If you asked me to recite the Marvel Cinematic Universe origin story of any Avenger, I’d say just about the same thing for most of them: ordinary person living their normal life, strange event, they try to figure out their powers for a while, they chase a MacGuffin, yadda yadda. What I’m more likely to remember is that one funny scene where they did this, or that other part where they did that – these origins tend to function more as sandboxes that give the characters room to breathe and a collection of small moments where we get to know who they are and what makes them special.
If we’re speaking in terms of technicality, Captain Marvel’s plot has the same ingredients as most origin stories, but they’re added in a different order, so we end up with a new dish. She starts the films with powers and without a memory of her life or who she was before she had them. This difference yields more depth and mystery in the plot than I ever anticipated, but at a cost. The movie’s central premise asks: Who is this person? I’m not sure we get more than a superficial answer.
Captain Marvel opens on the planet of Hala, home of the Kree – you’ll know them by their blue blood and combat skills. That’s honestly about all I can say about the Kree, even though they’re the only part of Carol Danvers’ (Brie Larson) life that she can remember up to this point. Danvers has spent the last six years being raised as a soldier and honing her powers with mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) after they find her near-death after a mysterious accident. Unfortunately the time we spend on Hala feels rushed and full of exposition but also somehow missing context at the same time.
Danvers gets captured on a mission against the shape-shifting villains, the Skrulls, and ends up escaping to Earth a la 1995. Once we get to Earth, Captain Marvel switches gears a bit and also begins to function as a semi-origin story for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his role in assembling the Avengers. A side note: the visual effects used to de-age Jackson in this film are nothing short of incredible. I was worried I’d be dealing with the uncanny valley effect for the movie’s full running time, but it genuinely works.
On Earth, the tone and plot takes a turn for the better. For starters, we get a joyous set of 90s songs that are right up there with the Guardians soundtrack. And to my relief, the majority of Captain Marvel’s run time doesn’t feel like one giant, glamorous advertisement for the Air Force. There is plenty of MacGuffin chasing, sure, but we get to meet Goose the cat, which is basically the Groot of this film (there are plenty of Guardians comparisons to be had here). We also get to see more of Ben Mendelsohn’s Skrull leader, Talos. Mendelsohn really ended up stealing the show for me, which again speaks to the intricacy of the plot at the expense of the title character. There’s also a pocket of about 30-40 minutes in the back half of this film where the originality and weirdness of this universe starts to peak out, and this is where Captain Marvel really shines.
I think there was enough room in Captain Marvel to have both a compelling plot and solid character development, but two things get in the way: 1) making Danvers’ own life a riddle to be solved, and 2) tying everything into the MCU origins as quickly as possible. Fury’s involvement mostly worked for me, maybe because he already felt like a fully-formed character, but just about everything else MCU-related felt like it took away from the time Danvers could have spent getting to know herself, and her best friend/found family Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) better. I think Rambeau and Fury’s roles could have been swapped (in terms of screen time and involvement) and it would have made the world of difference. But because Captain Marvel’s own life is The Big Mystery, we don’t get to know these two and their friendship as well as I’d have liked.
I’m going to need a little more time to digest it and rank this one in the MCU, but I already know it won’t be at the top or the bottom of the list for me. It’ll hover somewhere in the middle, held back by weak character development and so-so dialogue, held afloat by a thoughtful story, an adorable cat, and the impending tweets about Jude Law and Gemma Chan that are about to completely flood my timeline.