Review: ‘Captain Marvel’ is a blockbuster with an indie touch

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 3/26/19 2:00am

At this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has garnered a reputation for tenacity when it comes to selecting unique directors whose prior work doesn’t always make them obvious candidates for mega-budget superhero extravaganzas. This strategy is noteworthy because it has paid off time and time again; the fact that Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler have recently managed to reinvigorate the franchise with “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther,” respectively, suggests that this strategy is extremely viable. 

That said, I don’t think Marvel has made a directorial choice more unexpected than the hiring of husband/wife duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden for their newest entry, “Captain Marvel.” Although Waititi and Coogler had certainly never made films at the size, scale and scope of an MCU production, it is easy to see how the sensibilities demonstrated in their previous efforts translated fluidly to the arena of superhero spectacles. By contrast, Boden and Fleck appear to be largely comfortable operating low-budget independent films. For instance, their film “Half Nelson” suggests Fleck’s ease with a quirky, abrasively indie, small-scale approach to cinematic craftsmanship.  

Thus, it is invigorating to see that Boden and Fleck, like Waititi and Coogler before them, have ­— for the most part — managed to turn their singular style into an asset. “Captain Marvel” feels no less grand than a film like “Avengers: Infinity War,” but infinitely (see what I did there?) more intimate due to Boden and Fleck’s knack for small, character-driven moments. Likewise, the film possesses a distinct energy that may be hard to quantify yet is nevertheless tangible in every frame. Though the seemingly endless barrage of superhero films constantly threatens to wear the genre thin, Boden and Fleck approach the material as if they’ve only just learned that the MCU is the Big Thing in Hollywood right now. “Captain Marvel” may ultimately just be another cog in Marvel’s carefully calculated corporate scheme, but it never feels that way, which is key to the film’s success. 

Set in 1995, the story follows Brie Larson’s character Carol Danvers, or “Vers,” played by Brie Larson, a human coping with memory loss who lives amongst the alien Kree Empire and trains as an elite member of Starforce before becoming Captain Marvel. The Kree wage a seemingly endless war against their enemies the Skrull, who are shapeshifting aliens who look rather like menacing goblins in their original form. After a conflict between the two alien forces goes awry, Vers quite literally falls to Earth. She teams up with a young Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson, a paper-pusher who has yet to evolve into the superspy that MCU fans have come to know and love. Incidentally, Jackson’s digital de-aging is the first time I’ve seen that technique work seamlessly in a major feature film. Regardless, Vers and Fury team up, evade the Skrull, uncover Vers’ mysterious past and listen to a lot of rock/punk music from the 1990s.

“Captain Marvel,” admittedly, does not start out on the best note. As a direct result of Vers’ memory loss, the film seeks to discombobulate the spectator by narratively jumping right into the middle of things. Although conceptually a good idea, the execution fails to generate any real investment in the characters until a solid 15-20 minutes in. Once we get to Earth, the sailing is relatively smooth, barring the occasional disorienting edit during an action scene and the awkward tie-ins to other MCU films. These are all minor complaints, though, and possibly indicative of Boden and Fleck’s inexperience with productions of this scale. 

For the most part, though, “Captain Marvel” feels effortless, thanks largely to Larson’s stellar performance as well as solid supporting work from Jackson, Lashana Lynch, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law and Annette Bening. Fleck, Boden and their co-writers also manage to gracefully balance a buddy-comedy between Vers and Fury with a thoughtful examination of the reality that underlies the Kree-Skrull War. As with “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel” continues the MCU’s recent exploration of the devastation wrought by colonialism/imperialism. The success of each film’s thematic core relies on its unique examinations of a strikingly similar topic: the protagonist having to confront and challenge the society they grew up in and explore the disturbing political implications of said society. “Captain Marvel” adds its distinct contribution to this larger narrative by examining the ways in which imperialist states indoctrinate their members, particularly as it pertains to controlling a powerful woman who has the potential to challenge the established hierarchy. 

This brings us to the film’s gender politics. As many have already pointed out, “Captain Marvel” is the first female-led MCU film and is only the second major female-led superhero film of this generation after Patty Jenkins’ ground-breaking “Wonder Woman.” It would be a mistake to underestimate the pressure the filmmakers must have felt to maintain the success and enthusiasm generated by Jenkins’ landmark film. Of course, comparisons to “Wonder Woman” are inherently problematic and unfair, yet sadly unavoidable. Thus, it’s no surprise that “Captain Marvel” has sparked heated debate: Is it empowering? It is feminist enough? Although I’d like to consider myself a feminist, I feel that as a straight, cisgender male it is really not my place to comment on the quantity or quality of the feminism in “Captain Marvel.” Thus, I will simply report that both my sister and my best friend asserted that, as women, they felt decidedly empowered by the film. Personally, I found the film’s depiction of an unstoppably powerful woman who is routinely suppressed by the power structures surrounding her to be both thoughtful and compelling. Nevertheless, I’ll leave the lively, necessary and productive debates about the film’s gender politics up to voices who deserve to be heard and considered more than mine. 

Overall, “Captain Marvel” is among the MCU’s best films precisely because it feels so refreshing. If we absolutely must compare it to “Wonder Woman,” then it might be fair to say that “Captain Marvel” lacks the monumentality of Jenkins’ film. Yet, that’s not a bad thing. “Wonder Woman” aimed to respond to decades of superhero films that actively negated female presences or perspectives. “Captain Marvel” aims to normalize the notion of a female superhero while still addressing relevant issue related to gender, patriarchy, power, etc. It neither lingers on, nor ignores, its historical status, instead proceeding with a swift confidence, resulting in a film that is not flawless but rather ambitious, thoughtful and highly entertaining.