24 March 2019

Captain Marvel review

"It's about damn time", said Evangeline Lilly's Hope van Dyne in one of the post-credits scenes of 2015's Ant-Man, and now, eight full films and the best part of half a decade later, the meta-promise of that short scene has finally come to fruition - far too late by any measure, but still. In Captain Marvel, the Marvel Cinematic Universe at long last has its first film led by a woman, an origin story (of sorts) for the titular Captain that while almost inarguably imperfect, gets far more right than it does wrong. The result? A movie that I enjoyed considerably more than I expected to based on the rather lackluster trailers, only making the upcoming Avengers: Endgame all the more tantalizing in the process.

Set in the mid 1990's, we follow an amnesiac member of the Kree Starforce known as Vers as she and the rest of her squadron (led by her mentor, Yon-Rogg) are tasked with rescuing an undercover Kree spy from the Skrull, a race of shapeshifting aliens with whom the Kree are at war. After the mission goes badly wrong, Vers finds herself stranded on Earth with the Skrull hot on her tail, only to learn that she may once have lived here before she lost her memory. Teaming up with SHIELD agent Nick Fury, the two of them start investigating how she ended up losing her memories and joining the Kree, all while trying to avoid the Skrull as she waits for Yon-Rogg to arrive on Earth to pick her up and take her home.

It's pretty smart, really. Captain Marvel is absolutely hitting all the same beats that a conventional origin story would, but by framing it as an amnesia story and telling it entirely from that perspective, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck manage to avoid relying on the standard origin story formula while still giving us all the information we require. We still learn about who this character is, what she can do and eventually why, but importantly, it's all rooted in a much more personal and character-oriented perspective than would otherwise be possible. We're not just seeing how a superhero gained their superpowers - we're also being told the story of someone rediscovering who they once were and the life they left behind, and that alone is enough to instantly make Captain Marvel feel all the more engaging, all the easier to become invested in.

Which is good, because Captain Marvel is telling a story worth getting invested in, far more thematically interesting than I originally gave it credit for and surprisingly subversive to boot, both of which go a long, long way towards making up for Captain Marvel's problems. A huge concern I had going into Captain Marvel was that "amnesia story" and "interesting main character" are rarely things that go hand in hand, and while Captain Marvel avoids the worst of it thanks to Brie Larson's natural charisma and some smart writing that establishes Vers' personality early on, my fears didn't end up being entirely unfounded. She's a likable character who I'm already looking forward to seeing more of, but I don't feel like I "know" her as well as I did, say, Tony Stark or Steve Rogers following their respective first movies.

Additionally, the moment-to-moment film-making of Captain Marvel is at times pretty shaky, particularly during the opening act where I suspect Boden and Fleck had the least amount of creative control. Between the amount of set up being done here, and the all too dimly lit, badly edited action scenes, the opening of Captain Marvel can't help but feel frustratingly mediocre and incredibly paint by numbers, resulting in a movie that takes a while to really earn your attention.

Still, it's a problem that mostly disappears by the time Vers reaches Earth, which is maybe not entirely coincidentally when two of Captain Marvel's best features - Samuel L Jackson's digitally de-aged Nick Fury and Ben Mendelsohn's Skrull leader Talos - enter the fray in earnest. The de-aging effect used to make Jackson look a quarter of a century younger is virtually seamless, but that's not what really sells us on his youth here - that'd be Jackson's performance, introducing us to a far less experienced, less cynical version of Fury than we're used to and absolutely nailing it. Likewise, Mendelsohn's Talos is fascinating, partly thanks to his position in the story but mostly thanks to the sheer amount of personality that Mendelsohn is able to bring the role.

Add to all that a few solid gags, some fun needledrops, the entertaining buddy-cop dynamic between Fury and Vers and (of course) a really quite cute cat, and Captain Marvel becomes a film that can only be described as deeply charming - flawed, yes, but strong enough in other areas to ensure that those flaws don't end up mattering all that much to the overall experience. No, it probably isn't top tier MCU (thanks mainly to the consistently high quality of this franchise) - but that doesn't preclude it from making for a good time at the cinema, and that's exactly what it is.

4 stars

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