Film Review: "Captain Marvel" Tinkers with the origin story formula
We’re all familiar with superhero origin story. Ordinary, flawed person is granted superhuman abilities. Ordinary, flawed person struggles with their abilities on a physiological and psychological level. Ordinary, flawed person finally harnesses their gifts in a selfless way. It’s a template for compelling storytelling, because it’s all about growth and self-actualisation and all that good stuff we go watch escapist movies for. On the other hand, the structure of this is well-worn by now, to say the least.
Captain Marvel, a superhero origin story movie, attempts to circumvent this structure. We’re immediately introduced to a super-powered young woman named Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a member of an advanced alien race known as the Kree. Furthermore, she’s already found her place as a loyal soldier in their elite intergalactic military unit called Starforce. Their mission is to locate and wipe out the Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who’re shapeshifters intent on infiltrating Kree home worlds.
However, it’s not as straightforward as all that. Through Carol’s dialogue with her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), we learn that her past is a mystery to her. After a mission to take out some Skrulls goes sideways, Carol crash lands on Earth (through the roof of a Blockbuster, because it’s the year 1995). There, she meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), here a young SHIELD Agent with two good eyes. As they team-up to repel an oncoming Skrull invasion, Carol’s learns more about her past life on Earth.
To keep Captain Marvel’s origin story from feeling too predictable, Carol Danvers’ origin is the mystery that drives the plot. This structure facilitates some twists and turns along the way. It’s a great idea in theory, but the execution is a little wonky. The first twenty or so minutes is absolutely vital for all kinds of films, but especially so for superhero origin story films, because it’s all about setting up the psychology and motivation that will propel the journey of self-discovery. As it is here, Carol is just a single-minded grunt for the first 30 minutes, and it’s difficult to emotionally attach yourself to her. We know she wants to know about her past, but there doesn’t seem to be a hollowness inside of her that would drive this want.
To paper over this crack, they’ve cast Brie Larson. And she’s as magnetic as other MCU heavy-hitters like Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. Through sheer charisma, she gets you to care very much. And perhaps I imagined this because of the film’s ‘90s aesthetic, but Larson imbues Carol Danvers with this specifically disaffected and wryly sarcastic quality that’s highly reminiscent of the ‘90s “tough chick” protagonist (think Dark Angel or Buffy).
However, once Carol Danvers, and by extension the audience, learns of the friendship she left behind, Captain Marvel finds its soul and no longer just relies on Fury and Carol’s buddy-cop likeability. The perspective and themes of the story undergo a seismic shift too; flashes of bits and pieces of Carol’s past – her time as an A Force pilot under the mentorship of the mysterious Wendy Lawson (Annette Benning) – coalesce in an emotionally satisfying way.
Aside from some neat perspective shifts and twists, Captain Marvel lacks Black Panther’s thematic sophistication, Thor Ragnarok’s kooky visual splendor, or Infinity War’s ambition. It’s a middle-tier Marvel movie. And yet I liked it a lot more than that label implies. Brie Larson, Ben Mendelsohn, and Samuel L. Jackson are so much fun to watch. Carol Danvers is so cool. The ‘90s references, obvious as they were in places, tickled me. What else can I say? I got a kick out of it.