For all its advancement and innovation, it took Marvel a startling 10 years to put a woman at the front of one of its movies. That makes Captain Marvel valuable and important by nature of its very existence, but that significance doesn’t let the movie off the hook for being an uninspired, paint-by-numbers superhero flick. For all its fanfare, Captain Marvel is lamely average. Its hero deserves more.
Captain Marvel’s story finds its lead inside an identity crisis similar to the movie around her. Carol Danvers is a Kree warrior caught between a past she can’t grab hold of and an intrepid set of aspirations. Likewise, Captain Marvel can’t balance the plot details of Carol’s confusing, fragmented origin story and the bold symbology she ought to inspire.
In other words, watching this movie feels more like Thor than Wonder Woman. It fills in an MCU blank, but it doesn’t do much to stir your heart. Captain Marvel’s true potential is hinted at in the final 20 minutes, when Carol becomes the fists-on-hips, steely-eyed icon you’ve been waiting for, but the two hours it takes to reach that point are—in the most baffling sense—almost boring.
On one level, Captain Marvel had a chance to be a huge stylistic risk for the MCU, but in palette, tone and aesthetic it sticks to the rote Marvel formula. The story here is a 90s-set, Star Trek-adjacent space romp complete with shape-shifting aliens, photon punches and spaceships galore, but nothing about that is as fun as it reads. Everything from the way the creatures look to how the spaceships are designed to even the presentation of foreign planets couldn’t be less memorable or original. There’s no sense of world-building, and nothing provokes you to find out more about these characters or where they come from. Past Captain Marvel herself, there just isn’t anything inspiring here.
The ’90s stuff works as a backdrop for the earthbound action, but the period isn’t used for anything except nudge-nudge references to Blockbuster or Nine Inch Nails. Even Captain Marvel’s humor doesn’t expand the tone of the MCU like Guardians of the Galaxy’s self-aware smirk or Thor: Ragnarok’s collegiate high jinks did before. This movie settles for references and just-okay banter. It’s serviceable, but forgettable.
Of course, it’s OK at this point for superhero movies to function as pre-Endgame plot movers, but Captain Marvel should be more than that. The first female-lead Marvel flick should feel different and look different. It should go all-in. It should feel like an event.
Because the hero at the center of Captain Marvel deserves to be here. Carol Danvers might not be a well-drawn character in this movie, but she is a great character, and her search for identity and self-liberation need to be depicted in a 2019 blockbuster. In a time when women are owning their stories, we really do need Captain Marvel, and it’s good she’s in theaters right now. You just wish this movie was more celebratory of her arrival.
So while Captain Marvel leaves a footprint for its cultural relevance alone, that mark is indistinct, and it hurts the presentation of the character here. Brie Larson is a fine choice for Danvers, but Captain Marvel doesn’t give Larson a chance to bring any kind of original flair or panache to the expected hero poses and zingers. Larson has poise for days, but in comparison to Gal Gadot’s singular presentation of Wonder Woman’s idealism, naivete and determination, it’s clear Carol Danvers wasn’t as well-defined on the page. You just can’t describe her. We know Captain Marvel is a hero, but in the MCU, that’s not a personality trait. It’s a job.
We’ve learned to love Marvel not because their heroes are painted broadly, but because their heroes’ conflicts are. We don’t relate to Peter Parker’s wall-crawling, but how he feels burdened by his abilities. We don’t relate to Iron Man’s genius, but how he puts up (literal) armor around his trauma. We don’t relate to Captain America’s stringbean-to-superhero transformation, but how he wrestles between obeying the letter of the law and the spirit of it. In Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers has a broad conflict in how she’s seeking ownership over her past, but her character doesn’t have the specificity to ground that conflict. In that way, she never feels true-to-life, and her movie never feels like more than another MCU puzzle piece.
But the hope is the simple reality of Captain Marvel will be enough to give it a broader impact than its quality might warrant. Disappointment aside, the sight of Larson zooming through the air in full regalia should be inspiring enough to create change, silence haters and turn plenty of young gazes skyward. As a movie, Captain Marvel isn’t much more than a symbol, but in this case, the symbol is worth fighting for.