“Captain Marvel,” the first Marvel adaptation both to star a woman and to be co-directed by a woman, is an obvious, crude, and transparent film. And it’s also quite enjoyable and evocative — most of the time.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s take on the Carol Danvers origin story jettisons subtlety in its messaging of female empowerment and anti-imperialism to varying degrees of success. At times, the film has all the makings of a wildly effective Nike commercial. You know the kind, girls falling down and getting up again, withstanding jeers and taunts until you’re weeping on your couch? But the two co-directors, working from a script they co-wrote with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, have seemingly taken a tip from all that surrounds them in 2019 that renders subtlety obsolete and beats on some well-worn sexist tropes with a story that screams: “I guess you did not hear us when we said we don’t want to smile!”
In a sense, you can equate the tone (and some of the form) of “Captain Marvel” with that of something like Paul Verhoeven’s ahead-of-its-time, anti-fascist sci-fi picture “Starship Troopers,” also a self-reflexive, blatant metaphor. Going too deep into this comparison may reveal a few spoilers, but suffice to say both lean into fairly obvious symbolism and the idea that superpower nations and planets are often corrupted and on the wrong sides of history.
Verhoeven, however, has a more stinging critique of military-industrial complexes, while “Captain Marvel” obscures that element of its ethos, despite the character of Carol being ex-Air Force. It seems silly even including this in the discussion of a movie whose lead character is essentially an atomic fire person, but, as stated, “Captain Marvel” isn’t trying to hide its conscience.
Brie Larson is a perfect fit for Carol, who begins the film as Vers, a Kree soldier being trained by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to control her emotions to become a better fighter. The number of times Krees tell Vers to keep her emotions in check is so high that it becomes comical — and you’ll find this is intentional. If you go back into the canon of young female warriors in film, you would find a cache of these same statements, and they’re being said with earnestness; so many action films portray emotion (femininity) as the Achilles heel.
Larson’s energy, at first, is powered by a precocious kid-sister vibe, disobeying the rules but charming her way out of trouble. Carol’s arc is defined by shedding those bonds to that identity and to her mentor/father figure, speaking and acting with directness. Larson’s quite capable of selling that oscillation of maturity without losing the humor of her character; she may be confident, but she’s still crafty and calculatingly playful. And what really sells this film is that playfulness.
Carol’s re-entrance to Earth has her crashing down through the roof of a Blockbuster video, picking up the two-VHS set of “The Right Stuff,” and blasting the head off of an Arnold Schwarzenegger “True Lies” cardboard cutout (while keeping the Jamie Lee Curtis head intact, of course). We immediately know it’s the 1990s; a Radio Shack is next door! Sometimes this referential humor that says, “Weren’t the ’90s so weird?” falls flat without any depth, something most nostalgia pieces tend to do. But “Captain Marvel” absolutely grounds itself in the ’90s, even evoking a riot grrrl-adjacent feeling, buoyed by a soundtrack that features almost exclusively rock fronted by female voices — a reminder of an era that showed so much promise for brash, loud women.
It’s no surprise, then, that the emotional high point isn’t even a battle scene in this film. (Remember all the confessions of women weeping at the No Man’s Land sequence in “Wonder Woman”?) Instead, it comes when Carol’s best human friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) convinces Carol that she was an invincible warrior even before she got her powers. Optics of a black female character being the best friend who emotionally props up her white hero friend aside, it’s still a beautiful connection of sisterhood and strength, and I did cry.
Composer Pinar Toprak (“Krypton”) should also get a nod for a score that often mimics the techno music with staccato pinging that marked so many sci-fi action sequences of the late 1990s; wish it stayed through to the end! Add to that the prosthetics and practical makeup effects as displayed on both the Kree people and their sworn enemy, the Skrulls. Yes, there’s a fair amount of CG, especially in fight scenes when Carol’s blasting people with her fire fists and when the Skrulls are shapeshifting into humans, but in a genre (comics adaptations) where increasingly everything is made on a computer, it’s quite nice to see some style and flare represented through the literal textures of on these characters’ faces. Not that the computer effects aren’t spectacularly artful, approximating the creativity and color of comic illustrations at times — they are.
(Also, hooray for Goose the cat! And it’d be great if we could ban the phrase, “Now that’s what I’m talking about,” when someone does something that’s supposed to be cool.)
Props also to costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays, whose past work on 1990s films like “Blade,” “Star Trek: Insurrection,” “Mission to Mars,” and “Beowulf” so clearly informs everything from the cloaks the Krees don to the deconstructed, purple-and-black pleather jacket with tails that Ben Mendelsohn’s Talon sports — appropriately updated but still very much of the “Star Trek: TNG” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” era. Carol eventually gets to wear her red-gold-and-blues –thankfully modest and not overemphasizing her breasts — but that moment in costuming was also the hardest to swallow, set up by the morals of the story itself.
It’s something of a spoiler to explain this, but the Kree are an analog to Americans in this story, a war-faring people who deeply believe what they are doing is just, even though they cross the line and others suffer the consequences. Carol’s arc involves aligning herself with who and what is truly just in her fictional world. The metaphor is clear that the U.S. is the bad guys. So in the fictional world when Carol sports red, gold, and blue — inspired directly by a U.S. Air Force t-shirt — there’s a certain cognitive dissonance one must participate in not to think about these implications. But there’s also a more hopeful way to view this scene: Maybe Carol — and “Captain Marvel” — are reclaiming these colors for the purposes of good. “Captain Marvel” is based on the hopeful outlook of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s version of Carol, so I choose hope.