Written by Fajar binti Benjamin
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE ARTICLE.
Look, I am the target audience for Captain Marvel, so to disentangle my hopes and my knee-jerk defensiveness from the reality of this movie was a herculean task. There was a lot of bad press around this movie that I was willing to ignore as long as the movie delivered on what I’d been deriving from fanfiction and what if posts on Tumblr from as young as 15. Steve Rogers as a woman, Tony Stark as a woman, Natasha Romanoff as a more prominent character, stories that utilised the unique experiences of being a girl, set in a world I’ve desperately wanted to be a part of for so long.
As a teenager, I craved representation without really understanding any of the dynamics or complexities behind it. I wasn’t an advocate or anything – I was simply a girl who wanted a female superhero she could be proud of.
3 years later, along comes the perfect candidate, Captain Marvel. You have to understand: seeing a movie like this was my dream. I have wanted this so deeply for so long.
DC’s Wonder Woman came out two years ago and don’t get me wrong, it was a great step towards better representation. However, there’s no denying that Wonder Woman is, overall, a much more palatable female superhero. She’s the perfect balance of sexy and sweet, sentimental and strong, innocent and alluring, knowledgeable and clueless. I am well aware of how paranoid and controversial this hot take is but she’s a female hero made for men. (Which isn’t to say she isn’t also a valid and beloved heroine to me).
But that quality, at least in my mind, disqualified her from being a real icon of progression. Our strong female character still needed to be attractive to men to be given screentime. Maybe I’m being uncharitable. Maybe I’m just bitter.
Either way, I wanted Marvel to deliver on another Valkyrie, Gamora, Mantis, Wanda Maximoff or even Natasha Romanoff. None of these characters have been given their own movie, true. But none of them are ever objectified by their own male teammates either (or in the case of Black Widow, at least not without consequences). Marvel has handled their female characters with a lot more taste than the DCU has.
Which is what had me so excited for Captain Marvel – to give them credit, it’s the only thing this movie managed to deliver on. They gave us a flawed female lead, and the more trolls online scream about how Brie Larson as Captain Marvel ‘doesn’t smile enough’ or ‘doesn’t fill out her suit’ or even ‘acts too stiff’, the more I applaud her characterisation in this movie.
See, Captain Marvel in this movie is a complete, multidimensional character on her own – she goes through a complete arc, she has unique responses, she has a struggle she faces with determination and grace. The only reason many came out of this movie not seeing that is the funny pacing and directing choices.
I’ll walk you through the Captain Marvel that I saw. A woman, with powers and emotions she can’t quite control is being treated like an unruly child by the Kree, these stiff, emotionless people who hold all the power in her world (sound familiar?). She doesn’t remember what it is to be human. (Ok, this is a full essay in of itself but what is it with ALIENS in the MCU acting exactly like HUMANS? Aliens are aliens! They shouldn’t have to follow human etiquette, mannerisms, behaviours, cultures and even power structures down to a T!) The Carol Danvers we’re introduced to has no control and doesn’t know much about herself or anything at all.
She just wants to prove herself good enough to be trusted and treated with respect. She’s playful and takes things lightly, not in the way Tony Stark takes things lightly as a cover for how deeply traumatised he really is, but lightly because she actually wants to have fun. A series of events that are cut together too sloppily and too quickly to really be fully appreciated sends her tumbling to Earth and this is where the real fun of Captain Marvel begins.
Once she starts playing off rookie agent Nick Fury and her best-friend-from-a-previous-life Maria Lambeau along with said best friend’s daughter, Carol Danvers’ personality is given room to breathe. She has this obvious mischievous curve to her smirk, this flippant streak, this understated sass that’s so fun to see, yet she’s also compassionate and stern where the circumstances call for it. We see a few powerful flashbacks that do all the heavy lifting for her character building. This is a woman who stands back up, no matter how many times life strikes her down. It’s not a female trait, it’s a human trait. My beef with this movie begins and ends with how the jerky pacing didn’t give this enough weight. These scenes passed by like a shout-out to the devastatingly impactful movie this could have been.
The plot takes an unexpected twist when the Skrulls are revealed to not actually be the bad guys that they’ve been portrayed as all along in this universe, but rather the victims of an attempted genocide and subsequent smear campaign by the Kree. I have to applaud Marvel for this ballsy move because not only does it so aptly reflect the real-life political climate of the US, it veers off from the canon of the comics into completely new territory that they’ll have to write themselves from now on.
Our perception of the Skrulls instantly turns on its head. From enemies that we enjoy seeing kicked down, they evolve into the emotional core of the movie, the characters we root and sympathise for (Talos’ hilariously out-of-place British accent certainly helps). Carol Danvers has to face the fact that her ignorance has killed innocent people. That she was fighting on the wrong side of the war. That she went against everything her mentor, the person she respected the most in the world, stood for.
This is where the movie stumbles over itself. This is where all the potential becomes wasted. Because instead of pausing to give weight to these enormous revelations, instead of letting Carol go through the five stages of grief, instead of taking this opportunity to make her look human, they jump instantly into upping her powers and turning her into a CGI blur of power. From the point where she rids herself of her handicap onwards, the movie passes in a bland haze. For goodness’ sake, the most impressive special effect in this movie was the de-ageing tech used on Samuel L Jackson’s face. Apart from that, sequences that should have been gorgeous, what with our main heroine glowing in technicolour, were messy and forgettable.
I do however enjoy her final choice to not fight Yon-Rogg (played by Jude Law) when he challenges her to fight, fist to fist, no powers. Yes, it’s a de-escalation of tension, and choosing to fight him would have still been in character, but ultimately, it would’ve brought her character full circle, back to playing the Kree’s games in order to prove herself. “I have nothing to prove to you” is a powerful message for women to take home. We do not need to excel in male-dominated playing fields to be valid. We do not need to reject our unique strengths and ‘play fair’ for our successes to be valid. We do not need validation. Period. Let us be who we are without barriers or expectations and see what we bring to the world with that freedom.
Carol Danver’s character arc is completed at this point. She grew from volatile to gaining control over herself, from desperate for validation to validating herself, from a soldier to a captain. This is what I loved about the movie.
Unfortunately, this hint of genius characterisation work doesn’t equal a great movie.
Higher, faster, further baby! This tagline is so exciting. It promises impact. This movie was supposed to hit us like a brick, instead we felt the sensation of a foam ball bouncing off our collective faces. It wasn’t energetic, or focused, or stylish. None of the fight sequences stand out the way sequences in The Winter Soldier, Civil War, Ragnarok or even the Ant-Man movies did. Co-directors and writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have never ever helmed a huge blockbuster project like this. Marvel took a gamble leaving a high-stakes movie in their inexperienced hands, and it didn’t pay off.
Captain Marvel not only needed to be a good movie, it needed to be distinguishable from its predecessors. It needed to lean into a style – whether that be retro, neon, under or overstatement, upbeat or grim, anything, anything. As movie number 21 in the MCU, mirroring the release schedule and progressive sentiment of last year’s highest US box office grosser Black Panther AND as Marvel’s direct response to Wonder Woman, it had to be something. Not just the hint of something.
There is a great movie hidden somewhere within this merely good movie, and that is what frustrates me the most. Captain Marvel is blamed for being a bland character rather than bad cinematography being blamed for not fully capturing that character. Bad pacing has people walking out underwhelmed as they cite a boring story or bad dialogue, but not the invisible force driving a movie in its craft that simply wasn’t there.
To the world, Captain Marvel with its huge opening – the 6th best opening in the world ever, behind only Infinity War among Marvel films – is a success story. To critics, it’s a good movie with some issues. To haters, it’s a rubbish film that’s only coasting along on the success of the universe it’s set in and women’s desperation for representation. To little girls, it’s a fully dressed heroine who teaches lessons of self-confidence and strength to aspire to – a wonderful contrast and enhancement to Wonder Woman’s equally important lessons of compassion and kindness.
To me, it’s a dizzying shame of wasted potential, but it’s also a beautiful continuation for the amazing female characters Marvel has been granting us consistently in their lineup of women, this time finally brought to the forefront. They stumbled on the execution for this one sure, but I believe we’ll be getting much better movies out of the two strongest Avengers for years to come (the second being Goose the Flerken of course).
Now onwards to Endgame!