MCU Retrospective: Captain Marvel

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. I’m sure this won’t be controversial at all.

60/100

Before it ever came out, Captain Marvel had become a contentious topic, to put it lightly, getting review bombed on Rotten Tomatoes so badly that the website had to revamp their design (though it would eventually settle at a respectable 79% approval for critics, it still lies at 49% for fans). Yet despite the vocal number of internet denizens committed to trashing this movie before it graced their screens, there seemed to be little true controversy regarding the film. Joss Whedon had almost included Captain Marvel in Avengers: Age of Ultron before that was scratched, the film was bumped around a bit on the Marvel schedule, and the search for a director was fairly lengthy until Kevin Feige et al. decided on Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck of Mississippi Grind fame, but things seemed to run pretty smoothly. Marvel’s first female-led solo film was a go.

No, the major problem, according to some on the internet, was that star Brie Larson had deigned to say that film criticism should be more diverse. 

Larson originally said that she would rather read what a person of color thought about A Wrinkle in Time, directed by once-hopeful Marvel director Ava DuVernay and starring a diverse cast, than a middle-aged white man; when the Twittersphere blew up, she acknowledged that she might have put her foot in her mouth and elaborated by saying, “What I’m looking for is to bring more seats up to the table.” This seemed to be taken as a personal attack by a certain segment of the population, and suddenly YouTube videos were popping up where so-called “body language experts” tried to convince you through a series of random clips that Brie Larson was, at best, a bitch whose co-stars hated her, and at worst… Well, it doesn’t bear repeating, but suffice to say that the majority of these attacks seem to have been driven by a deep and repulsive misogyny. Larson was too much of an “SJW,” she was wooden in her performances (despite winning an Oscar for Room), Captain Marvel was furthering the SJW agenda by focusing on a woman. She should smile more! (Larson responded to that particular suggestion with some great Instagram posts of her own.)

Larson’s fellow MCU actors such as Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo have also been vocal about advocating for diversity and regularly sound off on Twitter about their political beliefs, yet no one has made clickbait YouTube videos with millions of views on how they are secretly reviled by their peers, making it hard to believe that the criticisms leveled at Larson, most of which are ridiculous to begin with, are made in good faith. Some people were even predicting that Captain Marvel would be the first Marvel movie to well and truly flop, going so far as to claim its box office numbers and ticket sales were manipulated.

Happily, the gross, misogynistic backlash against Larson and the film did not affect its box office numbers, as it grossed over one billion dollars worldwide. Unhappily, the film itself, despite the turmoil surrounding its star and the excitement over the MCU finally getting a superheroine with her own franchise, is not as exciting.

Much of that comes from the very premise of the film: Carol Danvers can’t remember who she is. She lives on the planet Hala and believes that she’s a Kree, an alien race last seen in Guardians of the Galaxy, where Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) served as an antagonist to the titular Guardians. She, however, is not blue, and she’s not Carol, either: she goes by Vers, and has recurring nightmares regarding a mysterious woman played by Annette Bening, which she tries to combat by sparring with her commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Vers has special powers in the form of strong and glowing fists that punch stuff real hard, but both Yon-Rogg and the Supreme Intelligence (in the form of Annette Bening), the artificial intelligence that rules the Kree, encourage her to keep her to control her powers by keeping her emotions in check. We’re told that Vers struggles with doing so, but we aren’t really shown: Yon-Rogg bests her at single combat until she blasts him with her powers, and for some reason this is looked down on, though we never really know why—Yon-Rogg just berates her and tells her, essentially, to be less emotional, a comment that has been thrown at many women over the years, but since there’s no real purpose behind it, any impact is lessened, and after this initial sparring sequence, the concept is largely dropped until the finale.

While the audience knows Vers is not really a Kree, and that something must be rotten in the state of Hala, the planet and the race that occupies it are so underdeveloped that none of it has any meaning. Why do the Kree have an A.I. leading them? What are the Kree like? Truly, do any of them have any defining traits outside of “battle-hungry”? Lee Pace is back as a younger Ronan, and Djimon Hounsou returns as Korath the Pursuer, and while that’s fun, it shows no hidden depths to their characters—though the opening act of Captain Marvel largely takes place on Hala, the lack of worldbuilding severely hinders any interest or impact.

The Kree apparently have a long history of conflict with the shape-shifting alien race known as the Skrulls, though why this conflict began or continues are mere afterthoughts. The Kree and Skrulls have a long history in the comics, but it’s given only cursory attention here; thus, when Vers gets captured by said Skrulls, the stakes are virtually nonexistent. The Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), start rooting around in her memories for something, finding remnants of time on Earth, but Vers escapes, crash-landing into a Blockbuster.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Thus begins her adventures on Earth. Even while the first act suffers mightily from lack of world-building, once the story begins in earnest, Carol’s lack of memories prevents the audience from connecting with her. Ostensibly this was done as a way to eschew the normal, rote superhero origin story—a commendable thing—but it also robs Carol of any memorable characteristics. As she roams Earth in 1995, her memories begin to bubble to the surface, sending her into an identity crisis—the problem is, she doesn’t have an identity to lose in the first place. We know nothing about Carol: she talks back, she’s impulsive, a bit cocky, and that’s about it. What does she like? What does she dislike? Who does she love? We don’t know, and as such it’s hard to form any particular attachment to her or investment in the plot as she sets about uncovering the secrets of the Kree.

This is Marvel, though, and as such, it has to connect to what came before; while we may not know or care much about Carol, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) are reliable mainstays, and the de-aging technology employed to make them look as they did in 1995 is mostly seamless (except when Jackson runs). It’s a treat to watch them on screen, and once Fury and Carol team up to uncover the secrets of Project Pegasus, a joint venture between S.H.I.E.L.D., NASA, and the Air Force, and how it relates to Carol and her lost memories, the film gets a boost from the buddy-cop chemistry between Larson and Jackson. Carol’s flatness doesn’t come from Larson, who is an able performer, but rather because she is set adrift in the middle of a story inadvertently designed to make the character fall flat. When Larson gets paired with Jackson, and Carol gets to interact with a real character other than the flat Yon-Rogg or Supreme Intelligence (as with Larson, the actors who portray them are immensely talented and wasted in thankless roles), then the titular character finally starts to have some sparks of life.

These sparks become much stronger—though they never quite catch flame—upon the introduction of Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), Carol’s best friend from her life on Earth and an Air Force veteran. Lynch is an absolute standout in this film; even though Maria could have easily been just a stock best friend character, Lynch sells Maria’s grit and her friendship with Carol so strongly that it makes you wish the movie had been about her instead.

It’s Lynch and, in a surprising turn of events, Mendelsohn as Talos that provide the film’s emotional core, rather than Larson. Though Mendelsohn has a knack for playing nefarious characters, here his Talos turns out not to be the villain, but rather a displaced refugee looking for a home for his family while the Kree do their best to exterminate his species and encourage hatred through military propaganda. It’s a twist that will shock even comic book fans, as the Skrulls have typically been villainous beings, most notably with Secret Invasion (which is being turned into a Disney+ show), and it’s a fun reversal of expectations. Mendelsohn manages to do a superb job even under pounds of green makeup, but it’s just too bad her supporting cast outshines Carol herself. 

With the help of both Maria and Talos, Carol is able to recover some of her memories. It turns out that Annette Benning was a Skrull named Mar-Vell who infiltrated Project Pegasus in order to gain access to the Tesseract, that pesky Infinity Stone container which keeps popping up throughout the timeline. (It’s probably best not to try and keep track of the Tesseract’s whereabouts since it jumps around at the whims of the latest Marvel plot.) However, Mar-Vell, upon learning of the Skrulls’ plight, turns coat and begins to help them instead; while testing out a Tesseract-powered engine with Carol, who was an Air Force pilot, Yon-Rogg kills Mar-Vell, but Carol destroys the engine before Yon-Rogg can lay his hands on it and get that technology to the Kree. Doing so, however, infuses Carol with the energy of the Tesseract, thus giving her her powers, and the Kree decided to wipe her memory and keep her close.

There is also a level of irony regarding the movie’s message about distrusting military propaganda when much of it reads as an ad for the Air Force. Marvel, as with many other film studios, has received funding from the Department of Defense, which is not unusual in Hollywood; for Captain Marvel, they also partnered with the Air Force, with Larson visiting various bases and a recruitment ad being shown before screenings of the film. The Kree might have issues with their military state, but clearly Earth’s military was different, never mind the fact that now-former Senator Martha McSally had testified just before the film’s release on the pervasive sexual harassment and assault many women experience in the Air Force. But, you know, girl power, am I right?

But, finally, we have answers. Except, maybe not. We know the Skrulls aren’t actually bad guys, but we still don’t know anything about the history of the Kree/Skull conflict, and both races remain frustratingly undercooked. “This is war,” Talos says to Carol. “My hands are filthy from it too.” That is a very interesting line, one with a lot of depth to be combed, yet it’s just one line amidst a sea of others, and any darker implications remain murky. How exactly are their hands dirty? It remains a mystery left up to our imagination (which is given very little to go off of). 

And once Carol gets her memories back, nothing really changes. She still talks back, she’s still impulsive, and still a bit cocky. There’s no arc because there’s nowhere for Carol to go, and what is framed as a triumphant moment rings hollow. What could be an empowering story of wresting back agency in a world that has tried to deny her that instead becomes a carefully calculated series of events designed to win applause from Twitter, culminating in a fight set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.”

It’s fun watching Carol plow through Kree warships and demonstrating a level of pure strength and bullheadedness that only male heroes have shown up to this point. It would be a lot more fun if we had seen her struggle with her powers in any meaningful or impactful way prior to the finale. Everything is framed as a #girlboss moment, but none of it lands. Carol is told to smile, she’s told by male pilots that she’ll never be good enough, she’s told by the men around her to stop being so emotional, but none of it gives her character any new depth, and these are just lazy touchstone moments that seemingly exist only to tick off empowerment checkboxes. While Captain Marvel’s existence is undoubtedly a good (and long overdue) thing, the titular hero does little to distinguish herself as a character and any commentary thus becomes, well, neutered, for lack of a better term. (Wonder Woman is a lazy comparison, but it’s also apt, and Diana Prince’s wordless march across No Man’s Land does far more in the way of empowerment than this entire movie.) It’s all hollow, it’s all an empty shell designed to let Marvel go around praising itself for doing the bare minimum regarding representation.

Despite all the fanfare surrounding the film and all the talk of female empowerment, Captain Marvel is one of Marvel’s most unexciting films. It’s not terrible, and has some good moments; to dedicated MCU fans, it’s likely passable at worst (as it is to me, Marvel’s biggest shill), but it simply has nothing special going for it—a fact made all the more frustrating because it could and should have been a standout. Instead, like Carol herself, it’s full of hot air.

Captain Marvel director on Carol Danvers' sexuality

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Nick Fury gets his eye scratched out from Goose (named as one of many Top Gun references), an alien Flerken who usually looks like a harmless cat. This is very lame and makes the Captain America: The Winter Soldier reveal about his eye look stupid. The movie tricks viewers multiple times into thinking Fury will lose his eye, and then only has the cat scratch it when the coast seems clear. And yeah, it makes sense that Fury would create a sense of mystery around his eye (“Last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye,” as he says in Winter Soldier), but this is lazy. Better to not explain it at all.
  • The film barely plays with the shape-shifting aspect of the Skrulls, which is a huge missed opportunity. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s L.M.D. arc in season four handles the whole “could-everyone-I-know-be-an-imposter-made-to-look-like-my-friends” thing so, so, so much better than this movie. It’s tense, it’s dark, it’s really, really good, and “Self-Control” (4×15) is the best episode of television that Marvel has ever done, and I imagine I’ll stand by that for quite some time.
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also gives the Kree more culture and backstory than Captain Marvel. Honestly, it’s just superior.
  • Gemma Chan, who plays the forgettable Minn-Erva in this film, will rejoin the MCU as Sersi in Eternals, this time sans blue makeup.
  • The mohawk that appears when Carol uses her helmet is a reference to her comic look, which she’ll fully embrace come Avengers: Endgame. It won’t look that good, though.
  • There was a deeply stupid theory going around after this movie that Nick Fury was a Skrull. That in and of itself is not stupid (and gets proved in Spider-Man: Far From Home), but the reasoning behind this was that Fury says he has an aversion to diagonally-cut toast in this movie, and in Age of Ultron, he cuts and eats toast diagonally. Guys, listen. It’s fun to notice foreshadowing, but there is no way in hell anyone staged that scene in Age of Ultron thinking, “Oh, boy, in four years all the fans are gonna go crazy because we already showed them that Fury is a Skrull because he cut his toast diagonally in the background of a scene and we’ve already planned that he doesn’t like to eat diagonal toast, a fact he will reveal in a movie we haven’t even written yet and won’t come out for four years!” It’s absurd.
  • Pretty funny that they make such a big deal of Fury drafting the Avenger Initiative, which then takes 17 years to actually be implemented. I love democracy bureaucracy.
  • Monica (Akira Akbar), the daughter of Maria, mentions wanting to fly into space with Carol, foreshadowing her eventual transformation into Photon or whatever name they’re gonna give her, as seen in WandaVision, where she is played by Teyonah Parris.
  • Really not sure how they’re going to do Secret Invasion considering the Skrulls are good guys now.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: When Maria tells Carol, “You’re Carol Danvers…” and does that whole little monologue, because the lighting is nice, it doesn’t look green screened, and Lashana Lynch once again proves she’s the best part of the movie. Or the bit where Talos sips soda from a straw.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Guardians of the Galaxy, 7. The Avengers, 8. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 9. Captain America: The First Avenger, 10. Iron Man 3, 11. Iron Man, 12. Black Panther, 13. Ant-Man and the Wasp, 14. Doctor Strange, 15. Ant-Man, 16. Thor, 17. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 18. Captain Marvel, 19. Thor: The Dark World, 20. Iron Man 2, 21. The Incredible Hulk

Captain Marvel Trailer

Captain Marvel is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

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