Brie Larson's Captain Marvel

'Captain Marvel' Can't Quite Keep the Studio's Win Streak Alive

Playboy's Stephen Rebello reviews Brie Larson in Marvel's first female-led superhero film

Courtesy: Marvel Studios

Captain Marvel, like its heroine, has an identity crisis. “I don’t know who I am,” announces Academy Award winner Brie Larson playing amnesiac Veers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel—introduced to us as a fierce, intelligent Air Force test pilot in the intergalactic whoop-ass squad known as Starforce, the shiny, righteous heroes in the Kree-led fight against a race of green-faced, pointy-eared shape-shifting aliens known as the Skrulls.

In the movie’s slow, scattershot first half-hour—when our heroine is known as “Veers"—she is haunted by fleeting flashbacks having something or other to do with a dreamlike, unreadable Annette Bening and a super-lovable orange cat. Carol recalls herself in bits of memory as a scrappy, athletic, never-say-die high achiever constantly bouncing back from a nasty father, humiliating falls and sexist insults from overcompensating schoolboys and insecure male flyboys. She also recalls glimpses of fellow flyer and close, loyal pal Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).

Carol is feisty, wildly self-determined, on task one minute and unable to control her anger the next, so much so that she’s all over the map. The movie—finally the first Marvel flick with a female superhero front and center—suffers from a similar lack of identity and sense of purpose. We keep hoping it might be as stirring and thrilling a breakthrough for female representation as Wonder Woman. It isn’t. No matter how we keep pulling for it to do for female superheroes what Black Panther brilliantly accomplished for black superhero representation, it doesn’t. Not by a long shot. The movie feels chaotic, mundane and scattered to the four winds. 
It begins on home base Hala with the bolt-shooting Danvers pretty much playing a grasshopper, Luke Skywalker-type to master military leader and fellow Kree mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) as they engage in philosophical wrestling and highly physical, bone-crunching fighting matches in which nobody’s kidding around. Danvers has got to be ready because, after all, the universe is engaged in one of those endless interstellar wars that are Marvel’s stock in trade.

Sent off on an interplanetary mission that goes wrong for her and her fellow fighters (Gemma Chan and Djimon Hounsou), Carol gets taken captive by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), a Skrull general who locks her into a machine that reads and interprets the memories she’s repressing. Slowly, sometimes painfully so, Carol assembles the puzzle of her past, finds her true identity and unleashes her awesome powers in sequences that bounce her from somewhere in the vast, vague cosmos to what’s described as “a real shithole”—America of 1995, complete with such old-school, millennial-stroking callbacks as a strip mall; Nirvana; a Blockbuster Video store with Babe, The Right Stuff and True Lies given clumsy shout-outs; a RadioShack; dial-up internet connections; super-slow CD-Rom drives; a Happy Days lunchbox; etc., etc., etc. Why anyone would be nostalgic for any of this crap is a mystery.
The movie gets a massive assist from lively performances by actors playing supporting characters to Larson’s dutiful but brisk, chilly and, ultimately, less-than-engaging superhero. Among them is Marvel vet Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, even though the 70-something actor gets distractingly de-aged by 24 years via special effects to synch with the timeline of the narrative. It takes some getting used to a 40-something Fury, long before he becomes the boss of S.H.I.E.L.D., sporting a full head of hair, no eye patch and eerily smooth, taut skin; he still feels like a fugitive from the Valley of the Uncanny.

Besides, there’s a hell of a lot of film available of Jackson in his 40s, and it’s for sure he didn’t look like this, any more than did a super-young, computer-assisted Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). But Jackson is peppery and strong, though much less so when he and Larson become partners swapping so-so insults, running, jumping (via stunt doubles and computer graphics) and exposing plot twists than when he shares the screen with the earlier-mentioned, scene-stealing orange cat—one of the few truly funny, charming aspects of the whole shebang.
Captain Marvel feels like a brake-slammer for Marvel’s incredible streak of stylish, fun, sometimes awe-inspiring variations on a theme.
Also good is Mendelsohn, who underplays his ambiguous role and dominates every scene he’s in because he makes his character feel multidimensionally funny, snide, sad instead of being content merely playing the movie’s heavy. Bening doesn’t have as large a role, but she’s quirky, committed and well-cast as the Supreme Intelligence. And as for Goose the cat? Well, played by multiple felines, Goose rocks.

Captain Marvel feels like a brake-slammer for Marvel’s incredible streak of stylish, fun, sometimes awe-inspiring variations on a theme—from the infectious goofball humor of the Ant-Man and Thor movies, to the majestic epic scope of the last few Avengers movies or the sociopolitical and aesthetic gem of the collection, Black Panther. Visually, Captain Marvel looks flat, the physical production and character designs resemble too many other previous movies and there’s not a single show-stopping action sequence in the whole thing.

It’s a tough call figuring out what’s most "off" here. Is it the script by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, which robs the amnesiac heroine of an actual backstory until it’s almost too late to fully invest in her? Is it the Marvel house-style direction by Boden-Fleck (makers of the interesting, low-key Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind), so full of choppy, hard-to-follow action? Is it Larson herself, who doesn’t get to deliver in the grand, wryly funny, kick-ass way that makes us cheer for, say, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans or, to skip to another comic universe, Gal Godot? Yes may be the answer to all. Look, Captain Marvel isn’t a pain to sit through. And the heroine will be back to kick butt in future Avenger movies. But such a venerable character long overdue on the big screen, the talents involved in putting her there and Marvel’s rabidly faithful international audience deserved much better. 

Captain Marvel

There is enough to marvel at, between lively supporting performances and, of course, that unforgettable cat
Sometimes slow and routine, the film doesn't feel as special as Marvel's other recent hits
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 bunnies

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