This review contains spoilers for the new Captain Marvel movie as well as Avengers: Infinity War - just so I know I told you.
At this writing, Marvel fandom stands poised between the two halves of the epic story which supposedly brings this gigantic phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a close, the first part of which (Avengers: Infinity War) ended on one of the most daring cliffhangers in popular cinema, namely the apparent total victory of the antagonist. The second half (Avengers: Endgame) is due to hit screens internationally next month and will probably be the highest grossing film of all time at the box office.
Between the two, comes this latest from Marvel Studios, Captain Marvel. No pressure, then.
Anyone who stayed to watch till the very end of the credits of Avengers: Infinity War — and haven’t we all learned to do that now? I’m astonished to see people file out of audiences during the credits; clearly these people are pseudo-fans — will recall that, as Nick Fury himself faded out of existence, he dropped a pager which flashed with a symbol: a gold star, in a red and blue field. Marvel fans all over the planet, seeing that, would have cheered. (In Britain, we cheered inside - elsewhere, the cheering was perhaps vocalised.) That symbol meant only one thing: Captain Marvel.
Now, the long and super-complicated history of the name ‘Captain Marvel’, not only inside the comics but outside in the courts, is too labyrinthine and frankly not really relevant enough to go into here. All we need to reflect upon is that there is a superhero and her name is Captain Marvel. But up to the end of Avengers: Infinity War, we had not heard of her in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So Marvel screenwriters — who have clearly been plotting this all out for years — would have been faced with a difficult proposition on the surface: how to create a unique impact with this film, while not touching on the massive drama of the Avengers plot line.
They opted for something clever: a prequel. Captain Marvel is set in the 1990s, before any of the Marvel films came out: before Tony Stark became Iron Man, before Thor found his hammer, before Bruce Banner was bombarded with gamma rays and became the Hulk, and so on. It turns out that this is also the time before Nick Fury lost one of his eyes, and prior to his development of a trusting relationship with fellow SHIELD agent Coulson. It’s clever because, while avoiding tampering with the tension set up by the background plot line running through all the other Marvel films, it also positions its protagonist as someone so amazing that it would be quite valid to pin a great many hopes on her for the second Avengers film, if you see what I mean. It’s like ‘retro-conning’ a character into a huge, complex storyline, but so skilfully that it seems to make sense from whichever angle it’s looked at. The giant jigsaw puzzle of the other Marvel films looked almost complete, but this film steps back and shows us an even bigger picture in which everything we have seen so far has its place.
As for the film itself, it’s structurally a challenge. From the opening scene, it plunges us deep into an alien world a galaxy away, with a protagonist who is far removed from the average audience-goer. Writers compensate by having that alien world contain several elements which are almost a parody of our own, including a subway-like railway system and what appears to be a very Earth-like military ethos. But our protagonist is a mystery to us: how are we supposed to warm to this Kree warrior, equipped with advanced technology and latent super-powers, operating like a US marine behind enemy lines on strange planets? Well, one device that’s used is the good old memory flashback. These can seem corny when used as simple devices for exposition, but the ones here are pointedly woven into the plot. So intricate is their use that, at one point, a character protests their confusion over what is going on, paralleling the audience’s own momentary mystified state as the memory flashbacks and the ‘real time’ of the protagonist seem to clash. But before this has a chance to unsettle the viewer, we are grounded on 1990s Earth and surrounded by things familiar to us — and introduced to the ‘double act’ of Samuel R. Jackson playing Nick Fury (remarkably de-aged using CGI) and Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, interacting with the warmth and wit which we have come to expect from a Marvel film.
There are twists and turns: some Marvel fans may be upset, others will breathe sighs of relief as two dimensional ‘alien war’ tropes are made three-dimensional (and even politically topical). By the time the pieces fall into place and the battle lines are revealed for the third act, though, we can all sit back and enjoy the fireworks, knowing that once again we are in competent hands. It could have been a shallow mess, but it turns out to be just what most fans will have wanted it to be: another solid piece of entertainment from Marvel.
Apart from standing up in its own right, though, it’s used to magnify the tension and expectations for the second Avengers film. Don’t miss the two end-credit sequences.
A word probably needs to be said about one aspect which has coloured reviews elsewhere. This is not a film for anyone who harbours any kind of gender-based prejudice. The subject of the protagonist’s gender is treated with intelligence (one might almost pun ‘Supreme Intelligence’) in that it doesn’t directly feature at all. We are shown a strong storyline with a strong central character, who just happens to be female. About time.
The film’s climax comes about as close to touching on this as anything else, when a battle-hardened Danvers finally faces off with her former mentor and now enemy, Kree warrior Yonn-Rogg. The latter, clearly fuelled by an excess of testosterone (and ably performed by Jude Law), challenges Danvers to ‘prove herself’ — but she responds that she has nothing at all that she needs to prove to him, and simply neutralises him. If you are looking for a feminist message, you will find it aplenty, but shaped as a universal human message — which is how it always needed to be.
At one point, the young daughter of Danvers’ best friend looks up into the sky at the departing firebolt of Captain Marvel, and we can see what Danvers' example means to others. (We can also see possible future films, as one of the many ‘Captain Marvels’ that there have been in Marvel Comics long history closely resembles that young girl.) The best examples are the ones that appeal direct to the universal human heart, and this film and its central character do just that.