Marvel's first film about a female superhero feels like a wasted opportunity.
From the vibrance of Black Panther to the desolation of Avengers: Infinity War, 2018 was a milestone year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The superhero franchise ushered viewers into a thriving new world, then destroyed much of the MCU's existing realm. It also surpassed its 10th year and clocked up its 20th movie, too. Now comes a landmark event that should've arrived far sooner: the sprawling series' first film about a female protagonist. But cause for excitement soon becomes cause for shrugged shoulders with the average and underwhelming Captain Marvel.
In terms of representation, the importance of simply seeing the iconic character on screen can't be underestimated. It's about damn time, honestly, especially after DC Comics beat Marvel to the punch with Wonder Woman. And the well-cast Brie Larson makes an engaging, inspiring Captain Marvel — a self-assured, no-nonsense hero who shines brightly and won't let anyone get in her way, but is also caring, tender and supportive when it comes to the people who matter. The movie also makes history behind the lens thanks to Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind's Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, with Boden becoming the MCU's first female director. Still, a generic film about a kick-ass female hero finally getting her due is still just that: generic.
Before Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) becomes the universe's latest potential saviour, she's a woman waiting for action on the planet of Hala. Trained by Starforce commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and told by the Kree civilisation that she's bound for bigger things, she's itching to use her powers — glowing hands that shoot beams of light — but can only control them when she's also able to control her emotions. Then a dangerous mission goes awry, sending the intergalactic soldier hurtling to earth. It's 1995, so she crashes through the roof of a Blockbuster, goes incognito in a Nine Inch Nails shirt, and a fresh-faced, eye patch-free Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) doesn't quite know what to make of the situation. The fact that Danvers is being followed by shape-shifting extraterrestrials, called Skrulls, complicates matters considerably, as do the vague flashes of a former life as a US Air Force pilot that she can't otherwise remember.
The film throws more characters at its eponymous figure, such as a long-lost best friend (Lashana Lynch), a mentor (Annette Bening) with a link to Danvers' past and a Skrull (Ben Mendelsohn) with an Aussie accent (aliens can sound like they're from anywhere, after all). Mendo can never be described as routine, however seeing him pop up in another unchallenging Hollywood role cuts to the heart of Captain Marvel's struggles. So too does the movie's competent but unmemorable action scenes, standard visuals and overall texture for that matter. Apart from championing a female Marvel protagonist in a big and thoroughly deserved way, little about the film feels unique. That includes its throwback vibe (swapping Guardians of the Galaxy's 70s and 80s schtick for the 90s), fish-out-of-water narrative (classic Thor), and buddy-comedy laughs (as seen recently in Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming). Plus, while there's always room for a cute cat, even the scene-stealing Goose isn't that far removed from the mischievous tree known as Groot.
Captain Marvel also falls victim to a curse that has plagued DC films more than the MCU. There's a reason that this tale is reaching screens mere weeks before Avengers: Endgame, with Captain Marvel serving up an origin story and slotting a key puzzle piece into place just in time for the next big flick. The same was true for Black Panther's pre-Infinity War release, but where the franchise's visit to Wakanda offered a vivid diversion from the Marvel playbook, this dalliance with Danvers always seems overly calculated. When the film isn't laying the groundwork for its immediate follow-up, it's diving into the series' past to explain things that don't need explaining — as a movie from a galaxy far, far away, aka Solo: A Star Wars Story, did last year with similarly passable but unremarkable results. And when Captain Marvel wants to evoke a warm, happy mood, it leans heavily and noticeably on 90s nostalgia. TLC, Hole, Garbage, No Doubt and Nirvana music cues, while welcome, have rarely felt so forced.
Indeed, at times Captain Marvel plunges further than generic, coming off as a wasted opportunity. There's much that hits the mark, including the refreshing focus on friendship instead of romance, as well as the can-do female empowerment message. But there's also much about this MCU instalment that contentedly treads in familiar footsteps, dresses up the recognisable in barely different packaging and avoids embracing a distinctive flavour of its own. As the comics have made plain for more than four decades, when Carol Danvers soars, she flies high and blazes her own path. And yet, perhaps laying the groundwork for Endgame, the film that finally brings her to the big screen seems happy just to let her show up, rather than allowing her to make a real impact.