Review: Marvel at Marvel’s retro blandness in Captain Marvel

With a month left until Avengers: Endgame, Marvel finally has its $150 million explanation for Nick Fury’s Superman-colored pager message at the end of Avengers: Infinity War: the Marvel Cinematic Universe had another hero in its pocket all along. Over the course of 20 films, how did we not know about a teammate junior to few besides Captain America and the original Ant-Man and the Wasp, and arguably the most powerful of all of them? Well, nobody asked.

The “oh, by the way” in Marvel’s stable of incorrigible, super-powered do-gooders, Captain Marvel (definitely not the one that’s Zachary Levi in a poor muscle suit) arrives fully-formed—so it’s not technically an origin story—courtesy of her own self-titled feature. Like Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel retreats to a corner of the MCU outside of the main Avengers storyline, and a time before Thanos’s cataclysmic lesson in fractions: the alien Kree Empire in 1995. (Lest it be forgotten, the film will underline its chronological setting relentlessly throughout, via solid de-aging of beloved characters and too-cute-by-half cultural touchstones.)

Vers (a coolly droll Brie Larson) is a brash, pugnacious member of Starforce; what sounds like a B-movie is actually a military unit for the Kree during their never-ending, planet-hopping war with the Skrulls—a green, ribbed-fleshed race with the ability to shape-shift and mimic any individual they see, right down to the genetic level. Haunted by nightmares and unsure of her life before six years ago, Vers is learning to control her Kree-gifted ability to fire energy blasts from her fists under the tutelage of her commander and mentor, the caveman-named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). During a mission, Vers is abducted and subjected to a mind probe by Skrull General Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) and, disoriented by the unfamiliar memories that the probe uncovers, escapes their ship only to crash land in a Blockbuster Video on Earth. (Get it? It’s the ’90s!) While waiting for rescue, Vers meets and teams with S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)—whose eyeless future becomes the subject of a Hot Tub Time Machine-esque running gag—in order to prevent Talos and his cronies from finding a light speed engine on Earth that will enable their nefarious plans. And—as long as she’s in the area—she might as well try to figure out who she actually is and how these memories of the United States Air Force, and a woman (Annette Bening) who looks exactly like the supreme Kree leader, link her to Earth.

As much as Marvel films rarely deviate from their good-but-not-great baseline, the exceptions have been able to distinguish themselves by being funny (the Ant-Men), going big (Infinity War), or letting an auteur go big while being funny (Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and Vol. 2). Captain Marvel boasts no such distinction, instead opting to step backward by succumbing completely to Marvel’s very basic, palatable, in-house approach. The film can sometimes be endearingly lo-fi for it, but its stylessness and simplistic, 20th century-set alien invasion plot harken back to the awkward comic book movies of that very era more often than it should. (The title character’s CGI has a tiny shade of ‘94’s Human Torch in one wooden sequence, the low point of Captain Marvel’s generally just-OK visual effects work that makes even spaceship battles ho-hum.)

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck try to pave over their trite (one particularly shoddy-looking planet set, and goofy-looking aliens bent on a pre-light speed Earth are both very Star Trek) science fiction plot with Vers’s flashbacks and obvious references to the 90’s. For better or worse, they do tend to successfully distract.

The device of Vers’s amnesia and memory probes allows for rapid-fire glimpses of her past—going as far back as her childhood in small windows—without showing anything too substantial. And, as a result, she pretty much remains an aloof cypher. Like with Suicide Squad’s frenetic montages, one gets the sense that something’s missing (Vers’s terrible upbringing is spoken of once but never really shown), excised as a result of hasty last-minute editing. Good on Captain Marvel for eschewing the typical first act origin story, sure, instead spreading the origin across the entire picture by way of a jumbled, lost-memory gimmick that seems like a Memento-ish narrative cheat, needlessly grounding Vers’s inevitable transformation into full-on Captain Marvel for the bulk of the running time.

The rare Marvel period piece, Captain Marvel anxiously asserts its 1995-ness by cramming (not completely accurate) era references into as many shots as possible. Computers load slowly, Brad Pitt is the most attractive man alive, True Lies is a new home video release, cars have right angles, and tying a flannel shirt around one’s waist is called “grunge.” It’s undeniably canny of the filmmakers to bank on the built-in goodwill of 30-somethings nostalgic for a soundtrack of well-known pop tracks from Garbage, Hole, and No Doubt. It’s a new Peter Quill for those who loved Blue Swede, Looking Glass, and Redbone, but still more than a little conspicuously easy. (Gwen Stefani’s vocals may herald Captain Marvel’s best scene, a half-clumsy balletic fight not unlike Tony Stark’s gun-toting escape in Iron Man Three, but the all-too-brief sequence still pales in comparison to any of Gunn’s pop-infused Guardians moments.) Captain Marvel only reasonably approximates the flavor of the ‘90s—a drying Ring Pop that never reaches its center.

Captain Marvel takes the occasional stab at overcoming the mundane—like being refreshingly bereft of any sort of perfunctory love interest—but it never does much to mask how routine it all is. The script’s careless jumps in logic—too glaring for even a superhero picture—certainly don’t help, from the human characters’ immediate, casual acceptance of alien races, to Vers’s E.T.-(grot)esque knowledge of technology compatibility that lets her repeatedly, literally telephone Yon-Rogg up in space using a Gameboy and some other shit from Radio Shack (again, do you get it’s the ’90s?). Really, without the MCU winks and charming performances from Larson, Jackson (grinning through his expanded role), and Mendelsohn (his cockney-accented alien is the only new character of note), there’s not much to Captain Marvel beyond a more dramatic update of Suburban Commando’s awful, sci-fi, fish-out-of-water tale.

Brie Larson’s confident, take-charge Captain Marvel is fun to watch. Captain Marvel as a film? Less so. She deserves better than this disappointingly lazy shrug of a debut that liberally cribs beats and themes about militarism and imperialism from other recent Marvel flicks, and raises its pulse far too infrequently. Hopefully this is just a timid, unremarkable dry run before the Captain’s assured appearance in Avengers: Endgame and—golly—maybe her own surprisingly-good Thor: Ragnarok-style vehicle. Marvel’s 21st picture—and first with a female lead—could’ve been so exhilaratingly triumphant. Shame that, like the stranded Vers, Captain Marvel just phones it in.

Grade: C

Captain Marvel
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Runtime: 124 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law

Please help these sad nobodies and: