It is spectacular and unsurprising that Captain Marvel, a vivid action-adventure centered on the rise of Carol Danvers, is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe led by a female superhero. The old and stubbornly held Hollywood belief that a superhero movie starring a woman would flop was bolstered by some painful evidence: the critical and financial failures of Supergirl (1984), Tank Girl (1995), Catwoman (2004), and Elektra (2005). Enter Wonder Woman in 2017, a triumph by every measure for DC and Warner Bros., and the conversation shifted. Studios and audiences began to wonder: What if other female superhero films had failed not because of a lack of audience interest in the leads, or even a lack of demand, but because the films themselves were shoddily written, acted, directed, and marketed? Build a good movie, it turns out, and fans will come.
Thankfully, Captain Marvel is a good movie, both because and notwithstanding the fact that the lead is a tough, multifaceted woman. Codirectors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story), who also cowrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, understand that resilience more than physical strength is their heroine’s superpower. Repeatedly, she falls down. Repeatedly, she stands up. The feelings roused by this age-old perseverance story are universal; the position of Carol as a woman surrounded by male fighters, however, intensifies her underdog status and raises the stakes of an otherwise conventional hero’s journey. Not only are powerful forces in the galaxy hell-bent on her destruction, but the men in her life are quick to belittle her when she dares to do what they can do, and better.
Carol, played with grit and verve by Oscar winner Brie Larson, can’t remember who she is. For six years she has lived on the planet Hala as a Kree warrior named Vers, fighting green aliens called Skrulls across the universe, with only flashes of memories that point to who she might have been before: a scrappy child disparaged by her father, an unshrinking fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and a devoted friend of other valorous women. But the Kree leader of her Starforce team, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), discourages her from investigating her emotional cosmology. You’re too emotional, he tells her—a jibe most women are used to hearing. Think with your head, not your heart, he says. Sensitivity is weakness. Your feelings will betray you.
Captain Marvel is in many ways a paean to empathy and intuition, qualities commonly associated with women but beneficial to anyone willing to tap into themselves. Yon-Rogg tells Vers a story about herself that on the surface she believes, but deep down, she questions. Self-knowledge is rare, especially among women for whom entire industries are built to eradicate their confidence and convince them they should be more like someone else. Gaslighting, typically perpetrated by men who want to control women under the guise of mental superiority—”She’s crazy” is one common refrain—is another tactic with which many women are uncomfortably familiar. Vers, who feels against reason that she is not who her superior claims her to be, represents every woman and girl who was told at some point to be someone unlike herself. In addition to learning her true name and identity, Carol discovers over the course of the movie that she does know and like herself. She is compassionate, moral, ambitious, sarcastic, and, yes, emotional. Her weakness, paradoxically, was believing that suppressing these parts of herself would make her strong.
This is the movie’s radiant core, while the rest of it—like the majority of MCU stand-alone romps—is unselfconscious, action-packed fun. Set in 1995, the narrative accelerates when Carol crash-lands through the roof of a Blockbuster Video in Los Angeles, where young agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury and Phil Coulson (digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg, respectively) find her chasing down a cadre of shape-shifting Skrulls. Carol and Fury unite in unlikely friendship, with the latter helping the former track down the remnants of her previous life on earth. From his first appearance as Fury in Iron Man (2008), Jackson has been a central and beloved figure in the MCU; his presence here, pre-eye patch, is delightful. Annette Bening also shines as a rugged mentor from Carol’s test-pilot days; she appears in visions as someone Carol used to find impressive, though she can’t recall why.
Similar to the way 1970s music and references fueled Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), 1990s pop culture infuses Captain Marvel with nostalgic quirks. Carol visits a Radio Shack in a strip mall with walls papered in Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness posters. Later, she lifts an outfit from a mannequin that Fury deems “grunge”: leather jacket, flannel, jeans, and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt. Mid-90s jams punctuate the soundtrack: “Just a Girl,” “Come As You Are,” “You Gotta Be,” and “Celebrity Skin,” to name a few. Troll dolls and True Lies sneak into the periphery. A CD-ROM carrying valuable information takes an interminable amount of time to load.
These playful touches, along with plenty of in-jokes and Easter eggs for the MCU cognoscenti, are the sprinkles on top of an already satisfying treat. Though less substantial than last year’s Black Panther and probably less intense than the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel is strong at its center. Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, is a formidable force and a welcome addition to the MCU. Her debut also evinces a radical truth: that the qualities “emotional” and “powerful” can be synonymous. v