Brie Larson-Led "Captain Marvel" Squanders Opportunity For Invention

Eleven years and twenty films after it launched, the Marvel Cinematic Universe belatedly gets its first female-led entry in “Captain Marvel.” The outcome is, to put it gingerly, suboptimal. Where DC’s even more belated “Wonder Woman” movie had intelligence and verve to spare, “Captain Marvel” slumps down comfortably into tired origin story clichés, expecting its mere existence to qualify as a political statement. No dice. Feminism was inherent in the text of 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” made even more significant by Patty Jenkins’ sinewy direction. “Captain Marvel” has no such oomph textually or cinematically, making it the MCU’s biggest letdown since “Doctor Strange.”

Over the course of her relatively short career, Oscar-winner Brie Larson has dazzled and disheartened in equal measure. This makes her the platonic ideal of a Marvel lead, minus her gender, of course: an accomplished but far-from-household name on the precipice of breaking through at the box office. The same goes for writing and directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, their passageway into comic book films all but guaranteed to rule the world thanks to its attachment to the MCU. Opening weekend box office returns confirmed as much – a fantastic step towards normalizing female-driven comic book films.

The movie itself is a drag, though.

Larson is tasked with playing the title character as a Jason Bourne type: a deadly Kree-human assassin with no memory of her past. Although she – known as “Vers,” from the melted fragment of a dog tag – clearly possesses value as cosmic weapon, her sense of self just isn’t there. Vers’ mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) employs her strictly as a chess piece in the Krees’ war against the Skrulls, keeping her from any semblance of personhood. This might have been a potent jumping-off point for a sociopolitical superhero movie, but Boden and Fleck and whatever committee brought “Captain Marvel” from page to screen shows shockingly little concern for anything but leisurely filling in their blank slate of a lead.

What made the husk of a protagonist work in the early Bourne films was rapid-fire action and shrewd storytelling. “Captain Marvel” possesses neither of these qualities, relying on a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and ’90s fetishism (for the benefit of no one but the audience) to maintain some semblance of momentum and connection to the MCU.

As Vers makes her way back to Earth at the end of act one, crashing through the roof of a pristine Blockbuster Video store, Boden and Fleck and co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet make it achingly clear that that very little of the humor to follow will be character based. That every note of the narrative will be in strict service of getting their title character to the impending “Avengers: Endgame” intact. That this is, at best, an ankle-deep solo endeavor whose idea of a good joke is Captain Marvel incinerating a “True Lies” standee. Get it? Because it’s the ’90s.

Never mind that not a single character in the film would have any reason for ’90s nostalgia, especially not Vers, who goes on to inexplicably recall a major grunge hit she never would have heard, having been gone from Earth since 1989.

There’s a certain kick to be had from seeing a “Die Hard: With A Vengeance” era Sam Jackson roam the streets of Los Angeles, but the Marvel veteran – and nearly the entirety of the supporting cast – functions as a mere sounding board for Vers’ sluggish journey of self-discovery. Her former best friend and fellow Air Force pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) brings a warm presence to the film, as does Maria’s young daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). But beyond filling in some basic details about their old friend – including her full name, Carol Danvers – mother and daughter hardly figure into the story at large.

Most head scratching of all is the pic’s use of the great Annette Bening. She plays both Carol’s old boss Dr. Wendy Lawson and Kree ruler Supreme Intelligence disguising itself as Lawson. Bening is used exclusively in flashbacks and dream sequences, one of which is arguably the MCU bottoming out. Bening gyrates to the aforementioned grunge hit while Larson grapples with the unspoken absurdity of the scene. To date, most cosmic MCU entries have wielded a vital sense of self-reflexivity. “Captain Marvel” takes our suspension of disbelief for granted, to disastrous effect.

As Skrull green meanie Talos, the ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) is the lone cast member to make a real impression. Aided by the screenplay’s only pockets of wit, Mendelsohn’s wry comedic sensibilities and terrific character design are something straight out of 1999 cult hit “Galaxy Quest,” in retrospect exactly the kind of movie “Captain Marvel” should have modeled itself after: jaunty and nostalgic without allowing the latter to become a crutch.

Instead, we’ve got just another rung in the MCU ladder; a movie content to lift its climatic moment – a sight gag involving a enigmatic cat – directly from “Guardians Of The Galaxy.”

Yes, “Captain Marvel” is essentially a non-entity where political statements are concerned, a significant disappointment in itself. But its elemental failings are what prove fatal.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 8, 2019
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Lashana Lynch, Akira Akbar, Annette Bening
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language)