Going "higher, faster and further," “Captain Marvel” flies into theaters this weekend, the 21st film released by the Marvel Cinematic Universal (MCU) franchise in just under 11 years. Telling the origin story of the MCU's first big-screen, standalone female superhero (2017’s “Wonder Woman” is owned by rival DC Comics), the movie attempts to project an aura of historical baggage, with a release date timed to coincide with International Women’s Day. Those expecting the vision of “Black Panther” will be disappointed, however. Enjoyable, fun and generally empowering, “Captain Marvel” is a solid comic book film — but it doesn’t break much cinematic ground.
In the pantheon of Marvel films, “Captain Marvel” lands somewhere below “Iron Man” but far above “Doctor Strange,” the uninteresting “Ant-Man” and the cheesy yet self-important original “Thor.” It’s silly, it’s action-packed and while centered around a powerful woman, it doesn’t seem particularly concerned with making a feminist statement. There once was a badass woman who fell to Earth, and then saved it.
To be fair, “Captain Marvel” already has a clear path thanks to the trailblazing “Wonder Woman.” But while inevitably the films will be compared with each other, they really shouldn’t be. “Wonder Woman” had something prove; it felt it had to be better than every other DC Comics movie in order to be taken seriously. “Captain Marvel” no longer has to do that. After all, “Wonder Woman” was already a quarter-century old when Captain Marvel was first introduced in 1967 — as a male character, who was eventually revealed to be an alien, a Kree, named Mar-Vell.
The new “Captain Marvel” film revises this uncomfortable bit of history as part of the character’s introduction. The female-led, Carol Danvers version of the comic — first called “Ms. Marvel” — wasn’t introduced until the late 1970s, as a girlfriend of the now-deceased Captain Marvel. The “Captain” moniker wasn’t officially given to her until 2012, after the MCU was well established at Disney and the company most likely looking for a female hero who could carry her own feature film. In the new movie, Marv-Vell is still a Kree character who dies and in death helps Danvers gain new powers. But in this retelling Marv-Vell is played by Annette Bening, and is more of a boss/mentor figure.
But while “Captain Marvel” isn't exactly shattering glass ceilings, neither does it minimize the female experience. Danvers (Brie Larson), now rechristened “Vers,” is a member of an elite squad called Starforce fighting to protect the Kree homeworld from the Skrulls, a dangerous and shapeshifting rival race. She has no memory of her life on Earth, until a mission under her commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) goes sideways. Vers is kidnapped by a Skrull named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn); attempting to escape his clutches, Vers crashes back down to Earth. From there it becomes a tale of Vers trying to unwrap the mystery of her former life, and how she gained her mysterious powers, aided by a young S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Nicholas Fury (a distractingly de-aged Samuel L. Jackson) and a strangely intelligent cat named Goose.
Oscar-winner Larson grounds the film, bringing the right kind of energy to the role of a hero who is struggling to remember her heroic origins before it’s too late. Her chemistry with Jackson is great; they make a fabulous buddy comedy team. It’s also refreshing that for the first time in 21 films, there is no heterosexual love story. Danvers’ most emotionally intense relationship is with a woman, fellow Air Force pilot and best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), who she trained with before losing her memory. Maria had believed her friend was dead, but when Vers comes strolling up with an incredible story and incomplete memories, their relationship is what helps our hero find herself again.
The real star of the movie may be Goose the cat, though, played by four felinesalong with some strategic photorealistic CGI. Goose steals every scene he’s in and has been the marketing department’s secret weapon, used to sell the film to every cat lady in America. He’s worth the price of admission alone.
Ultimately, “Captain Marvel’s” clearest identity is as a prequel. It certainly includes as many prequel clichés as possible. For instance, Nick Fury in the present-day films wears an eye patch. Therefore, he spends much of the “Captain Marvel” film accruing ocular injuries. Likewise, the film’s big twist may surprise fans who haven’t been pay much attention to the details of the Marvel movies and TV series that precede it. But anyone who has been keeping track will merely shrug when the curtain is pulled back.
If anything, “Captain Marvel” should be compared to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” especially in terms of the soundtrack. Both films rely heavily on nostalgic musical moments during major sequences. While slightly cheesy this device is effective, and more than a few female GenXers will delight in “Captain Marvel” taking down bad guys to No Doubt’s indelible 1995 hit “I’m Just A Girl.”
Some might complain that a scene like that is too on the nose, but “Captain Marvel” doesn’t care what you think. By the end of the film, the character’s deep revelation is that she doesn’t have to prove herself to anyone, nor does she have to apologize for anything. She is what she is, and everyone best get out of the way. “Captain Marvel” also is what it is — a relatively good superhero blockbuster — and it’s not trying to be anything more than that. After all, why should female superheroes apologize for acting just as delightfully cheesy as the boys have been acting for decades?
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com
This article was first published on NBC Think.