A Marvel Fan’s (Mostly) Objective Review of ‘Captain Marvel’

29 min read

Marvel Studios’ latest chapter — Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Ben Mendelsohn — posted an above-average hold of 55 percent in its second weekend. In its third, a decrease of just 49 percent in the U.S. has, in addition to impressive overseas box office, put Captain Marvel on the cusp of a billion dollars globally.

At this point, it’s not a matter of “if” the film will hit a billion dollars, but “when.”

Update: As of Sunday, March 31, Captain Marvel sits at $990.6 million globally, meaning it will likely cross the billion-dollar mark sometime this coming week.

But I’m not here to talk about box office — although its inarguably impressive that Captain Marvel has broken so many records, including:

  • 6th-best global opening weekend of all time
  • 3rd-best March debut of all time
  • 7th-best opening weekend for an MCU film of all time
  • 10th-highest (and counting) grossing film in the MCU
  • 3rd-best superhero debut in China of all time
  • 9th-best superhero debut of all time
  • 4th-best domestic debut for a non-sequel superhero film of all time
  • 1st-best debut for a female-direct feature of all time
  • 1st-best domestic debut for a female-led superhero film of all time
  • 1st-best global debut for a female-fronted film of all time

Higher, further, faster, indeed.

Currently, Captain Marvel is sitting “fresh” with a 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it in the company of Iron Man 3, Captain America: The First Avenger, and just under Ant-Man (2015). Paired with an ‘A’ CinemaScore, audiences and critics alike have embraced the lady fighter pilot with half-human, half-alien lineage.

By this point in its box office domination, I’ve seen Captain Marvel twice. I’d initially intended to write my review immediately after my first viewing, but I’m glad that I didn’t.

While I was pleased with the film after my first viewing, I actually enjoyed Captain Marvel much more the second time.

The film — which takes the 1995 time period to heart with homage paid to contemporaneous action flicks like Terminator 2 and RoboCop — suffers at first from being more Ant-Man and the Wasp than Avengers: Infinity War in terms of scale and stakes. It doesn’t help when you enter the theater with your own expectations and preconceived notions weighing on the film.

Once I had time to chew on it and eventually see the film a second time, I was surprised that I actually enjoyed Captain Marvel even more. Although the (admittedly few) reveals didn’t have the same impact that they had on the first viewing, I could better appreciate the nuances of the film’s plot and, more specifically, its somewhat unconventional narrative structure.

With a second viewing under my belt and quite a box office haul in the film’s ledger, it’s time to share my objective — or, ahem, mostly objective — thoughts about Carol Danvers’ cinematic debut.

Since this is a pretty in-depth review, here’s a table of contents. Feel free to skip around to the sections you’d most like to read.

There will be spoilers in this review.

Contents

Why Make Captain Marvel Now?

Until recently, Carol Danvers was largely benched in Marvel Comics. In fact, most comic readers would’ve associated the title of Captain Marvel with Mar-Vell, a super-powered spy for the Kree who would switch sides to become one of Earth’s cosmic protectors. It was actually Mar-Vell who originated the title of Captain Marvel and held it from his debut in 1967 to his death in 1982.

From there, the mantle was passed between several other (relatively obscure) characters — including Monica Rambeau, a human subjected to experimentation with extra-dimensional energies who currently goes by the name Spectrum; Genis-Vell, son of Mar-Vell; and Phyla-Vell, sister of Genis-Vell— before Carol Danvers finally inherited the title in 2012 as part of a character’s relaunch, spearheaded by Kelly Sue DeConnick.

Photo courtesy of Marvel

It was DeConnick’s run , “Higher, Further, Faster, More,” that informed many of the creative choices behind the current film, from Carol’s suit and mohawk to her sass and frequent recklessness.

It’s actually a pretty interesting time for Carol Danvers to make her big-screen debut. Audiences are becoming more aware of the lack of representation for minority groups in film with the #MeToo having shined a light on the fact that women are one such group underrepresented in popular film.

Many critics point to the success of Wonder Woman, released in 2017 by Warner Bros., as the tipping point. Wonder Woman served as proof that films headlined by women could be successes, too. As a result, all eyes turned to Marvel Studios; having sparked our current obsession with cinematic universes, people started wondering what was taking the highest-grossing film franchise in Hollywood history so long to give female viewers some representation.

According to reports, when Marvel Studios announced that the second Captain America film would be adapting the iconic “Civil War” storyline from the comics, it was a direct response to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which, like “Civil War,” pits DC’s two flagship heroes against each other. So even though the debut of Carol Danvers had been on Marvel slate since 2014, the game-changing success of Wonder Woman made Captain Marvel a higher priority.

Not Another Superhero Origin Movie

Character introductions are tricky, especially when the character isn’t as well-known as, say, Wonder Woman or Captain America. We instantly knew that Downey’s Tony Stark was something special after seeing him in Iron Man in 2008, but many other Marvel characters —e.g. Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man, even Doctor Strange to a degree — didn’t hit their strides for their first couple appearances.

To complicate things, audiences weren’t familiar with the character of Carol Danvers who had never appeared on the big or small screen. However, we knew in terms of chronology, Carol’s film is set before all other MCU films except The First Avenger. While this was supposed to be freeing for the filmmakers, it ended up being a limitation.

Normally, you can generate more interest in an unfamiliar character by tying that character to more familiar and popular characters, but they couldn’t do that here because the film is set before any of those heroes are heroes.

But this unfamiliar character is apparently important for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Infinity War post-credits scene notwithstanding, we were told back in 2016 that Carol Danvers would be the most powerful hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The implication is that she’ll turn the tides in the fight against Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, which hits theaters in less than a month.

It’s a tricky situation. Marvel Studios needed us to get excited about an unfamiliar character whose introduction may or may not be happening now to make her less of a deus ex machina in Endgame. This puts a lot of pressure on a blockbuster film that happens to be directed by relative newcomers plucked from indie obscurity, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind).

The studio needed Carol to be a compelling character who’s as empowering for female viewers as Wonder Woman without alienating male viewers (who have historically dominated Marvel Studios’ audience).

What I Liked About Captain Marvel

Photo courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

By now, you probably know the premise: Brie Larson plays Vers, a “noble warrior hero” on a Kree special forces team called Starforce. The team is dedicated to combatting the Kree’s biggest enemy, a race of shapeshifting aliens called the Skrull. But Vers has no memory of her life prior to the past six years she’s been on the Kree homeworld of Hala, utilizing her extraordinary abilities to help in the ongoing Kree-Skrull War.

After a Starforce mission goes awry and leads to her capture by Skrull leader Talos, Vers is thrown into the “mindfracker,” which triggers visions of a life that she doesn’t remember living… a life on Earth. Fortunately, Vers manages to escape her captors by stealing one of their escape pods and ends up crash-landing through the roof of a Blockbuster.

Now that she’s on Earth, Vers must begin putting together the pieces of her mysterious former life while also attempting to thwart the Skrulls in their infiltration of Earth and their search for a powerful weapon. Since a Skrull can shapeshift into anyone, Vers can’t help but wonder who she can trust. Can she even trust herself?

Subverting Expectations

Although there are consistencies with other installments, Captain Marvel isn’t simply a carbon copy of the same formula we’ve now seen in many Marvel origin films, and I quite liked that. In large part, it’s the film’s nonlinear structure that makes an otherwise run-of-the-mill origin story feel more unique.

In the past, a Marvel origin film would look something like this:

  • Act 1: Meet the hero. Hero experiences trauma or a catastrophe that imbues him/her with special abilities.
  • Act 2: Meet the villain. Setup conflict. See the hero’s training montage and the beginning of his/her character arc.
  • Act 3: Hero must fight the villain who has become a mirror image of the hero. The character arc is complete.

We don’t see that same formula here, though. Or at least not in that same way.

When Captain Marvel begins, Carol Danvers — who, on the Kree homeworld, is referred to as “Vers” for a pretty clever reason — already has her powers and has spent six years training as an elite mercenary, leaning to fight, and trying to hone her special powers. Then as the film unfolds, Carol fills in the blanks of her past, which helps her to realize that her humanity is the key to realizing her potential.

Carol Danvers dog-tags - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

This means we learn about how Carol her powers when Carol learns about it herself, unfolding as a flashback. It’s an unusual approach for an origin film because we typically experience a character’s origin with the character.

In fact, Captain Marvel lacks a few notable hallmarks of superhero origin films, like the obligatory training montage and the part where our protagonist laments the crushing weight and responsibility that comes with having superpowers.

The film is even more unexpected and full of surprises if you’re familiar with the comics lore. If you know about Captain Marvel from the comics, it’s easier to see the ways Marvel Studios subverts expectations by reimagining Carol’s origin in creative ways.

A prime example is how the Kree and Skrulls are portrayed. At the start of the film, the Skrulls are our shapeshifting villains, which is consistent with how they’re portrayed in the comics. Meanwhile, Directors Boden and Fleck get a lot of mileage out of having the audience constantly questioning whether any of the characters on screen are Skrulls. But because we’ve gone into the film expecting the Skrulls to be the bad guys, the film can surprise us with its biggest twist, which is that the Skrulls are actually the good guys as well as a pretty obvious proxy for Jews during World War II.

We’re told that the cause of the Kree-Skrull War is that the Kree tried to subjugate the Skrull, and when the Skrull resisted, the Kree began exterminating them. This makes the Kree a sort of cosmic Third Reich.

In the comics, the Kree are, as Janice from Mean Girls would put it, basically just “unfriendly [blue] hotties” while the Skrulls are undeniably villainous, but Captain Marvel flips that script, subverting the expectations that those of us who are familiar with the comics have.

Secret Invasion - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Comics

On a side note, this makes me wonder whether turning the Skrull from predators into prey takes the well-known “Secret Invasion” storyline off the table.

Secret Humanity

On the Kree homeworld, we meet Carol’s mentor, Yon-Rogg, played by Jude Law. Yon-Rogg explains that emotion and humor aren’t the Kree way, that emotion makes them weak. In other words, Carol is told to suppress her emotions, which has the effect of also suppressing her humanity.

This creates an interesting situation where the film is basically the mirror image of most other superhero films.

In most superhero films, an ordinary person gets thrown into exceptional circumstances and has to master his or her emotions to gain full control over newfound abilities. They’re sure of themselves as human beings, but they’re unsure of themselves as heroes, which is why they have to go on the traditional hero’s journey.

In Captain Marvel, our protagonist has spent years trying to conform to the archetype of the stoic Kree warrior. The film is more about getting in touch with the humanity she’s been taught to stifle, meaning that it’s actually Carol’s human side that she’s so unsure of.

As a hero and as a warrior, Carol is sure of herself from the beginning. But as a human, she must discover what makes Carol, Carol.

In fact, as a hero and as a warrior, Carol is very sure of herself from the beginning. We know this because she frequently exhibits bravery and valiance; Anytime there’s a Skrull nearby, she doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into combat, jumping onto moving trains and confronting danger at every turn.

Carol doesn’t spend the film learning to be a hero; instead, Captain Marvel is a human’s journey. For all intents and purposes, Carol is an alien who must reconnect with her humanity, recover important relationships, and discover what makes Carol, Carol. It’s a story of self-realization as a human rather than self-actualization as a hero.

Origin Story Remix

The film tells quite a different story than in the comics, and in some ways, I think the film’s version is better (although comics purists may dislike some of the changes that have been made).

Captain Marvel Psyche-Magnitron - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Comics

Like in the film, Carol Danvers was an Air Force pilot in the comics, eventually becoming romantically involved with Mar-Vell, the original Captain Marvel. But there are a number of elements that have been remixed for modern audiences.

In the comics, a Kree wish-granting machine called the Psyche-Magnitron explodes during one of Mar-Vell’s shenanigans, and Carol happened to be within range of the explosion. The experience left Carol with altered physiology that made her a half-human, half-Kree hybrid with powers very similar to those of Mar-Vell.

Some have pointed out certain similarities between the origins of Carol Danvers and DC’s Hal Jordan in the comics. After all, Hal Jordan is a pilot who, after an encounter with an alien, gets cosmic powers and becomes Green Lantern, a “space cop.” Even the film’s producers acknowledged the similarities, so this is one of the reasons why aspects of Carol’s origin story were changed for the film.

Like most people familiar with comics lore, I love when the films are faithful to the characters’ actual origins, basically recreating iconic scenes that comic readers know and love. But I’m not someone who expects verbatim recreations. It’s actually exciting when smart changes are made to make decades-old stories more modern and relevant.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Comics

Carol’s origin story was ripe for an update. As it happened in the comics, she got her powers as the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Worst of all, Carol’s romantic interest in Mar-Vell is basically why the wish-granting machine gave Carol a copy of Mar-Vell’s powers.

In the age of #MeToo, it’s understandable why Marvel Studios didn’t want Carol’s cinematic origin to revolve around a man she was romantically interested in.

The important thing to note here is that even though there were changes made, the film remains faithful to the core of who Carol Danvers is. For instance, Carol is still an Air Force pilot in the film. Additionally, the circumstances in which she gets imbued with cosmic abilities, though certainly changed, share many of the same beats as in the comics: Mysterious alien technology explodes, alters Carol at an atomic level, grants her immense powers.

Of course, there are certain changes that deviate from the comics pretty substantially, like the fact that Mar-Vell has been gender-bent and is now a woman named Dr. Wendy Lawson, played by Anette Bening.

Mar-Vell being made a woman for the film might rub purists the wrong way, especially if they’re fans of the original Captain Marvel in the comics, but I think this change works for the film instead of against it. Rather than making Mar-Vell a man who Carol is romantically interested in, the female Mar-Vell serves as Carol’s mentor and idol prior to the accident. But in both the film and in the comics, Mar-Vell is instrumental in Carol gaining her cosmic powers. The difference is in the context of the relationship Carol has with Mar-Vell, which I personally feel is more compelling in the film.

Another change is how the incident that gives Carol her abilities also erases her entire life from memory, but we’re not told the circumstances of her amnesia until a little later.

Until then, we’re told that her powers come from a special battery implant embedded in her neck (you catch a couple of glimpses of it in the trailers), which would seem to be a serious deviation from the comics. But it’s actually meant to raise an important question: Why would a race of technologically-advanced “noble warrior heroes” take an amnesia-stricken human to their homeworld and imbue her with superpowers, especially when she appears to be the only one who’s been given these gifts? If you watch as many movies as I do, you might’ve known pretty early on that something didn’t seem right.

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Over the course of the film, Carol — as well as the viewers — learn the truth about what caused her amnesia, and as it turns out, the implant that the Kree put in her neck, alleged to be the source of her abilities, was actually an inhibitor that also blocked her pre-accident memories.

I don’t read comics, but I’m familiar with many comics storylines, particularly the big crossover events, from having read synopses of many of them on Wikipedia. For me, comic books are like contemporary mythology. And as someone fairly well-versed in the comics origin of Carol Danvers, I’m satisfied with what was changed for the film because the most important elements were carried over.

Brie Larson

When Brie Larson was confirmed to be cast as Carol Danvers at Comic-Con 2016, most people were thrilled. Hot off an Oscar win for her impressive performance in Room (2015), Larson gave us an indication of what Marvel Studio had planned for the character: Clearly, Feige wanted a strong actor who could become the face of the post-Infinity War MCU.

Leading up to the film’s release, some voiced concerns that Larson would be rejected by audiences. However, as the film’s impressive box office shows, those concerns were unfounded.

Leaked set photos notwithstanding, our first actual look at Larson as Carol Danvers was the one-two punch of the Entertainment Weekly feature and the debut of the teaser trailer. For the most part, people were pleased—if not outright impressed—by the showing although some criticized Larson’s performance as being wooden, expressionless, and cold.

Teaser trailers have roughly two minutes of out-of-context footage to make an impression, which is why cutting trailers has become its own art form. As it turns out, the depiction of Carol as somewhat dry and understated was by design and part of the plot of the film. It may have made for a less enjoyable trailer-watching experience, but Carol’s personality was a product of the Kree philosophy of suppressing emotion.

Now that I’ve seen the film a couple of times, any reservations I had—though in truth, I didn’t have many—have gone the way of Carol’s neck implant: They’ve totally burned out.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Despite being an alien with cosmic abilities, there’s something inherently relatable about Carol, which is a testament to Larson’s portrayal of the character. She doesn’t “vogue” at the camera; instead, we get a Carol that’s more real and down-to-Earth. When she’s fighting Skrulls, Carol gets sweaty and her hair gets messed up, which is how it would be in real life. There’s something very this-is-who-I-am-take-it-or-leave-it about this incarnation of Carol Danvers, and this is one of the core personality traits that’s present both before and after she regains her memories.

And Carol only gets more relatable over the course of the film, both for men and for women.

Some say Captain Marvel feels like a Phase 1 film, which I bring up here because while I agree, I don’t agree in the way it’s usually meant. Typically, comparing this film to Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe means that people find Captain Marvel to be reminiscent of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger in terms of tone and scope. But I don’t agree with that.

For me, Captain Marvel feels like a Phase 1 film in terms of the characterization of Carol Danvers. As a character, Carol feels like you could easily slot her into the Phase 1-era Avengers; in fact, I can practically hear Carol bantering and trading quips with Tony Stark. But I also think the comparison works because, much like Thor, I think Larson’s Carol Danvers will really come into her own in future appearances, especially once she’s interacting with other characters and those interactions help to expand on her own characterization.

But the groundwork has been laid. Ultimately, the goal here was to introduce audiences to Carol Danvers, a character that will be important in both the short-term and long-term. Though she’s decidedly less relatable and rounded early on, she really comes to life after meeting Nick Fury and reuniting with Maria. And like most heroes in this franchise, I’m sure many of Carol’s best moments will be interactions with characters we’ve come to know and love.

In short, I think Larson’s performance was layered and rich considering the story of the film and how it’s meant to be an arc of rediscovering one’s humanity. By the end, Carol is in a place where I’m confident she’ll really shine in future appearances.

Return to the 1990s

I was born in the 1980s, so I did a lot of my growing up in the 1990s. When it was announced that Captain Marvel would be set right in the heart of my formative years, I knew there was a good chance I’d like this film, if for no other reason than nostalgia.

As it turns out, I was correct.

Captain Marvel probably gets more points from me for its setting than other period films, but I truly feel like those nostalgia points are earned.

Captain Marvel at Blockbuster - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

A film like Ready Player One is often nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia (and there’s certainly a market for that), containing tons of 1980s references despite being a film set in the future. By comparison, Captain Marvel utilizes nostalgic elements for context and to give the characters a strong foundation to stand on.

I’d go so far as to say that the 1990s are practically another character in the film. From Carol crash-landing in a Blockbuster Video (as seen in the trailer) to a soundtrack that I’d love to curl up in like a blanket, Captain Marvel plays up the period in entertaining ways. Best of all, features and characteristics of the 1990s are smartly incorporated into the actual narrative.

For example, at one point in the film, Carol has convened with Fury and Maria at the latter’s farmhouse. Suddenly, Talos —who’s been our antagonist to this point —appears with a recording from the day the incident that gave Carol her powers occurred. Since she lost her memories from the incident, Carol is intrigued to hear what’s on the recording, hoping that it might help her figure out who she really is and, most importantly, where her allegiances should lie.

But it’s 1995 and the recording is on a CD. So the gang head to Maria’s computer, pop the CD into the drive, and —hilariously —have to wait several moments for it to load.

The situation is something many of us have experienced, especially those of us who lived through the 90s. In turn, this lends more realism to a film otherwise chock-full of fantastical and cosmic elements. Having been there ourselves, we relate to (and laugh at) having to wait for a disc to load.

There are other smart uses of setting sprinkled liberally throughout the film. When it’s released on Blu-ray and digital (which appears to be slated for June 11), I can totally see myself having some friends over, popping in the Captain Marvel Blu-ray, and playing a game of “How Many 90s References Can You Spot?”

Carol’s Relationships

Since Captain Marvel revolves around the mystery of Carol’s past, she spends much of the film defined by her relationships. Lucky for us, the relationship that takes center stage is so. damn. good.

Yes, I’m talking about Carol and Nick Fury. (Or just “Fury,” as you know.)

This is definitely the most time we’ve spent with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes at a distant second because the film uses Fury more for exposition and the occasional action scene. But there’s certainly a case to be made that Captain Marvel is as much Fury’s movie as Carol’s.

Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

In the film, we see a younger and less experienced agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who insists on being referred to by his last name instead of his full name, Nicholas Joseph Fury. The idea is that after encountering hostile aliens in Captain Marvel —which, in the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, actually takes place more than ten years before 2008’s Iron Man —Fury realizes that Earth needs super-powered protectors, leading to the Avengers Initiative.

Even if the movie wasn’t giving us a window into these experiences, we could surmise that Fury’s relationship with Carol is important ends up being highly influential in Fury’s role for the rest of the MCU.

It’s also just entertaining to watch Fury and Carol become partners for this film. In the beginning, Carol  —who, you’ll remember, saw herself as a noble space warrior and part of a high-tech alien race —is almost patronizing to Fury, but in a sympathetic way. When they speak, Carol’s tone says, “Poor guy, completely unaware of what’s happening and totally unprepared to deal with it.”

But as the story progresses and Carol uncovers the truth about the Kree, her world is turned upside-down and Fury steps up as a supportive partner. And in a film that could’ve easily made Fury a damsel in distress for the third act, Fury (and even Maria) is very relevant in the climactic battle.

Speaking of Maria, her relationship with Carol was also touching despite not getting near as much airtime as the Fury-Carol relationship. Whereas Captain Marvel could easily be described as a buddy-cop film about Carol’s budding friendship with Fury, Maria has quite a bit less screen time although the time she does have is very impactful.

Maria Rambeau Carol Danvers - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Film Frame

In this new iteration of Carol’s origin, Maria was Carol’s best friend, practically her sister, before the accident that gave Carol her abilities. Since Carol was immediately taken by the Kree after the accident, Maria (and the rest of the world) assumed that Carol had died. So you can imagine how shocked, relieved, and confused Maria was when Carol suddenly walks through the door six years later with a new name, cosmic powers, and no memory of her former life or friends.

Both actresses —Brie Larson and Lashana Lynch —really nailed the scenes between Carol and Maria. One of the chief criticisms of the film is the common refrain that Brie Larson is wooden or lacks personality in the role, but this was completely by design. After spending six years on the Kree homeworld where she was told to suppress her emotions, Carol is purposely someone stiff until somewhere around the second act of the film when she befriends Fury and is reunited with Maria (and Maria’s daughter, Monica).

It was interesting to see Carol falling into step with her old friend, referencing past expressions and inside jokes from her previous life. In many ways, Maria and the lost friendship she symbolizes are the emotional backbone of the film.

There are even touching moments between Carol and Monica. Of course, if you’re familiar with the comics, you might’ve been too excited for what Monica’s introduction could mean for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to give pay her cute relationship with “Auntie Carol” much notice.

As you may have noticed, I haven’t mentioned anything about a love interest. That’s because, in Captain Marvel, our titular character actually doesn’t have one. Yes, you read that correctly: This is a film where our protagonist is a female and she doesn’t have a leading man.

In fact, the only non-platonic relationship Carol has in the film is her close friendship with Maria, but their love isn’t romantic; instead, they are best friends, practically even sisters, who were separated by Carol’s accident and subsequent abduction.

Personally, I find it quite interesting that Marvel Studios went in the total opposite direction. In the comics, Carol’s origin basically sees her as your standard damsel in distress who is crushing on the actual hero and who ends up getting superpowers when she happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; however, the film eliminates the damsel-in-distress aspects and gives Carol much more agency. Rather than her origin being dependent on (or even related to) romantic interest in a man, Carol’s defining relationships are familial and/or platonic.

I think this sends a pretty strong message to women without beating you in the head with feminism. Some critics have suggested Captain Marvel is a little heavy-handed with the feminism, but I really don’t agree. I simply think they’ve made Carol someone for whom her relationships are very important but don’t totally define her.

Visual Effects

If you look back at the earlier installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—in particular, films like Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier—you might notice that the effects look quite a bit different than they do in films like Captain Marvel.

Of course, recent films are more cosmic in nature than the earlier ones, so it might be that energy blasts, space ships, and aliens are more difficult to realize than the more grounded stuff in earlier films. But it’s also possible that the increased frequency of film releases, up from one film to three films per year, gives the studio less time to work on each film’s special effects.

Whiplash in Iron Man 2 - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Yes, there’s no getting around the fact that Carol’s “photon blasts” look more obviously computer-generated than Whiplash’s electric whips in Iron Man 2, but I think the effects in Captain Marvel ended up being quite strong. Overall, I think the strength of the effects is because the directors had only directed small films with mostly practical effects.

When the first couple of trailers were released, some complained that the effects didn’t look so great. This is a common refrain since trailers have to release footage many months before post-production wraps. However, whether it’s because they had time to finish the effects or because I’m able to see these sequences in context, the finished product looks much better than in the trailers.

My two favorite action sequences in the film are examples of two very different approaches to special effects. The first sequence is one you’ve seen in trailers where Carol is on the train and punches the old lady in the face.

Directors Fleck and Boden did a really nice breakdown of this scene for Vanity Fair, which you can watch in the above video. While we’ve come to associate Marvel films with effects-laden sequences due to bombastic films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Infinity War, the train sequence in Captain Marvel was largely practical and “old school” in its production. It makes the scene more visceral since you can practically feel the impact of every punch and kick.

The other sequence I really like—aside from the music choice that is too on-the-nose for my liking—is the third-act fight between Carol and her Starforce teammates. At this point, Carol has realized her full potential, and while I don’t want to spoil how it happens, the result is Carol using her abilities in a more uninhibited way, meaning we get quite the light show.

Captain Marvel Binary - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

There’s also the part near the end of the film where Carol flies through space, shooting her blasts at enemy space ships, and it’s another example of impressive visual effects. But what’s even more impressive is the fact that Samuel L. Jackson was digitally de-aged… in every. single. one. of his scenes.

Samuel L. Jackson digitally de-aged - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

If you’re not familiar with how digitally de-aging works, it requires effects artists to make changes to an actor’s face in each individual frame of the film. Needless to say, it’s an incredible amount of work.

Disney has really pioneered this technology, which was used to great effect in the Ant-Man films with Michael Douglas as well as with Robert Downey, Jr. in Captain America: Civil War and even for Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One. However, this was the first time a main character was digitally de-aged for an entire film. It’s really quite extraordinary and makes you think about all the interesting doors this could open in the future.

What I Didn’t Like About Captain Marvel

As you can see, there’s a lot I liked about Captain Marvel. But no film is perfect, and there are certainly a couple of things I disliked.

A “Mary Sue”

Captain Marvel poster - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Some feel like Carol Danvers is a “Mary Sue.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, a Mary Sue (or “Gary Stu”) is a character who is basically perfect, who overcomes obstacles easily, and who is able to do difficult things with little to no prior experience or training.

For instance, Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, picks up a lightsaber for the first time in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and immediately uses it to defeat Kylo Ren, the film’s main antagonist who has had years and years of practice wielding lightsabers. So Rey’s victory over Kylo isn’t earned; she shouldn’t be able to pick up a weapon for the first time and defeat someone who’s a master at using that weapon.

Mary Sues and Gary Stus usually represent wish fulfillment for the author or writer; in other words, these are characters that are as strong, perfect, and otherwise inconquerable as the author wishes himself or herself to be. In the case of Carol Danvers, while I do agree that she’s a bit of a Mary Sue, I don’t think this the most egregious example I’ve seen (re: Rey in Star Wars).

Brie Larson - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

The scene most people point to as evidence that Carol is a Mary Sue is the one where Carol fights Starforce, which is one of the scenes I really like. In this scene, I would’ve liked to have seen Carol struggle a bit more after unlocking the full extent of her powers although, in all fairness to the film, there are subtle hints that this was an adjustment for her.

At certain points in the fight when she fires a photon blast, due to the sheer force of it, Carol loses her footing and has to re-balance herself. At other points, she takes out a former teammate almost coincidentally, like when a photon blast sends her flying backward and into one of her attackers, knocking them out. But I would’ve liked to have seen even more of that so it didn’t seem so much like she hit the ground running.

When it comes to insane cosmic powers, I like to think there would be a bit of a learning curve before you’re using those unlimited abilities like a pro.

Cinematography

When I heard that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck would be co-directing Captain Marvel, I had two thoughts: First, I was optimistic that the film would have incredible characterization since Boden and Fleck are indie filmmakers. Then I became concerned.

It’s not easy to make a big-budget, effects-laden blockbuster film. Granted, I don’t speak from personal experience, but you don’t need to be a Hollywood director to presume that, at least from a production standpoint, a film like Captain Marvel is inherently more difficult to make than something like Half Nelson (2006). Although several directors of smaller films have risen to the challenge—like the Russo Brothers, Kenneth Branagh, James Gunn, and Jon Favreau—there’s surely a learning curve involved when you go from making more intimate, lower-budget films to something with elaborate special effects in almost every scene.

But my concerns were alleviated somewhat when noted cinematographer Ben Davis was added to the mix. Davis was the cinematographer, also known as director of photography, for Avengers: Age of Ultron, Doctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy, all of which have incredible visual flair. So you can imagine my surprise when I found that the cinematography in Captain Marvel was bland overall and even quite poor in a couple of scenes.

Basically, a cinematographer helps the director realize his or her vision in the most effective yet creative way. Depending on who you ask, the cinematographer is more crucial for a film’s visuals than the actual director.

Let’s say a director envisions a particular scene as a pivotal character moment. Maybe there’s a reveal that will change the way we, the audience, see the character. The cinematographer will then use tricks of the trade, like framing, movement, tracking, and other techniques, in service of the story as well as the director’s intention.

This symbiosis is what leads to iconic scenes in film. There are plenty of examples of perfect harmony between director and cinematographer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe alone, some of which were with Ben Davis behind the camera.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

At the end of Age of Ultron, for example, we get our first look at the New Avengers in their new HQ. The shot is framed by Black Widow and Captain America with Vision, Scarlet Witch, War Machine, and Falcon standing at different focal lengths. Davis was the cinematographer for this scene.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Another example (and a personal favorite) is in Doctor Strange. Toward the end, the good Doctor ascends the stairs in the Sanctum Santorum with the now-iconic window in the background. Again, cinematography from Ben Davis.

But there aren’t many examples of outstanding cinematography in Captain Marvel. While there are a few brief flashes of greatness, generally, the camerawork feels uninspired, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the times when the camerawork actually becomes quite bad. Unfortunately, this is often the case with the action scenes, which don’t convey a sense of space or geography.

During the Starforce mission at the start of the film, it’s hard to tell where our vantage point is for each given shot. As a result, we don’t get a good sense of our vantage point or where the characters are located in the area where the scene takes places.

Plus, the characters are often shown up close while centered in the frame, so it doesn’t feel like the characters are actually part of the environment. We can’t tell whether a character is perched on a hill or standing beside a large rock formation. And anytime you actually see the environment or there’s an establishing shot of the geography, it almost looks like the characters have been Photoshopped onto a nondescript background.

This problem is at its worst when there’s a lot of movement. Are we looking upward from the ground or down from above? Is the subject leaning or is the camera just angled? Is that person standing behind our subject at a distance or are they actually close? A sequence that shows a special forces team executing a covert mission should be methodical and deliberate in its execution. There should be a clear indication as to where each character is in related to other characters and the overall geography of the area. But the scene ends up feeling scattered and muddled in the way it plays out.

Starforce mission - Captain Marvel review
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

We’ve seen Ben Davis do great work, which makes this frustrating. I’m inclined to think it has more to do with the directors than the cinematographer, but whatever the case may be, this isn’t a film that students will watch and rewatch in film school. It’s more the tyupe of film you rewatch simply to spend more time with these characters and story.

Closing Thoughts

If you’ve made it to this point—and I really appreciate it because this review ended up being a doozy!—then you know I’m pretty sweet on Captain Marvel. So now I want to wrap this review up with some closing thoughts.

Overall, I’m happy with how Captain Marvel turned out. Many of the creative choices that were made really work for me. Although there are elements that could’ve been improved, even quite easily in some cases, the important things are the ones I’m most happy with. Specifically, I’m pleased with Carol’s introduction and the origin story that’s been set up for her.

The thing that really interests me about this film is how I’ve liked it more with each viewing. With most Marvel films, I’m most impressed after the first viewing and become less impressed as the novelty and newness wear thinner with each viewing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

I think the reason I liked the film even more after a second viewing is because of the film’s nonlinear plot structure. Having seen the trailers, we go into this film already knowing more about Carol’s past than she does, so instead of discovering her past with her, the film is more about Carol catching up to what we already know (or assume). It creates a sort of dissonance where important revelations don’t carry the weight for the audience that they carry for the characters.

On the second viewing, though, I could really appreciate the creative decisions Feige & Co. made regarding Carol’s origin story and the overall structure of the film. Knowing where the story went and how it ended allowed me to really just let the film wash over me; I could put my expectations and baggage to the side and just go on a fun ride with a compelling new character.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the importance of this film for female viewers and some of the controversy surrounding it, but I don’t want to get into a political discussion and I can’t speak to the significance of this film for women since I’m not a woman. But I’ll say this: I do believe Larson’s recent comments have been either taken out of context or blown out of proportion.

In terms of the feminist agenda allegedly behind this movie, as a male viewer, I didn’t get the impression there was anything more to it than Disney representing the long-underserved female audience. Any feminist undertones that were present were subtle, nuanced, and not offensive to me.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

And that about wraps up my Captain Marvel review. Should you go see it? In my opinion, definitely. Not only is it an above-average origin film for an exciting new character, but it’s sure to factor heavily into Endgame, which is the culmination of over ten years of storytelling.

Have you seen Captain Marvel? If so, what did you think? If not, are you more interested in seeing it after reading my review? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Until next time.


Also published on Medium.

About the author

Dane is a writer, tech journalist, graphic designer, and content marketing professional. He has nearly ten years of industry experience and has been published by the likes of Android Authority, Forbes, Smithsonian Magazine, Millennial Magazine, Dual-Diagnosis.org, Modernize, and Phone Arena.

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