How 'Captain Marvel' Is Breaking New Ground for Marvel

Unlike 'Guardians of the Galaxy' or 'Ant-Man,' the studio isn't leaning into laughs with Brie Larson's film.

Higher. Further. Faster. Those words not only form the tagline for the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also the film’s approach to cementing Captain Marvel’s place among an already thriving pantheon of heroes. The film’s trailer, released Tuesday morning, wastes no time in not only establishing Captain Marvel’s tremendous power set, but also distinguishing her from the heroes that have come before. Chief among those defining factors is that Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel) will be the first woman in the MCU to lead a solo film. The film is also the first entry in the MCU to feature a woman in the director’s chair, with directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) piloting the project and hopefully making a smooth landing when the film enters theaters on March 8, 2019.

There is a sense of mystery surrounding Captain Marvel, not only for viewers, but for Carol Danvers herself. Her origins, her powers, and her place in the scheme of Marvel heroes aren’t instantly recognizable to general audiences in the same way that Captain America’s, or the Hulk’s are. Or even in the case of Iron Man, Captain Marvel’s name doesn’t give audiences much to go on. While Marvel has had major successes with comic characters who were far from household names when their films were announced, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, they’ve done so largely through comedy. When it comes to the unknown, Marvel Studios has provided films that wink and nod at an unassuming audience, letting them know that yes it’s ridiculous but we’re all in on the joke.

But the trailer for Captain Marvel, like Black Panther before it, doesn’t use general audience unfamiliarity to present the character as a joke. Rather it makes a statement that Captain Marvel means business, and if you don’t know her, well buckle up because she’s about to change the universe.

The second of Marvel Studios’ films to serve as a period piece (after Captain America: The First AvengerCaptain Marvel owns its '90s setting right off the bat with a glimpse of an all-powerful relic of the past: a Blockbuster storefront. But the film’s '90s element isn’t just a front, it seems embedded within the DNA of the film. Although frequent Marvel cinematographer Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange) returns as DP for Captain Marvel, the film’s look has an identity distinct from those earlier films, one that makes Marvel’s cosmic adventure seem a little more grounded than the candy-colored galaxies and Escher-esque dimensions that defined James Gunn's Guardians or Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange. From car chases, air force bases, sunset shots, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury rocking two eyes and a get up that looks borrowed from Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh, Captain Marvel looks to be directly inspired by the films of Tony Scott, Roland Emmerich, and Richard Donner. The only thing that could make the trailer seem more '90s would be a Goo Goo Dolls or Aerosmith track.

It seems as though Boden and Fleck will be making some significant changes to Captain Marvel’s origins. While we learned recently that Captain Marvel will not be an origin film and will start with the hero already a part of the Kree military, her origin story will still have a place in the story. We see glimpses of Carol Danvers' past from her childhood, to her military training, but Carol herself isn’t certain these memories are really hers. In the comics, Carol becomes a Kree-human hybrid after the explosion of a device called the “Psyche-Magnetron” alters her genes and combines them with the former Captain Marvel.

While the film likely won’t translate that backstory directly, the film does seem to be taking a surprisingly complex approach to Carol’s origins. We’ve gotten simplified versions of Marvel characters over the years (see Thor), but after ten years in the MCU, the audience is primed for things to get a bit more complicated. From the teaser, it seems Captain Marvel will venture into a more enigmatic origin story than we’ve seen before, if only due to a structure that seems to be predicated on unreliable flashbacks.

When we first meet Carol she’s a member of the Starforce, an elite Kree military unit. If the Kree sound familiar it’s because they played a small, though significant role in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and have played prominently into ABC television series Agents of SHIELD. So why do Carol and the Starforce look so serious? The Kree in the MCU are a race known for keeping their emotions in check. Undoubtedly, Carol will struggle with this once she returns to Earth and begins dredging up the memories of her past. Carol won’t be the only Kree warrior struggling with her emotions as Lee Pace’s Guardians’ baddie, Ronan, returns to the fray as well. While not yet the zealot he will become, Ronan will undoubtedly, over the course of the film, slip into the madness that eventually consumes him.

Another key member of the Kree’s officers is Jude Law’s Mar-Vell. Marvel Comics’ original Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell (aka Walter Lawson) will serve as Carol’s mentor in the film. Carol Danvers, who was originally known as Ms. Marvel in the comics, originally led a spin-off title of Lawson’s Captain Marvel before going on to surpass him in popularity. It’s worth noting that while Mar-Vell is said to be a believer in the Kree doctrine, he also has a human name and appearance like Carol, suggesting a complex origin of his own. Perhaps they share a similar backstory in the film, but while Carol wants to reconnect with her human side, Mar-Vell has cut himself off from it. If we’re going by Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Mar-Vell, as the wise sage, seems destined for tragedy. It’s worth noting that Marvel’s first graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel (1982) by Jim Starlin, which saw Mar-Vell’s demise, set the stage for Avengers: Infinity War comic book inspiration the Infinity Saga, and the proliferation of cosmic powers in Marvel Comics.

The film doesn’t give us too much in the form of the film's adversaries, but we are given a brief look at the Skrulls. The shape-shifting Skrulls, who were first introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four, have been constant threats in the Marvel Universe, though their biggest ploy came when they disguised themselves and replaced a number of Marvel’s heroes, setting the stage for 2008’s Secret Invasion. While fans have already got their bets placed on which Marvel characters will be revealed as Skrulls in May's Avengers 4, it stands to reason that a full-scale adaptation of Secret Invasion won’t come to fruition until later down the line, perhaps in a Captain Marvel-led New Avengers movie. But that doesn’t mean the Skrulls are planning to start small in their efforts to control the galaxy. They’ve already hidden themselves among Earth’s public, as suggested by Captain Marvel punching an old woman on a bus.

In terms of characterizations, Captain Marvel will draw largely from Kelly Sue DeConnick’s 2012 run on the character, which saw Ms. Marvel first assume the mantle and name Captain Marvel. But the larger plot Carol finds herself caught up in will borrow from 1971’s Kree-Skrull War storyline by Roy Thomas, which is considered to be a highlight of Marvel Comics’ events. The storyline saw the ramifications of a hundred years old conflict that had roots in the Kree experimenting on humans in order to create mutant weapons to defeat the Skrulls. In the comics, these experiments resulted in the Inhumans, who were botched on television last year. Perhaps the ABC series can be retconned and the Inhumans reintroduced as a concept in Captain Marvel, or perhaps those experiments can serve as a way to introduce the X-Men. Either way, the conflict at the center of Captain Marvel could have huge ramifications for the MCU going forward.

Although the Kree-Skrull War was published in the Avengers comic book series and brought together most of Marvel’s Earthbound and cosmic heroes and villains, Captain Marvel positions the war during a time when only Carol can defend the Earth against the alien forces that seek to control it and its genetic wellspring. With Captain America still on ice, and Hank Pym retired as Ant-Man following the loss of his wife, Janet, Carol will take the stage as the Earth’s only superhero. Captain Marvel may offer the biggest threat, in terms of scope, for an MCU character’s solo feature. The film will surely position Captain Marvel as the MCU’s strongest hero, answer the question of where she’s been all of this time, and perhaps make her key to defeating Thanos in Avengers 4. Captain Marvel may have joined the party late, but there’s plenty of reasons to be thrilled she’s finally arrived.