Marvel's first female-led superhero flick plays it disappointingly safe.
Representation matters and, strange as it is to say, a Marvel movie about a female superhero is incredibly important. It’s important to young girls, who take away from it the chance to dream of being 'just like her', as opposed to 'just like him...but as a girl'. Arguably even more important, though, is its impact on young boys, who gain the understanding that herosim is defined not by who you are or what you look like, but what you do. If even a few say 'I wanna be just like her', the world will be a better place.
With that in mind...it's taken Marvel 21 films to champion its first female-led superhero offering. Was the wait worth it? Not quite, unfortunately. Not by Marvel's standards, at least. Befitting its name, Captain Marvel is so preoccupied with fact-checking and nodding to its own 'Marvel Cinematic Universe', it forgets to keep the focus squarely on the extraordinary and vital character at its core.
Carol Danvers, aka Vers, aka Captain Marvel - an unstoppable force of fire-fisted feminism, played by the fantastic Brie Larson.
First, though, a caveat. A bad Marvel offering is still lightyears ahead of most of its competitors, meaning - in isolation - Captain Marvel does just fine. It's when judged against the preceding 20 Marvel films that the film flounders in genericism (compared to, say, the wildly creative and engaging Ragnarok, Guardians or Civil War). The backstory, for example, is just the same old 'hero with amnesia' setup; the action sequences are completely by the numbers (save for one terrific fist-fight in a packed train carriage) and its twist is so tired, the only good version of it is a sketch by That Mitchell & Webb Look (you'll know it once you see it). The saving grace is Larson; one of those rare screen magnets who commands your attention even when she's just standing silently in the background of a scene.
If only she'd been given more to do.
When the story sits with her, the film glides with an effortless appeal; especially when it plays to the whole fish-out-of-water, alien in a space suit navigating the unknowns of planet earth routine. Like so many parts of this film, though, the idea is introduced then scarecly revisited. Vers is a crash-landed alien on earth yet there's no 'what's this? how's that work? why do humans permit flammable and inflamable to mean the same thing?'. Similarly, the film is set in the 90s, but aside from a Blockbuster store, a pager, a shoutout to Alta Vista and some great 90s music, you'd never know it and it doesn't really matter.
In fact, 'it doesn't really matter' is almost the theme of the movie. Vers is a confident and capable warrior, moving from one scene to the next with such surfer-chill swagger, the stakes never feel particularly high. She never seems troubled, even when surrounded by enemies and vastly outnumbered. In fact, it's a struggle to think of even a single moment in the film where 'fear' actually registers on her face. For that reason, its best scene (by far) is the only one in which her vulnerabilities bubble to the surface. Confronted with life-altering revelations and crippling self-doubt, she's forced to finally decide who she is and what she stands for. It's as moving as it is invigorating; a true goosebumps kind of moment and a suitable showcase of Larson's range.
There's no denying Captain Marvel shines brightly as a beacon for female empowerment (quite literally, in fact), and so it should. Take nothing away from the MCU, but twenty one films is an unforgivable delay to arrive at its first female-led project, especially when possessed of such phenomenal actors and characters like Scarlet Johanssen's Black Widow, Zoe Saldana's Gamora or Elisabeth Olsen's Wanda (to say nothing of Tessa Thompsons's recent turn as Valkyrie). Studio expectations that audiences won't show up or buy the merch for a hero that doesn't fit the 'usual mould' will surely wither and die again, just as they did with Black Panther as it arrived at, then blasted through, the $1 billion earnings benchmark. Even more importantly, it seems clear the fates and fortunes of all will turn on Captain Marvel's involvement in the up-and-coming Avengers: End Game. The symbolic value of an entire universe relying on a powerful woman to save it cannot be understated, especially for younger audiences both male and female. As we said, representation matters.
Another strength of the film is its supporting cast, boasting the likes of Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening and a remarkably youthful Samuel L Jackson (thanks to some incredible film-long special effects). Jackson and Larson, in particular, have an appealing chemistry, at once encouraging and joshing each other in equal measure, but its her scenes with old friend and former pilot buddy, Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), that prove the most moving. As two women attempting to make their mark in the testosterone-fuelled, Top Gun-esque world of combat pilots, ("You know why they call it a 'cockpit', right darlin?"), their struggle begins long before aliens invade from the heavens, and their defiance and determination in the face of constant sexism makes for a far more tangible and human form of heroism.
A recent study calucated that women occupied a meagre 10% of all screen time in the first decade of the MCU. At last, then, Marvel has taken steps to draw down that imbalance, but there's a long way to go. Its female characters deserve more films, more often and with more care taken to develop backstories and conflicts as rich and layered as those of their male counterparts. In Captain Marvel they have a hero so powerful that friends and foes alike should both fear and respect her in the same way Superman is received in the DC Universe. In life, as in the film, Carol has earned her seat at the very head of the table. May she soon be joined by others.