“Captain Marvel” Complicates the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Captain Marvel is a film about histories, specifically secret ones — how they inform our present, and more importantly, how their absence detracts from our experience, reducing us to an ahistorical impulse. At this specific cultural juncture, where Trumpian amnesia abolishes context and rejects long-form analysis in favor of the navel-gazing peck, Captain Marvel perhaps finds itself in a more generous cultural framework than it deserves. Its contrived political feints, palpable though they are, will satisfy only a few monomoniacal minds, just as the film’s central claim about discovering a genuine self positions itself, without much fullness, as the healthy alternative to our age of tawdry identity-collaging. But even these convenient capitalizations augur little texture to remember, and their net-effect is either an over-intellectualization or an I-get-it nod to the film’s dilettantism.  

The fulcrum on which everything turns in Captain Marvel is Vers (“veers”), a Kree soldier, played by Brie Larson, whose complicated background is manipulated and mutilated for intergalactic advantage. Vers lives in wartime, where two alien races, the Kree and the Skrulls, are pitted against each other in a colonialist framework meant to frantically virtue-signal us to action. As a member of the Starforce, Vers is led by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her mentor who trains her to “keep her emotions in check” and her powers at bay (powers that equal beamed fistfuls of energy, later to become mind-bogglingly protean). 

The film opens during the squad’s clandestine extraction of a Kree intelligence officer, an operation that deteriorates in a speedy retreat when Vers is captured by Telos (Ben Mendelsohn), leader of the shapeshifting Skrulls. Telos wants to find an energy core developed by a Dr. Lawson (Annette Benning), which would give the Skrulls a decisive advantage in the war against the Kree, and he mines Vers’s fuzzy, piecemeal memory to extract its location. The Kree aim to stymie Telos and find the core first to permanently displace the cretinous Skrulls from their galaxy. Vers escapes imprisonment before Telos gets his answer, firing into space and crash landing into a Blockbuster video store in Los Angeles, commencing the 1990s cultural deluge (a tide that will crest in a combat scene fought to the tune of No Doubt, in a humorous and entertaining, albeit low-hanging, set-piece). The rest of the film follows Vers as she fumbles to understand and establish an identity, constantly splayed by her past and manipulated by the war-addled present. 

This means the majority of Captain Marvel exists in a world of fluid allegiances. As Vers slowly remembers her life on Earth, she contends with the messy political reality of the Kree versus Skrull entanglement, reducing the brief space opera to wisps of cultural and political relevance. 

Captain Marvel is directed by Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden, whose previous work (Mississippi Grind, Half Nelson) lives in the granular, character-studious world of low-budget indie films. Yet their uniquely delicate touch as writer-directors has produced welcome oases, distinguishing itself from the forgettable gestures of passable humanism. Sadly, in Captain Marvel almost all this detailed portraiture melts away into crackerjack dialogue and banal action set-pieces, sketching archetypal virtue onto paper-thin personas. In theory, this directorial choice may have been conjured to inject Captain Marvel with the humanity so many broad-brush superhero films lack, but in practice, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) machine and its tried-and-true fiduciary mechanics sweep the film clean of any real immersion. 

Vers herself represents a sort of 21st-century contemplative idol, a thinking person caught in an ahistorical world, whose memory works to make her a more complex and robust person. Identity in Captain Marvel, through its cobbled realization and historical dependency, gathers cultural significance by becoming an ideal of historical introspection. Vers simultaneously resists her proffered Kree identity and the urge to easily skim-and-paste concepts onto a created one. Her quest for historical definition makes her a modern hero retroactively sourced from the nascent stages of the internet, forming herself based on analysis and thought rather than external manipulations and simple gleanings. And though Captain Marvel does some interesting cultural digging, it is almost all by accident, hidden by inane, political distraction and mostly uncomplicated characters.

In its totality, Captain Marvel is a mediocre superhero film filled with great actors, the sad-but-inevitable antagonism between an amateurish concept vitalized by nuanced professionals. It is as if the folks behind the MCU curtain were aiming for something more, but in doing so deflected the realization that they are propped up on an intrinsically limited idea. The political resonance realizes itself as a half-baked toss-in and attempts to complexify an MCU film with whatever extant performance the actors can eek out and comes across as a diagnostic misfire. The problem is not that the MCU needs humanity; it was never meant to exist in the human realm — only the mythological one, where gods mingle with humans, attempt thin allegory and achieve maximal entertainment. Although Captain Marvel is brazen enough to put the cinematic pieces in play, it is never able to gain dimensionality because the MCU films are inherently desultory (read: that is not to say they are all inherently bad). 

Samuel L. Jackson (well-CGI-ed to look thirty) as Nick Fury does his best to texturize his bits, but at a certain tipping point the trite filler inundates even his best attempts at vivification, which is saying something. Ben Mendelsohn inhabits Telos with a lived-in confidence, drawing us towards him via the lilting gravity of his Australian croon, and Brie Larson does her best to make Captain Marvel a competent emoter, knowing that the limited script allows only so many pyrotechnics before it becomes flat-out satire. In a film like Captain Marvel, one that synthesizes vague cultural beats and generalized acting into a forgettable impression, the only thing to do is either skip along the shallows or dig yourself into a concept, becoming a pedantic, symptomatic viewer. Either way you watch Captain Marvel, the experience reduces itself to the explicitly political or the entertaining. The issue is that the former will never convince you of anything and the latter will barely sustain you. Captain Marvel and its attendant producers seemed to want to say, borrowing from The Who, that their dreams aren’t as empty as their conscience seems to be. That may be true, but it remains to be seen.