If you look at every new Marvel superhero story as having to perform the one task of getting the audience to root for a performer playing a new hero, then Captain Marvel is a success. But it succeeds in the same way that Thor succeeded in that it has the right actor in the right role, but the surrounding film is burdened with poor visual and narrative choices you tend to overlook because you’re having fun with the character. Since the MCU depends on getting the audience to root for the characters since those superheroes will be reused in other movies, not just sequels, getting that aspect right is paramount, and Brie Larson makes Captain Marvel her own. It’s just a shame that co-writers and directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck’s film lacks the same bravado and that the script, in trying to wrap the origin story in a mystery, obscures what makes Captain Marvel unique and endearing.
“Vers” a.k.a. Captain Marvel (Larson) is a member of the Kree Starforce fighting against the shapeshifting Skrulls in an intergalactic war. A Skrull ambush leads to Vers getting separated from her fellow Kree fighters, led by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and eventually crash-landing on Earth in the year 1995. On the run from the Skrull, who are led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), Vers eventually teams up with a young Nick Fury (a convincingly digitally-de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) and the two search for Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), a scientist whose work may not only end the Kree-Skrull War, but hold the key to Vers’ past, which she can’t remember since waking up on the Kree planet Hala six years ago.
The Captain Marvel marketing has been incredibly strange because it conceals one of the film’s strongest aspects, which is Captain Marvel’s personality. Although she’s not the first cocky Marvel superhero, she’s the first one with an attitude that feels earned. Guys like Tony Stark, Star-Lord, Thor, and Doctor Strange all have some level of power. Their movies get comic mileage contrasting their arrogance against their occasional shortcomings, and narrative catharsis when they are humbled and learn A Very Important Lesson about sacrifice. By comparison, Captain Marvel’s bravado feels earned, a result of a woman who’s had to work twice as hard for everything she’s ever received and never backed down from a challenge. She’s funny, whip-smart, and takes no crap. She’s a character you want to root for because her attitude feels incredibly human and relatable against her cosmic origin and backdrop.
Larson, unsurprisingly, is magnificent in the role. The young Oscar-winner’s talent comes as no shock, but she still leaves a stamp on the character that takes full ownership of where Captain Marvel goes from here. Just as Robert Downey Jr. defined Tony Stark and Chris Evans defined Steve Rogers, Larson has now defined Captain Marvel, a tricky task given the character’s confusing comic backstory. There’s nothing so simple as a super soldier serum of a fortuitous spider-bite. There’s a lot more narrative baggage, but Larson’s performance always keeps us on her side.
That personality becomes absolutely essential in a movie that doesn’t really know how to tell Captain Marvel’s origin story. On the one hand, I sympathize with the three credited screenwriters and the five writers credited with the story. Origin stories can be a lot of exposition, and we’ve seen them done to death. What Boden, Fleck, and co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet have done here to try and spice things up is give Vers’ amnesia so that she doesn’t even know her real name let alone where she came from. This way the audience is discovering Vers’ origin alongside her. Unfortunately, that approach leads to other characters telling Captain Marvel who she is, and every time it has to lapse into reveals, it loses sight of her personality. The mystery of her origin is ultimately uninteresting, and it deprives Captain Marvel of a character arc or any notable weaknesses. She’s a superpowered person who doesn’t know her past, discovers her past, remembers her strength, and becomes even more superpowered as a result.