Remember how Captain America was known as The First Avenger? Well, here comes Captain Marvel, the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that introduces Carol Danvers as arguably the true first Avenger.
For laymen like myself it’s interesting to know that Carol Danvers wasn’t even the first Captain Marvel at all. In fact, she was the 7th incarnation following a long and complicated history of obligatory bi-yearly additions of the comic book in order for Marvel to retain the name. It’s a messy affair, to be sure, but the history is easily found online.
Ignoring the printed world of Marvel, the MCU has come a long way since Iron Man kick-started it all in 2008. Looking back to its retrospectively humble beginnings, the franchise has gone on to monopolise cinema-screens with its intricate tapestry of stories and timelines. Personally, I enjoyed the novelty of the franchise early on, but found myself wearied and disconnected as the series unfolded. And so you can imagine my mixed emotions when Captain Marvel comes along and kicks some serious ass. Just when I thought I was on the outskirts of this cinematic movement, they pull me back in. Dammit… MCU21 is a belter and I cannot deny it due credit.
As with most of the MCU’s introductory entries, Captain Marvel works as a stand-alone story, requiring little to no knowledge of any others. We are introduced to Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as an other-worldly warrior, fighting an enemy combatant in an intergalactic war. It begins as a confusing wish-wash of concepts, including strange visions of another life and pivotal characters without the benefit of context. An attack sends her Starforce fighter-ship crashing to Earth in 1995. She finds an alliance with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who is – at this point – a simple low-level bureaucrat. When the Skrull alien race also lands on Earth, their shape-shifting abilities present a threat to civilisation, and it’s up to Carol and Nick to find a way to destroy their plans.
Of course, that synopsis is simplistic compared to the complexities of the events that transpire, but to reveal more would be both arduous and spoiler-laden. Suffice to say that those initial and confusing precursory elements evolve into a clever plot-device and the film nuzzles its way into the greater MCU narrative comfortably.
Captain Marvel has a wealth of comic-book history to mine and devoted fans will find depth in whatever references this new film gives. But for those of us who are only familiar with the cinematic universe, there are a lot of theatrical influences at play too. Looking beyond Marvel, there are clear derivatives here, such as Superman, Star Wars and Wonder Woman, and Carol Danvers’ story is neither original nor inspired, but is rather an accumulation of borrowed ideas cleverly strung together.
Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Mississippi Grind) come to the MCU with a renewed energy and outlook. Following in Wonder Woman‘s stride, they line up with the current socio-political women’s movement and give Marvel their first truly iconic stand-alone heroine. Thankfully, they avoid tacky tokenisms and platitudes by simply giving audiences a female superhero with a good story with a worthy fight. Yes, Danvers’ ability to kick ass rivals that of all her contemporaries.
One potentially dicey component that Captain Marvel falls prey to is its retro-centric setting. 1980’s nostalgia is rife in Hollywood right now and this movie taps into that trend. Guardians of the Galaxy certainly exploited it, as will the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 (not to mention the countless movies and television shows saturating our screens with acid-wash denim and parachute jackets). However, in this case we’re whisked back to 1995, where the trends are grungier and the fashions less fluro. And it works. Accompanied by a fantastic 90’s soundtrack, the movie moves along at a cracking pace and is a rollicking good time. Carefully selected songs are played with well-paired moments, including a particularly wonderful fight sequence set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” There was always a risk of the film being too kitsch, however Boden and Fleck have struck a good balance and not let the humour of the setting dictate the terms.
Larson is excellent in her heroic lead role, delivering a gnarly performance that is up there among my favourite MCU portrayals yet. She approaches the material sensibly and understands the dynamics of the comic-book adaptation, hamming it up when required, but conjuring sincerity when needed. Also to the film’s credit is the lack of any love-interest or sentimental trappings, providing Larson with the freedom to concentrate on being a powerful role model.
Jackson returns to the franchise with the same energy that has carried him this far. In this instance he is given more comedic freedom and allowed to embrace the frivolity. Where he has been a serious taskmaster in all previous MCU instalments, here he is given the role of comic relief as the dumbfounded sidekick. It’s a nice character shift that breathes fresh air into the overall ongoing narrative, as well as offering context to his character’s history.
The supporting cast includes Ben Mendelsohn (reuniting with his Mississippi Grind directors), Annette Bening, Jude Law and Lashana Lynch. Mendelsohn is particularly good as the multifaceted Skrull commander on Earth. His performance is fun and he relishes the chance to switch between his American accent and his homegrown Aussie accent. He has become no stranger to big-budget blockbusters (Ready Player One, Rogue One) and it’s always a pleasure to watch him take Hollywood by storm. Law and Bening are adequate additions to the cast, but leave no lasting impression. Other players include MCU regular Clark Gregg, back as a younger Agent Coulson, as well as Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace, reprising their Guardians roles as Korath and Ronan respectively.
As someone who has felt worn out by the superhero genre, and who hasn’t been too fussed with either of the competing universes (I’m looking at you, DC), there has been no personal guarantee that these cinematic brands will continue to hold my investment. BUT, here we are. I can confidently say that Captain Marvel has firmly rejuvenated my interest – it’s arguably up there among the MCU’s best. 4 out of 5 Flerkens.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Captain Marvel’ hits Australian cinemas on March 7 and US cinemas on March 8.