'Captain Marvel': What the Critics Are Saying

Hope you like old Marvel movies and the 1990s.

Marvel Studios’ latest movie arrives with much fanfare and expectation: It’s the 21st feature from the studio, but the first to feature a woman in the leading role, a fact that has drawn a lot of attention (and, from some quarters, criticism), turning it into somewhat of a lightning rod for commentary across the Internet.

Beyond the thought pieces about its meaning and importance to this wider cultural moment, how does the actual movie stand up? Does Brie Larson bring the thunder as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most powerful hero? Do directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck dazzle in their first big-budget blockbuster? The first reviews are in, and they suggest that there isn’t going to be an end to conflict over Captain Marvel anytime soon. The film holds a strong 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, even as critics debate its merits. 

“Under the direction of heretofore indie filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Sugar, It's Kind of a Funny Story, Mississippi Grind), nothing is prepared or built up to, with scenes just slapped on the screen with no less or more weight given to one over another; it's the cinematic equivalent of elementary brick and mortar,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, adding, “[G]ood will toward this new franchise, in particular, will probably grant the film a pass from most fans, but the storytelling is perfunctory at best: The characters are not dramatically introduced with any sense of interest or intrigue, the writing, dialogue and direction are pedestrian, and the visuals are sometimes, albeit not always, muddy.”

ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer agreed that the direction of the movie was lacking, explaining, “It’s not at all what you would expect from Boden and Fleck, who are best known for character-driven indies like Half Nelson and Sugar that probe deep into the psyches of their heroes. In Captain Marvel, despite a scene where aliens literally probe into the psyche of their hero, they never quite licked the problem of a lead character who doesn’t know who she is until the film’s final act. And whether they had any input on the movie’s fight scenes or ceded them entirely to second-unit directors, those sequences are uniformly dark, murky and disappointing. One takes place on a dusty planet at night. Another is set in a dimly lit spaceship. A third is in outer space. Captain Marvel makes Solo: A Star Wars Story look bright and cheerful in comparison.”

New York Times' A.O. Scott noted that considering this is an origin story primarily meant to allow Captain Marvel to join the Avengers, "it’s pretty good fun, and could almost be described without sarcasm as a scrappy little picture, like most of Boden and Fleck’s other work." He continues, "It’s not too long, not too self-important, and benefits from the craft and talent of a cast that includes Annette Bening, Jude Law and Ben Mendelsohn."

Vanity Fair's noted Richard Lawson, "Captain Marvel feels as substantial as any of the other stand-alone Marvel Cinematic Universe films, even if it does things at a more relaxed pitch."

Helen O’Hara of Empire found fault with both the movie’s writing in a couple of important areas. “There’s a lot to absorb — a few pauses in the first act might have been welcome,” she noted, “and the film is so anxious to emphasize Danvers’ toughness that it sometimes forgets to allow us to glimpse her inner life and (presumable) insecurities; it’s a good thing that Larson is both gifted and charismatic, or she’d be a little dull.”

Carol Danvers' lack of presence was also noted by Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out, who wrote, “Scenes between Fury and Larson’s Carol Danvers, rediscovering her human past, are oddly inert, and the film’s much-vaunted feminism, promised in months of run-up advertising and interviews, gets short-shrift. (Never has so much been asked of No Doubt’s ‘Just a Girl,’ squelching its way through a fight scene.) What does it mean that Ben Mendelsohn, always compelling as a villain — here he’s one of the bald, pointy-eared Skrull — ends up delivering the most likable character, supplying action heroics, snide remarks and even parental devotion? Shouldn’t that have been Larson?”

Mention of No Doubt brings up the movie’s attempt to appeal to the audience’s nostalgia, which was met by different reactions by critics of different ages, it seems. For io9’s Yolanda Machado, the 1990s setting was a “genius choice,” because “the decade was a time where feminism was re-defining itself. It no longer reflected the bra-burning activism of our mothers, rather, ‘90s feminism was about defining strength in womanhood, whether it be physically (a la Sarah Connor in Terminator 2) or tossing out the idea of an 'emotional' female (see: Daria) or simply, defining who you are (like Lelaina Pierce in Reality Bites). The multifaceted nature of womanhood is what sets Carol apart from all the heroes that came before her and it’s what makes her the strongest hero the MCU has ever seen.”

At The AV Club, however, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky found the portrayal of the time period — and feminist statement — lacking. Boden and Fleck’s “idea of empowerment involves montages that look like they came straight out of a military recruitment ad,” he argued. “Their sense of the period is no great shakes, either, offering up an anachronistic version of 1995 that seems to be have been lab-grown from dubious memories of the once-mighty brands, bands, logos, and dial-up Internet connections of the mid-to-late 1990s. There’s no real point in harping on the fact that neither the search engine AltaVista nor many of the songs on the soundtrack were around that summer, except to acknowledge that being able to spot and grit one’s teeth at these fudged details will make any person over the age of 30 feel Mesozoically old.”

There’s another type of nostalgia at play in the movie, it turns out; nostalgia for the early movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Meg Downey of IGN argues, the movie “relies pretty heavily on the greatest hits of Phase One movies like Iron Man and Thor, digging into the deeply flawed but still wonderfully sympathetic motivations behind Carol's burning need to uncover the truth. It's a refreshing return to the origin story formula that allows Carol to gleefully occupy the same spaces that the MCU has previously reserved exclusively for men…. The end result is fun and thrilling, even if it's not always the most surprising.”

NPR’s Glen Weldon had a similar realization. “We have arrived at a cultural moment when audiences enter a million-dollar superhero blockbuster with a set of tacit expectations, a series of boxes to be checked, and Captain Marvel dutifully checks them,” he wrote. “And if that sounds less than ambitious, consider the very real and substantial sense of satisfaction that a well-checked box engenders. It's not surprising, no. But it's not nothing.”

Captain Marvel, then, may be a movie which relies upon the goodwill of the audience — and their fondness for the past, as well — in order to succeed. As Weldon suggests, that might be enough for a lot of people, but not for everyone. Or, as IndieWire’s David Ehrlich put it, “As generic and retrograde as Black Panther was specific and revolutionary, Captain Marvel is a frustrating disappointment at a time when every inclusive blockbuster is fought over as though it could be the decisive battle in our never-ending culture wars.”

Captain Marvel hits theaters Friday.

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