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Captain Marvel has two distinctions: It is the first Marvel Studios film to be built around a female superhero, and it is the least of the Marvel productions made since Kevin Feige took the reins and launched the brand into the stratosphere. The picture is not dull, exactly, just mundane, marked by unimaginative plotting, cut-rate villains, a bland visual style and a lack of elan in every department. Or put it this way: What Black Panther did for black representation in the superhero realm is not done for women in Captain Marvel. And if it came down to a one-on-one between rival franchise uber warriors Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, there is no doubt who would inspire the heavy betting.
As has been widely recounted during the ramp-up to this film’s opening, the history of women in the Marvel universe is a patchy one and very much so with the Captain Marvel character. The latter first appeared as a man in comic books in 1967 and a Ms. Marvel counterpart appeared a decade later. There were a half-dozen other iterations, but the relevant inspiration here was a run of Captain Marvel comic books by Kelly Sue DeConnick beginning in 2012 that featured the alter ego of Carol Danvers.
Danvers’ day job is with the Air Force, but much more to the point here is her gig as the eponymous warrior on behalf of Starforce, an intergalactic fighting squad committed to battling the fiendish, shape-shifting Skrulls, those of the avocado-green faces and devilish pointy ears. As things kick off somewhere in the universe, the leathered-up young woman (Brie Larson) is being tutored by her mentor, the melodiously named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), top dog of the intergalactic military force of the Kree, the good-guy archrivals of the Skrulls.
If this much is clear, one should be grateful for small favors, as matters presently become more than murky. Perhaps we’re meant to excuse this because Danvers herself is uncertain about her past, although we do see, via a flashback, that as a girl she was very keen on go-cart racing. Revealing as this may or may not be of her addiction to speed and risk, her place in the grand scheme of things remains vague; just as she shuttles between the cosmic and Earthbound, the film itself bounces about without any sense of logic or progression, to the point of appearing nearly chaotic. 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 construction.
Nonetheless, the seeds of a potentially interesting story are here and Marvel for more than a decade now has shown that it well knows how to launch a new spinoff. Public confidence in the brand and goodwill toward this new franchise, in particular, will probably grant the pic 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.
Captain Marvel seems specifically pitched toward millennials, as the action is pointedly set in the 1990s; attention is called to assorted technology of the time, nearly all of which now looks not only antiquated, but downright tacky, hardly worthy of any nostalgia. On the other hand, what does emerge as a genuine curiosity is the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, a veteran of six previous Marvel films, three times importantly and thrice in uncredited cameos. Given the time frame, 24 years had to be shaved off Fury’s age and appearance, resulting in by far the strangest and most prominent special effect in the movie, that of Jackson playing a guy in his 40s, with a full head of hair and, in this role, two eyes — no eye-patch yet.
It’s simultaneously fascinating and distracting. Jackson’s skin looks almost inhumanly youthful, and there is an irresistible tendency to stare at him at the expense of anything else going on in his scenes and to ponder the following issues, among others: Do you buy this? Is this the kind of performance Jackson would have given in his 40s? Is it possible this man doesn’t have a single blemish? Has Jackson ever played a character this earnest? Is this the future of movies? The overall effect is cool in a way, but also eerily disconcerting and not, in the end, as engaging as the de-aging of Michael Douglas in the Ant-Man films.
Still, the focus and big selling point here is Captain Marvel herself and Larson’s impersonation of her. So what does a best actress Oscar winner bring to a performance as a Marvel superhero? Larson makes Carol/Captain focused, solid, ever-alert to what’s going on around her, a quick learner, a determined and unafraid warrior. In other words, she’s everything you’d want and expect in a soldier, intergalactic or otherwise. But all of this is more or less prescribed by the role. What’s lacking is humor, a hint that she might get off on the action and violence, or the indication of a deep desire or spark to ferret out evil and right the world’s wrongs. The performance is fine, if not exciting or inspiring.
Jackson aside, the other actors are stuck with one-note, uninteresting roles, including Annette Bening, who appears very briefly as a character called Supreme Intelligence. Maybe she should have taken a pass at the script.
Production company: Marvel Studios
Distributor: Buena Vista
Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Story: Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Victoria Alonso, Louis D’Esposito, Stan Lee, Jonathan Schwartz, Patricia Whitcher
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Andy Nicholson
Costume designer: Sanja Milkovic Hays
Editors: Debbie Berman, Elliot Graham
Music: Pinar Toprak
Visual effects supervisor: Christopher Townsend
Casting: Sarah Halley Finn
Rated PG-13, 124 minutes