CAUTION: I’m going to get into some spoilery territory in this review, so if you don’t want to know anything that happens, just skip to the last paragraph.
The history of Captain Marvel goes back quite a ways, as many of Marvel’s characters do, but this one in particular is especially complex. It all started with a Captain Marvel, created in 1939, that was published by Fawcett Comics. DC Comics sued Fawcett in 1951, claiming the character was too similar to Superman, leading the latter company to cease publication of the hero. However, since Marvel Comics officially changed their name in 1961, they had every right to create a character by the same name, which they did in 1967. The catch, since Fawcett and subsequently DC also owned the Captain Marvel trademark until his name was changed to Shazam in 1972, was that Marvel had to publish a title using the name at least once every two years or they would lose the rights. As such, 7 different characters within the mainline Marvel Comics universe have held the mantle, the latest being Carol Danvers, previously known as Ms. Marvel (in turn, passing that mantle to the first Muslim character to headline a comic book, Kamala Khan).
With such a long history, it would be difficult to compress such a character down to a 2-hour+ runtime. The route the MCU takes with it is likely the easiest and most effective with the first and latest Captain Marvels at the forefront. The film begins with Carol (Brie Larson), called Vers here even though we all know what her real name is, waking from dreams she can’t explain. We come to infer from her interactions with mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) that she is a Kree, a militant and advanced alien race from the planet Hala. The Kree are at war with the Skrull, a shape-shifting alien race. Yon-Rogg is trying to teach Carol how to control her emotions and powers in battle, which he feels will make her stronger, but she is haunted by shadows of memories she can’t access because she has amnesia. They are both part of an elite task force which is soon deployed to another planet to hunt down Skrull. After a fight and crash landing, Carol finds herself on Earth and in trying to evade the Skrull that follow her and escape, she finds out who she is and the true depth of her power.
There is a lot to love in this movie. While I still wonder if we could have received a better Carol Danvers from an actress that is not so girly, Larson is absolutely capable with the part and that quality adds an interesting dimension to the character. The supporting cast is outstanding with Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, and Lee Pace returning to their previous roles and Ben Mendelsohn and Annette Bening playing new characters Talos and Mar-Vell, respectively. Goose the cat absolutely steals every scene he is in. The references to the 90s get quite a few chuckles at times, complete with cameos from Blockbuster, Radio Shack, TLC, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, AOL, Windows loading icons, and more. The action choreography and special effects are generally pretty great as well, especially with the de-aging deployed on Jackson and Gregg. Story-wise, Captain Marvel is decent as a prequel to the MCU, setting up things that are yet to happen, while simultaneously alluding to events we will see play out in Avengers: Endgame.
When you gloss over the movie, it’s quite functional, bright, and fun, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense upon closer inspection. When the rest of the MCU is taken into consideration and the fact that this movie chronologically takes place before all the others except the first Captain America, the timing of the communicator’s usage at the end of Infinity War, never before, seems very questionable. Not when the Chitauri attacked New York. Not when Ultron was was going to obliterate the Earth. Only right before Thanos was about to snap half of all life in the universe out of existence. Moreover, there was no guarantee that Carol wouldn’t have been snapped out of existence as well, so why would Fury have waited until the very last minute to call her?
Even when viewing the movie on its own, it doesn’t hold up very well as a stand-alone screenplay. The information dumps that seem to happen at every major plot point can be a little jarring, so much so that I think I missed some important details in the beginning of the movie while I was still adjusting to the setup. As far as origin stories go, the only reason Carol’s is interesting here is because of the amnesia angle, but that is such a predictable and overused movie trope that using it just feels lazy. The “friends become enemies, enemies become friends” story is also a twist that’s not too surprising. It’s not always clear why some things are happening or why some characters act the way they do. Fury seems to have no reaction when he finds out there’s alien life beyond Earth, and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) acts pissed off and then sad after she finds out her best friend who disappeared 6 years prior didn’t actually die. Then she has to be talked into helping said best friend by her young daughter.
The biggest issue this movie has is that it is inconsequential from almost every angle. Sure, it introduces the titular character and the dynamic between Fury and her was entertaining to watch, but we already knew Captain Marvel existed based off of events in other movies and that she will likely save the day in the next Avengers film. DC managed to beat Marvel by having Wonder Woman as the first female-led superhero movie of the modern era. The message of this film is very muddled and seems to be that determination will overcome any obstacle, but that is never blatantly clear and only becomes apparent very near the end. After the genre-defining genius on display in Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spiderman: Homecoming, this movie checks all the necessary boxes but fails to set itself apart or live up to the high bar of excellence those films set for the MCU. If you are not very invested in this universe, you probably won’t miss much by skipping Captain Marvel.