MCU movie in a while (not counting Into the Spider-Verse because technically, it’s not an MCU movie). There’s been some smashing successes in the MCU lately, but for the most part, they’ve had some pretty heavy stuff alongside the jokes and smiles, even the Ant-Man sequel. Captain Marvel almost feels like the opposite: even though it tackles some pretty hefty themes and plot points, it’s bound and determined to exult in its sky-high superheroics.
This review will be spoiler-free and contain a content advisory at the end.
The Faces of Captain Marvel
There’s a certain constant to the Marvel movies: while most of the plots are far from memorable, often straightforward, and many of the jokes clever but simple, the true hearts of any MCU movie are the chemistry and charisma of the cast. We didn’t watch Avengers because we couldn’t wait to see the intricate way that our heroes would foil the great big alien invasion (spoiler alert: they punch it in the face and then blow up the portal that the aliens used to get to Earth, what an incredible story). We watched it because seeing Cap and Tony quip it up alongside a snarky Black Widow was an absolute treat. Stacked up to the rest of the MCU, Captain Marvel is no exception, and it features some of the best, most engaging performances of the films to date.
Samuel L. Jackson is back in action as a much, much younger Nick Fury, not nearly so rough around the edges, to the point where he and his rookie partner Phil Coulson (oh yes, he’s back, and it is so good to have him back in the movies) get some great screen time as what’s essentially a buddy cop duo. Annette Bening gets good mileage as a mysterious stranger from the main character’s past, and Jude Law does a strong turn as Captain Marvel’s tough, driven mentor. Overall, it’s a great cast that showcases different aspects of her life as the plot propels forward.
And then there’s Brie Larson as the titular character, and she sparkles. From her very first scene, she brings a vivacious spunkiness to the role that both feels right for Carol Danvers and also livens up the character in ways that aren’t all that common among the MCU characters. Sure, Natasha Romanov and Tony Stark have their own brands of snark, Steve Rogers is wholesomely good-hearted, and Thor alternates between dorky goofball and stone-faced warrior, but Brie’s take on Captain Marvel is a fresh, chipper attitude, and I can’t wait to see her mixed in with the rest of the MCU cast. Considering that I had zero investment in the character before this movie, that’s a pretty good outcome. She laughs, she exudes confidence that verges on cockiness without crossing the line, she expresses bafflement at the Earth of the 90’s, and she jokes around as she trades blows with baddies. She’s earnest, eager, and honestly having a really good time, and it’s not hard to get carried into that along with her.
The Worlds of Captain Marvel
Another aspect that truly sold me on Captain Marvel as a superhero movie was the delightful blend of genres that it dips into. Just like comics, it veers from Buck Rogers-style space adventure to high-concept space opera, from a 90s cop drama to a paranoia thriller, culminating in a high-powered iconic superhero story. It’s a plethora of faces that the comics genre wears, and they mix together with ease. It showcases a sort of confidence in the variety of themes and stories that the Marvel universe is capable of telling.
Because of this, it feels a bit like the Phase 1 movies, but it’s a stronger, more-polished version that leans more strongly into comics tropes, with a confidence that wasn’t available to Marvel in Phase 1, back when one of their biggest worries was people buying into the sci-fi/fantasy conceit of Thor. Now that moviegoing audiences have proven to be more accepting of comics tropes, we get to see stories that herald back to the weird, kitchen-sink gonzo of comics. It doesn’t have the distinctive feel of a film like Thor: Ragnarok or Captain America: Winter Soldier, but what it does have is a whole lotta fun. Not everyone will enjoy the tradeoff, but I was 100% into it.
The Power of Captain Marvel
Like most superhero stories, Captain Marvel is about power. Unlike a lot of the MCU stories, she punches in a much higher weight class than most of the characters we’ve seen so far. Remember how absurdly powerful Wanda was in Age of Ultron and Infinity War? I think it’s safe to say that Captain Marvel can go toe-to-toe with that. One of the biggest arcs is watching her as a person who relates to that power in different ways. When we start the movie, her mentor tells her that she needs to be able to control herself before she can let herself tap into her power, and everything that follows is her own reflection on that guidance.
I enjoyed that as a narrative strand next to the really fun fish-out-of-water story that the film runs with, contrasting the power Carol wields with her confusion at the world of the 90’s. There’s a duality there which feels like Thor’s entire arc somehow fit into a single movie, with stronger purpose and intentionality. By the end of the movie, I’m fully onboard with the heroic figure of Captain Marvel and the power she wields. It feels right, cohesive with what I watched during the film, and more importantly, it was flat-out enjoyable to watch her come into her own over the course of the movie.
At the end of the day, Captain Marvel was a blast to watch, I had a great time, it wasn’t what I’d call a must-see, but it was well worth my trip to the theater.
Content Advisory: mild language, comic-book violence, a brief moment of unnecessary vulgar humor, a brief depiction of humanoid dissection