There isn’t really that much to say about Captain Marvel in itself. As a movie, it is a pleasant but unremarkable way to spend two hours. Brie Larson is extremely winning as Air Force pilot turned Kree warrior Carol Danvers, but the film built to introduce her is rather nondescript, offering up neither the original, format-busting heights of Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok, nor the pointless tedium of Doctor Strange, nor yet the infuriating pseudo-ethics of Captain America: Civil War. I might call it inessential, if it weren’t for two things: the film’s significance as the first female-led foray in the MCU, and Carol’s obvious importance to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, and the future of the MCU after it.
Which is really the most important thing you can say about Captain Marvel: this is a movie that is important not because of what happens in it, but because of what happens around it. The most interesting conversations you can have regarding it all take place in the meta-levels—what does Captain Marvel mean for the MCU, for superhero movies, for pop culture?
Take, for example, the film’s use of US Air Force imagery. Within Captain Marvel itself, these elements are fairly minimal. We get only a few shots of Carol as a pilot, and only hints of her uphill battle to claim her place in the boys’ club of the military and combat flying—or, for that matter, the even more challenging journey endured by her best friend, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), a black single mother. I strongly suspect that there was a lot more material shot covering this part of Carol’s life, as well as her childhood, but what we see in the film itself is almost impressionistic. A person who had only seen Captain Marvel and knew nothing of the media hoopla around it would probably consider Carol’s Air Force background to be a minor detail in the tapestry of her life. But if you do pay attention to that hoopla, you’re aware not only of how much Marvel has been pumping up the film’s military connections—from highlighting the role of Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, the Air Force’s first female combat pilot, as a consultant, to publicizing the fact that Larson spent time on Air Force bases while researching her character—but of the conversation that has sprung up over the unsavory implications of some of these tie-in efforts, such as an F-16 flyby during the film’s LA premiere, or the Air Force airing recruitment ads before the movie.
Another example is the way Captain Marvel refigures Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who functions here as Carol’s sidekick on Earth, where she crash-lands after being captured by Skrulls, the enemies of the Kree. Fury has been a fixture of the MCU since he showed up in the after-credits scene of Iron Man in 2008, and has always cut an imposing figure: a grey eminence, spymaster, and general who suffers no fools and always has plans within plans in his monomaniacal quest to defend the Earth from alien dangers. The version of Fury we meet in Captain Marvel is much more down to earth—funny, self-deprecating, willing to pause his serious pursuits in order to coo over an adorable cat, and inordinately pleased with himself over minor bits of spycraft, like fooling a fingerprint reader with a bit of tape.
It can be hard to square the Fury in Captain Marvel with the one we’ve known for twelve years in the rest of the MCU, and once again, when looking for solutions, one immediately turns to the metafictional. My first thought when the film’s credits rolled was “someone told Jackson to just do what he did in The Long Kiss Goodnight“. That 1996 film, for those of you who don’t know, was Renny Harlin’s attempt to turn his then-wife Geena Davis into a bona-fide action star. Its plot resembles Captain Marvel‘s in more than a few respects—it’s about an amnesiac woman who discovers that the life she’s built for herself since losing her memory in an accident is a lie, and that she is really a highly-skilled assassin. She has to fight her former mentor, and does so with the aid of a down-on-his-luck private detective, played by Jackson. The most blatant similarity between the two movies is the fact that Jackson plays a sidekick character in both, a humanizing influence whose humor and camaraderie help the heroine reconnect with the life she’s forgotten, and to reintegrate it into her present life, finally becoming a self-aware, self-directed woman.
I don’t know if the Captain Marvel team—directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet—intended the film as an homage to The Long Kiss Goodnight. But there’s no denying that such a reading gives Captain Marvel a depth that it might struggle to earn on its own. Long Kiss was, after all, a famous flop that not only stalled Davis’s career, but has been cited for years as “proof” that female-led action movies don’t sell (meanwhile, Captain Marvel has just had the sixth-highest worldwide opening weekend in history). The fact that Davis has gone on to become a major activist for female representation in Hollywood, founding a self-titled institute that publishes reports on the limited space for women both in front of and behind the camera—pointing out, for example, that a film franchise can go eleven years and twenty movies without putting a woman front and center, and most people won’t see anything wrong with that—only adds significance to the reference.
Of course, most people will take Fury’s personality shift in Captain Marvel as merely a character arc, the film functioning as an origin story for him as well as Carol. The film’s ending even sees him drafting the first proposal for the Avengers Initiative, and spelling out to Clark Gregg’s Coulson (who makes a brief appearance that nevertheless manages to step all over the backstory established for his character in Agents of SHIELD) the philosophy that will go on to guide his career—with dangers like the Kree and Skrulls out in the universe, Earth needs its own heroes to protect it. But that’s a reading that smooths over a lot of the problems with Fury—and with the MCU.
Marvel wants us to see Captain Marvel as a movie that shows us how Fury went from a schlub to a badass. But what’s startling about the Fury we see in this film isn’t that he’s uncool; it’s that he’s kind. He finds himself caught in the crossfire between a quippy, take-charge alien soldier, and a bunch of alien shapeshifters who scare the bejeezus out of him, and nevertheless tries to help out someone who is more lost than she realizes. And then when the shapeshifting aliens turn out to be not so nefarious after all, he helps them too. It’s not the shift from baby-talking a cat to wearing full-length leather coats that bothers me about Fury. It’s the shift from being willing to interest himself in the problems of others and put himself out to help solve them, to greenlighting a system that would allow him to kill anyone on the planet at the push of a button. Like so many characters in the MCU, Fury’s coolness only makes sense if you limit your perspective. In the grand view, Captain Marvel is a tragedy about how a good, decent man began his slide towards megalomania.
This is particularly glaring given that Captain Marvel itself wants to be a story about questioning a corrupt militaristic system, and finding humane solutions to problems instead of just shooting at them with the biggest, most powerful weapon you can develop. It tells this story, however, incredibly badly. If most of the film is fun but lightweight, the political subplot—in which Carol discovers that the war against the Skrulls is a lie, that she was once an unwitting part of a renegade effort to resettle Skrull refugees, led by the Kree scientist Mar-Vell (Annette Bening), and that her powers were given to her by an accident when that effort failed—is simply incoherent. To state the obvious, what the hell does it mean, “the war is a lie”? Wars can be founded on lies, but more often, they’re founded on propaganda. On the media’s refusal to report fairly about who is attacking whom and who is suffering where. And, usually, on a bedrock of racism that defines some people as less worthy of protection, and more killable, than others. To suggest that Carol and other Kree soldiers were simply unaware of the fact that the Skrulls are not a race made up 100% of evil infiltrators, but are regular people who sometimes do evil stuff but also dream of a home and love their families, is not only idiotic, it makes our heroine look like an idiot—and that’s the kindest interpretation you can put on her behavior. (The one thing that does work in this storyline is Ben Mendelsohn as the sardonic, war-weary Skrull leader Talos, a rare case of an MCU character buried under layers of prosthetics who nevertheless manages to come off as a person, and an interesting one to boot.)
Of course, this type of flattening is typical of MCU movies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the most complex and challenging film in the franchise, and one whose plot Captain Marvel clearly models itself on, nevertheless insists that what “Hydra infiltrated SHIELD” means is that half of all SHIELD operatives are secret double-agents, fully committed to evil, ready to turn on their fellows the moment the word is given with utter ruthlessness. (And that this in no way reflects on Nick Fury’s competence, moral character, or fitness to lead.) It does this so that future films and TV series can rehabilitate SHIELD without giving any serious thought to whether this is desirable or even possible. It’s hard not to wonder if Captain Marvel isn’t setting up a similar walk-back of its humanist message—on twitter, Gerry Canavan pointed out to me that though we see four Skrulls arrive on Earth in search of Carol, only three are accounted for by the end of the film, leaving a fourth to potentially start a Skrull invasion storyline.
So a weakness that might have been forgivable in a single movie—perhaps even a means of conveying an otherwise unpalatable message in a way that could impact on the film’s young target audience—becomes much more glaring when you consider it as part of a pattern. The MCU keeps gesturing at criticism of the security state or the military, but its broader shape will always end up being in favor of them. By making Carol an unrealistic innocent, even as Fury learns exactly the wrong lesson from their adventure together, Captain Marvel not only defangs its message, it ends up saying the opposite of what it wanted to say.
It’s a particular shame because, buried under this unconvincing political plotline, there’s a more personal one that could have worked like gangbusters if it had been given more room to breathe. Throughout the film, Carol struggles with powers she doesn’t understand and can’t entirely control. Her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) spews platitudes about emotional control and not giving into anger, while the Supreme Intelligence, the AI that governs the Kree (Bening again), warns her that “what can be given can be taken away”. Part of Carol’s journey towards heroism is realizing that nothing about herself, and certainly not her powers, was given to her. Rather, that they are something she needs to claim. “I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back!” she joyfully exclaims when she finally realizes that the Kree are more afraid of her than she should be of them. When she finally embraces what she is, she becomes unstoppable.
The film’s absolute best scene comes when Yon-Rogg, now revealed to have been manipulating Carol in order to gain access to the Tesseract cube from which she draws her powers, calls back to an exchange he had with Carol at the beginning of the movie, insisting that she fight him without her powers, that only by doing so can she “prove” her heroism. But Carol, without even breaking her stride, simply blasts him away, because he has no right to demand so much of her attention or time. “I have nothing to prove to you,” she tells him, in a moment that is bound to become a shorthand for casually waving off entitled men who demand to be “debated”.
It’s incredibly frustrating for a film whose true and most inspiring moment is a woman saying “I am enough, I am amazing, and I don’t need anyone’s approval” to spend so much of its running time doing anything but that. But the problem is, Captain Marvel may be enough, but Captain Marvel isn’t. Even as the character is finding her groove, the movie is laying pipe, setting up a bigger movie in which Carol is merely one component of a whole, looking forward to phase four, trying to make sure that this billion-dollar juggernaut never stops. As Aaron Bady has observed in one of the most clear-sighted reactions to Avengers: Infinity War, the MCU has a tendency to devour itself. It burns up its best and most original parts as fuel for its worst and least effective ones. Black Panther introduces us to the vibrant, fascinating new world of Wakanda, and Infinity War destroys it. Thor: Ragnarok ends with the promise of new beginning for the Asgardians, and Infinity War kills them all in its opening minutes. But Captain Marvel is something different. It comes pre-digested—there’s nothing here that’s powerful enough, or sufficiently well-done, for us to feel protective of as the machinery of Endgame descends upon us. Nothing but Carol herself. Which is something, to be sure, but I can’t help but feel that the first female headliner in the MCU deserved better.