Like its photon-blasting heroine, Captain Marvel is far from flawless. The 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and the first led by a woman—is self-conscious about its feminist responsibilities. It’s a bit overstuffed with shifting villains, fractured memories, and magic boxes. Its action sequences are, for the most part, less than dazzling. And it takes far too long to let its most compelling emotional through-line flourish. This is not a franchise-redefiner like Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok—not that every Marvel film has to be. But its adherence to the tried-and-true conventions of a Phase One Marvel origin story, 10 years into an increasingly complex cinematic universe, might leave you, as it did me, sort of whelmed—neither overjoyed nor underwhelmed, but satisfied and wondering what’s for dinner.
The comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s 2012 relaunch of the character Carol Danvers, from which the film draws spirit and style (DeConnick consulted on the film), holds a special place for many readers. Some found a gateway to the world of comics in her ordinary yet powerful, smart-ass, wistful hero. Many non-readers, meanwhile, are by now just reasonably impatient for the MCU to deliver its first female-led outing. Combined with a release slot in spitting distance of Avengers: Endgame’s climactic slugfest, and expectations for Captain Marvel are quite high.
It’s almost ballsy, then, that the film prioritizes enjoying itself above raising universe-wide stakes, and relishes its retro goofiness where many expected it to launch us into the future. It’s a playful movie at heart, and full of intimate moments—long car rides, doing the dishes, a field at dusk. Not the “game-changer” some wanted it to be, perhaps. But it is a lot like Carol: comfortable with who she is, even if it takes a while for her to piece it together.
When we meet her, an amnesiac Carol thinks her name is Vers (pronounced “Veers”), a proud member of a squad of Kree “warrior-heroes” led by her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Her real origin is pieced together backwards, in ever-shifting memory fragments that hint at a past life on some familiar “shithole” planet where beepers are a thing, “Rock the Vote” posters plaster walls, and human women aren’t allowed to fly fighter jets. A mission to extract a spy from among the Kree’s mortal enemies, a race of shape-shifting aliens called Skrulls, lands Carol on humble C-53 (Earth), specifically in Terminator 2-era Los Angeles. Unaware that punching holes in strip malls is frowned upon here, Carol soon attracts the attention of two mid-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, the digitally de-aged Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, left eye intact, so convincingly Benjamin Buttoned that I forgot within minutes it was an illusion).
Brie Larson is DeConnick’s Carol come to life—a smirking, charming, compassionate bundle of guts and humor. That’s all clear from her first scene, in which a stern Yon-Rogg commands Carol to suppress those parts of herself; to him, emotion equals weakness. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who directed Captain Marvel, and co-wrote its script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) seem to understand the implications of their heroine’s journey to self-actualization—and the full strength of her superpowers—hinging on her learning to embrace her emotions.
That’s not a uniquely female journey. But it is especially resonant in a movie genre that has often equated femininity with weakness. Even famous female action heroes like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are often remembered for their toughness, rather than the tenderness that fueled their greatest feats. Carol, along with Wonder Woman’s Diana Prince, underline what they taught us: feeling can be a person’s greatest strength. Guys like Yon-Rogg only echo your doubts and fears to keep you contained.
It takes a long time to get to that realization in Captain Marvel, though. Carol spends much of the first half of the movie either phone-homing to Yon-Rogg or running from the feds with Fury. And while Larson and Jackson’s natural, dry-humored chemistry makes for fun banter, the movie doesn’t quite come alive until they meet Maria Rambeau, an old U.S. Air Force buddy of Carol’s. Played by a warm if under-utilized Lashana Lynch (she gets far less screen time than Fury, though her scenes are more affecting), Carol and Maria’s rediscovered best friendship instantly becomes the pulse of the movie. Suddenly Carol has someone to fight for and relate to, someone who believes in her—the Bucky to her Steve Rogers. Not to mention Maria’s luminous little daughter Monica (yes, as in Monica Rambeau; yes, I yelled in my seat).
The movie coheres and even becomes something great in its finale, with its X-wing-versus-TIE-fighter-style dogfights through desert canyons, a magnificent free-fall through space, and less time spent pointing out the weirdness of the ’90s. (Radio Shack! Man, the internet was slow. You get it.) As a Skrull named Talos, Ben Mendelsohn masquerades as a strait-laced S.H.I.E.L.D. suit, but jerks out of his plot-induced fugue state for the last hour and becomes the most charismatic person onscreen. The movie’s music cues—mostly tracks from Hole, TLC, Garbage, and other female-fronted iconic groups of the time—are always a bit on-the-nose, but by the time Carol lets her powers rip to the tune of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” I’d given in. I grew up on nuance-less, Spice Girls-style ’90s girl power. I’m not above it.
Captain Marvel is likewise less than subtle about it, with its images of Carol as a girl falling down and getting up, failing then pushing on. Men jeer at her and tell her to smile; bro-y Air Force recruits taunt with one-liners like, “You do know why they call it a cockpit, don’t you?” We catch glimpses of Carol’s scowling father who, like Yon-Rogg, seemed to want to keep his girl contained, the better to control her. But the script falters in connecting the dots from these images to who Carol is now, leaving what feels like a gap in her development. Why are these the memories we see? How do they inform who she is now? It doesn’t help that we’re continually derailed to, of all people, Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser, a Guardians of the Galaxy baddie and the last person anyone cares about right now. (Same story, different day: He’s after a familiar magic blue box.)
Carol’s payoff comes in a magnificent sequence of cosmic, spaceship-smashing strength, a fireworks show of unbridled power and genuinely thrilling to see. But her journey also doubles as an origin story for the Avengers, which I’m not sure it needed to be. This could have just been about a girl who punches first and thinks later, her best friend, her flaws, and how she finds where she belongs. (Plus a very cute and capable cat named Goose, whom Fury can’t resist cooing in a comically high-pitched baby voice.) There are also ideas baked into the script about corrupt imperialist nations and who gets to write history—but we only skim the surface of all that.
It’s not an unsatisfying start to Carol Danvers’ stint in the MCU. Like Thor and Captain America, she’ll likely benefit from every appearance, starting with next month’s Endgame, and become a more layered, complex character, far surpassing her just-okay first film. That’s what I’m rooting for anyway. I caught a glimpse of Carol Danvers’ potential onscreen near the end of this movie, when she’d finally come into her own. She flew into the air and punched holes in the sky. That’s what we came to see—with luck, it’s only higher, further, faster for her from here.