The Greatest Strength of Captain Marvel Is Also Its Biggest Weakness

The 21st entry in the famous cinematic universe is alternately lifted up and dragged down by the central mystery of its hero’s true origins.

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel (Disney / Marvel)

In recent years, the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe has seemed to keep finding exciting new territory to explore. As the long-running, multiheaded collection of superhero franchises rolled on, it exhibited inventive comedy in Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man and the Wasp, staggering scale in Avengers: Infinity War, and a genuine cultural-paradigm shift with Black Panther. With Captain Marvel, sadly, that streak is over. The 21st entry in Marvel’s galactic film empire, and the first focused on a female superhero (played by Brie Larson), is a perfectly fun time at the movies that deftly lays out the stakes of its new character for many future appearances. But more often than not, it feels a little routine.

It’s more evocative of Marvel’s flatter “origin” movies that introduced big heroes: The first Thor, the first Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange all struck a carefully calibrated balance between their new star and a sparkling supporting cast, and featured an even mix of humor and action, but nonetheless felt a bit soulless. Captain Marvel is a fine rollout for a character who will likely be dropping by many an Avengers movie for years to come. But as a film it’s only halfway there, filling in nerdy details about the larger cosmic concerns of the Marvel world but failing to stage one outstanding set piece in the process.

The movie is directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who until now have worked in the realm of quiet, sensitive indie films like Half Nelson, Sugar, and 2015’s fantastically grotty gambling drama, Mississippi Grind. They’re the kind of writer-director team that can coax nuanced performances from stars including Ryan Gosling, Ben Mendelsohn, and Ryan Reynolds, but they’re not obvious fits for the world of Marvel. Then again, neither did other small-budget filmmakers the company has plucked from relative obscurity, such as the Russo brothers, Jon Watts, and Taika Waititi.

Unlike those directors, Boden and Fleck get a little lost in the spectacle. Captain Marvel is a surprisingly loopy celestial adventure of a film, one that digs deeper into the alien lore laid out in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy series. But though Boden and Fleck wrote the screenplay (along with Geneva Robertson-Dworet), their talent for sharp banter and character interplay only shines in the scenes set on Earth. When the story is space-bound, things begin to feel perfunctory. That’s especially true of the action, which reeks of the anonymous house style that Marvel seems to impose on most of its movies (and which makes deviations from the norm, as in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Thor: Ragnarok, look all the more impressive).

The biggest problem with Captain Marvel, though, is also one of its biggest strengths: the overarching mystery plot that it saddles its main character with. Things kick off on Hala, the home world of the haughty Kree (a race of aliens who were the villains in the first Guardians of the Galaxy). Our hero is not yet known as Captain Marvel or by her human alias Carol Danvers; she’s merely a space cop named Veers, a member of an elite shock troop in the Kree Starforce led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), a charming but jaded mentor who keeps nudging her to keep her emotions in check while on the job. But she’s plagued by memories of a human past, one she can’t puzzle out even in chats with a collective being called the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening, perfectly cast). So our hero ends up on Earth trying to figure it out—and it takes her most of the movie to do it.

That means Larson, an incredibly gifted actress who did flooring and heartfelt work in films such as Short Term 12 and Room, has to spend most of Captain Marvel’s running time without a backstory. Sure, she can blast energy bolts from her fists, and she has a rebellious twinkle in her eye, but she doesn’t have much of an actual character to play. Luckily, she’s surrounded by a capable supporting cast to bounce off. Samuel L. Jackson shows up as a younger Nick Fury (the film is set in the 1990s) and gives his most committed Marvel performance in years, cooking up some wonderful buddy-cop chemistry with his amnesiac alien partner.

Mendelsohn, reteaming with Boden and Fleck, plays the film’s chief villain, Talos, a shapeshifting Skrull (a new kind of alien plucked from the comics world) and manages to do something fascinating with the role. So many Marvel bad guys are anonymous, but Mendelsohn is the standout of Captain Marvel’s supporting cast—a darkly funny, world-weary lizard monster whose lidless eyes belie hidden depths. Bening has less to sink her teeth into in the role of a wise counselor, but few legends of the silver screen could wear alien contact lenses and a leather jacket as well as her.

As Carol tries to untangle her past, the film bounces around Los Angeles and the California desert, having fun in new locations (unlike so many Marvel movies of late that had a concrete sort of sameness in scenes set in the “real world”). There are plenty of ’90s needle drops and nudging references (remember Blockbuster, RadioShack, Hole, and the Smashing Pumpkins? This movie sure does!) that add nothing to the fabric of the story but are good for some quick laughs. And whenever Larson is handed weightier material, she does what she can with it, making an effort to convey Carol’s journey striving for independence from her sometimes well-meaning, but always stifling male authority figures.

And then it’s time for another action sequence, and everything continues on autopilot. The film’s first big showdown is inexplicably set on an alien planet shrouded in a dank yellow mist, so that all the punching and shooting is both impossible to follow and ghastly to look at. Most of the subsequent battles have similar problems—they’re choppily edited and difficult to visually track. Any time the story settles into its central mystery, the script is far more involving; there are even a couple of satisfying major twists at the midpoint. But the amnesia required comes at the cost of Carol as a character, and coupled with the uninspiring action, that makes Captain Marvel more of a solid building block for future endeavors than a must-see solo adventure.