I want to preface this by saying that I may reveal more spoilers than I would otherwise for the sake of the argument I seek to make. Read ahead with this caution, or return here once you’ve seen the film.
Despite my love of film, Hollywood makes me groan. I understand why it’s a point of contention for a majority of the general public. The “shut up and entertain us” argument has a leg or two less than it once did, now that our President is a former reality star, but I understand where the case sits on the list of nausea-inducing self-aggrandizement.
In spite of all this, Hollywood is finally getting one thing right: the expansion of its inclusivity initiative. Behind my eye rolls and faux gags, I think this is incredibly important. Based on a study released last year, I am in the stark minority – somewhere around 18 percent – as a female film critic. I don’t think about it often, but as I sat in “Captain Marvel,” watching the first female superhero to lead a feature in the Marvel Universe, it struck me just how, for lack of a more precise word, COOL it felt.
“Wonder Woman” made history as the first female headlining super hero, but that was a Warner Brothers film in the DC Universe. It’s a fierce movie in its own right, directed by a woman to boot. While it pains me to even bring the lasso-wielding hero up – in no article written about Batman would I feel obligated to mention Superman – that’s just where we’re at still.
But watching Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel did something to me that Wonder Woman didn’t. A note hit higher and truer and stirred something in me. Maybe it’s the fact that she doesn’t don a sexy outfit, revealing her thighs or boobs or both. Maybe it’s because she isn’t some goddess from a mythical land, but an American woman who overcame adversity to work in a “man’s job.” Both are excellent reasons I could have gravitated to her, but it’s something more than just those things.
If you don’t know, “Captain Marvel” tells the story of Carol Danvers, played in this iteration by Brie Larson. Danvers is a United States Air Force pilot who has lost all memory of her past and gained supernatural powers that allow her to shoot beams of fire from her palms. She’s fighting for the Kree civilization, an alien society from a galaxy far away that seeks to bring peace everywhere by eradicating the rebels Skrulls, a green-skinned, shape-shifting alien race.
When a mission goes awry, Danvers is expelled back to Earth. It’s 1995 and the soundtrack won’t let you forget it. With the help of S.H.I.E.L.D agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) she must choose: complete her mission or uncover her past.
I won’t sugarcoat it for you. “Captain Marvel” is a clunky, imperfect origin story. There isn’t a high enough prescription for your rosy glasses that can prevent you from overlooking some glaring deficiencies. Some character motivations feel underdeveloped. There’s a lack of exploring her origin, something we traditionally expect in the first film of a franchise. Larson as the Kree warrior is purposefully robotic in her delivery to create an obvious contrast to when she unravels back into Carol, an artistic choice that, while understandable, impedes any sort of emotional connection we have with her.
At first watch, this seems to hold the character back. A lot. Taking her for what you see and nothing more, Carol Danvers is as close to one-dimensional as we’ve seen in this genre, an uncomplicated superhero whose tribulations growing up play more like a Nike ad, highlighting snapshots of Danvers as a young girl, falling and getting back up again without deep diving into anything of substance.
But Carol Danvers isn’t cold. She’s doing her job and doing it well. She is constantly reprimanded by her mentor, played by Jude Law, for succumbing to her emotions instead of allowing logic to guide her fight. She is told to suppress her instincts when something rubs her funny. She is told not to think for herself, not to act unless commanded, not to shine like the light that flows through her veins.
It is only when she releases these invisible bonds – the expectations placed on her, the decorum dictated by others, et cetera – that she regains her humanity and has full control of her indomitable powers. That is her enemy here. Not aliens and their fight for power, but her imprisonment by the rules society places upon her.
It is the only real struggle we see, and I say that quite literally. Once Carol becomes Captain Marvel in all her flying, blazing glory, there isn’t a battle to fight. She – and here are those pesky spoilers – literally takes out dozens of nuclear alien bombs and scares away the aggressors in under a minute. Maybe two.
Written and directed by longtime collaborators Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the film doesn’t follow the formula. Typically, there is a defining moment in their childhood, a turning point, often a death of someone close. An enemy emerges. There is no epic showdown like we’re used to seeing in these kinds of movies. You know, where the hero *almost* dies but somehow regains the strength to defeat the bad guy one-handed in the middle of a snow storm or on top of a moving train.
That’s not what we get here, and that can be kind of a bummer. We like seeing the underdog fight to survive and come out victorious. We want to see them work, to show off just how powerful they are. So while I also felt let down by the lack of action, I left the theater with far more to chew on. I felt vindicated too. Here is a female superhero who, once she let herself be the powerful vigilante she was meant to be, was more everything than all the male superheroes of the past. She personifies strength and courage, and she's a character our daughters should see represented on the big screen.