BY CORY WOODROOF
What happens when a movie accomplishes a lot but is only so good?
The paradox of Captain Marvel is that it’s a diverting lark with seismic sociopolitical ramifications for Hollywood’s most lucrative, widely viewed film franchise. A movie set in 1995 and enamored by Blockbuster Video, Salt-N-Peppa needle-drops, snail’s-pace-dial-up-internet jokes and paying homage to Michael Kamen’s synth-punchy Die Hard score is an unlikely vessel for messages of female empowerment, but this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so you make do, and make concessions.
This is the MCU’s first film centered on a female character in its 11 years of existence, which makes you think, more than once, “It’s about time.” But to the chagrin of its potential, the film settles for just being a fun installment in a bigger scheme.
On one hand, there is something inherently rewarding and desperately needed in watching Carol Danvers soar across the sky like a technicolor firecracker, blasting space baddies left and right and proving that she’s, well, much, much, much more adept to taking on Thanos in next month’s Avengers finale than most of her male counterparts. The natural ascension of on-screen representation is going to inspire any number of young girls in the audience in a way that no Marvel film quite has before. The film gains much of its merit from just being what it is and being willing to represent what it represents. That matters.
On the other hand, Captain Marvel struggles with building Danvers as a character as it simultaneously tries to build her as a symbol. Part of what made 2017’s Wonder Woman so lasting was that the hagiography melded with the nuance and relatability. The image of Diana storming across the battlefield was coupled with natural character progressions and Gal Gadot’s fierce regality and fish-out-of-water curiosity.
Star Brie Larson has only so much to work with, though, as the Danvers character is written a bit tepidly and tied to plot. Her development as a memory-wiped space warrior returned to her home planet feels too rigid to sink in from a personal standpoint. Larson has had to do this in the past with roles, though, and she clearly knows how to elevate Danvers to be more than the page allows. Captain Marvel makes for riveting representational cinema, but it lacks the groundswell of genre flourish and gritty character detail that marks the films of her Avengers counterparts. The film should’ve been able to have both.
Its status as a ’90s buddy-cop homage doesn’t exactly do a ton we haven’t already seen before; Shane Black did this to better effect in Iron Man 3, and part of the nostalgia here just comes from shameless reminders that this film, very much, takes place around 1995. It’s practically a shaken can of Surge to the face while R.E.M. blares in your ears by the umpteenth reference.
But it’s when Captain Marvel, finally in its third act, harnesses the goodwill of its lead actress and learns to balance its importance with its genre leanings and yearn for flannel and Friends. It learns to fly with much more zeal, and the obvious ’90s music cues just begin to feel more apt. It’s a downright shame the film can’t find this tone more consistently throughout.
The good the film will accomplish will far outweighs the standards it doesn’t quite meet. Film is a multifaceted object, able to mean many things for many people. Captain Marvel can stand alone as a step forward for a film series that was long past due making one, just as it can fall short of its potential. That’s the beauty of going to the movies, isn’t it? Imperfection never holds a movie back from, just at that right moment, feeling perfect. You get out of it just what you need.