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Captain Marvel ★★★

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Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Stars: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn

Released: Friday, March 8th

A year on from its trailblazing debut, it’s easy to forget the cultural moment we found ourselves facing in the run-up to Black Panther. Here was a tentpole movie with not only bonafide mainstream diversity credibility, but one that bucked expectation by outright delivering on its potential too. No eggshell-stepping required, this went all-in on tackling Afro-futurism, colonialism, nationalism, and isolationism. It dealt heavily in isms. And it became the first superhero movie to land a Best Picture nomination for its efforts.

With Wonder Woman having also scored a significant win for the other industry side meanwhile, it was sort of taken as a given that Marvel themselves shifting focus towards a female hero for the following year would be an easy win. A win they do largely achieve, but with the foundations as strongly built as they were for Black Panther, and Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman not only having proven far more iconic than expected but two-thirds of a terrific movie to boot, Captain Marvel feels faintly restrained in its ambitions in context. That win a lot less marvellous than you’d expect.

On the one hand, Captain Marvel is, on its own solitary terms, a rollicking run-and-jump tentpole auctioneer with seriously overdue girl-powered cred (and period 90s cred too), while, on the other, it’s hard not to be disappointed that an obvious potential watershed moment for the brand emerges really no higher than Ant-Man or the first Thor movie on the ambition spectrum. It’s a good solid cinematic adventure, but that lack of ambition denies you anything close to the “death is better than bondage” moment that could have changed this game entirely.

Brie Larson, having finally found a post-Room role befitting the stature afforded by that Best Actress statue, does, more often than not, effectively punch through the lowered ceiling these ambitions place on Captain Marvel. She’s fun, engaging, and well-rounded in her performance, but she’s held back by a story that never stops long enough to give her emotional presence much opportunity to present itself. Larson’s Carol Danvers is hardly deadpan, to be fair, but she’s written as no more grand an archetype than Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in so far as the wider sense of female representation in the comic book movie sub-genre goes.

Hollow doesn’t have to lack fun though, and Captain Marvel delves that out in spades with a gleeful dive into 90’s retro nostalgia, a couple of relatively low-scale but romping action beats, and some charming buddy banter with a CGI de-aged Samuel L. Jackson that almost serves as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s answer to The Long Kiss Goodnight. And if there’s a better soundtrack to be found out there this year, odds are it’ll mean James Gunn’s been hitting Spotify again.

All of which is flavouring – though noticeably not texture – for a period-set origin story in which Larson’s amnesiac alien soldier crash lands on Earth and finds herself the lynchpin of a plot involving an alien conflict and her own mysterious past – a past that could very well be the only way of protecting the human race from the encroaching extra-terrestrial menace. Jackson’s Nick Fury (complete with an extra retina, cos prequel) goes along for the ride, with a bevvy of established Marvel performers returning to the stage to play their own younger counterparts in an era when S.H.I.E.L.D. still had no idea just quite what was out there.

It’s very easy to see Captain Marvel resonating with younger female audiences, as she does represent a female Superman-like archetype that even Wonder Woman strayed relatively away from, but, outside of that demographic, it’d be difficult to picture anybody walking away from a movie as simplistic as Captain Marvel and considering it one of the better MCU ventures. Outside of having surprisingly little to say in the grander sense, it lacks much of a world outside of the character herself. 

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) ..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2019

Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck come off as solely culpable for this, with a journeyman effort standing in bewildering contrast to the leap they’ve taken as regards both scale and genre. The much marketed “bus fight”, in particular, feels more obligatory than anything else, as if there only really to fill a void between action beats, and it’s that level of operating that robs Captain Marvel of having a distinct voice with which to tell its story, choosing instead to prioritise merely telling it.

On the Marvel scale, it’s nuts-n-bolts fun elevated by a great lead – not a condemnation, they built the entire Thor and Ant-Man franchises out of literally that, after all – but the most powerful hero in the MCU makes for a decidedly lower-impact movie than you’d hope. One that sports perhaps the least effective directorial vision of any of these since Age of Ultron, and with even that movie’s cinematographer – Ben Davis – struggling to find much outside of slo-mo battle visuals to hold his interest. If dusty LA with the contrast dialled down’s your thing, step on up – cos that’s really your lot until the third act introduces primary colours.

The end result then is a movie that’s fun and engaging enough to watch, but in no way as good or given enough gravitas as its lead or title character. In the same way that Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange found more of his niche on the larger stage, though, there’s little doubt that we’re in for a similar leap with Larson’s Captain Marvel. She’s great, the movie isn’t. It’d have been best shooting for Tank Girl, it went for Green Lantern instead. But, at least, a pretty good Green Lantern.

Keeper of Lola M. Bear. Film critic for Movie Marker, TalkRADIO, and others. Producer of podcasts. Skechers enthusiast and blazer aficionado. All opinions my own.

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