Rating: 4 Stars
The following review contains spoilers.
Carol Danvers is being lied to. An alien race called the Kree has manipulated her memories to make her believe she is one of them. Her superior officer in the Kree Starforce, Yon-Rogg, tells her constantly that she is reckless and overly emotional and needs to be controlled and disciplined. The leader of the Kree, an A.I. called the Supreme Intelligence, has told her that her super powers were given to her via an implant in her neck and can be taken away if she doesn’t properly behave. And everyone around her has told her that the Skrulls, a race of shapeshifters, are brutal terrorists bent on destroying the Kree way of life.
The overall theme of Captain Marvel is, basically, gaslighting. Gaslighting is a term used to describe the attempts by one person to convince another that their reality isn’t real, and there’s something wrong with them. At the start of the film, every aspect of Carol Danvers’s life is false, down to her name, which has been shortened to just Vers. But on a mission with her Starforce squad to recover a Kree spy, they’re ambushed by Skrulls and Danvers is captured. The Skrulls, led by Talos, use a device on her to probe her memories—her actual memories–causing Danvers to question who she really is and where she comes from.
Ironically, the Skrulls, whose very existence as shapeshifters would theoretically make them the ultimate masters of gaslighting and manipulation, are the ones who help Danvers see the truth. When Talos, disguised as a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. officer, acquires a black box recording that reveals the Kree actually shot down Danvers on Earth six-years ago, he brings it directly to her, shows her his true form, and lays all his cards face-up on the table.
The Skrulls, he tells her, lost their homeworld to the Kree, and are now merely refugees scattered throughout the galaxy, seeking a new world where they can settle down and escape Kree persecution. This has echoes with our real-world, in which we are often “gaslighted” by our leaders and would-be leaders that refugees, immigrants, and basically anyone not like us are criminals, monsters, and terrorists out for our blood (though some, I assume, are good people). The Skrulls represent all types of refugees in this, as in their natural form they look so different that it’s easy to assume they must be monsters, and when shapeshifted, well, then they’re insidious infiltrators who could be anyone, who could be sleeper cells waiting for their moment to strike.
Later, when Danvers finally has a chance to confront Yon-Rogg and the rest of Starforce with what she’s learned, she’s at first captured and forced to commune once again with the Supreme Intelligence for a fresh round of brainwashing. But this time Danvers has come too far, and is too aware of herself, her power, and what she’s capable of. She enters her comic-book “Binary” form, burns out the Kree inhibitor chip, and proceeds to absolutely wreck shop.
After she’s taken out most of the Kree’s forces (including blowing up a massive warship by flying through it), she has one final confrontation with Yon-Rogg back on ground level. Realizing he’s no match for her in this state, he snaps back into his role as her mentor and superior officer, telling her how proud he is of all she’s accomplished (insinuating he had something to do with it), but if she really wants to prove herself to him, she’ll have to turn off her powers, reign in her emotions, and take him on mano a mano. But he can’t put her genie back in the bottle, and she floors him with a single blast.
“I have nothing to prove to you.”
Brie Larson nails Carol Danvers’s irrepressible spirit and brash, thrill-seeking personality. It comes through early on when she’s fighting the Skrulls on their ship and one roars in her face and she roars right back at him. This is also the first time Samuel L. Jackson has had a chance to actually star in one of the Marvel films (though he’s been in tons of them, it’s always a cameo or supporting role), and he shines. Jude Law is perfect as Yon-Rogg, and it’s impressive how the first time you see the film you completely believe he’s on her side, whereas on a second viewing you can see the little ways he’s manipulating her. Lashana Lynch and Annette Bening are both great as well, if underused, and Ben Mendelsohn seems to really enjoy not being the villain for once, though sometimes it seemed like he struggled to talk through the prosthetics.
The scenes in Louisiana are the best in the film. The dynamic between Danvers and her (forgotten) best friend, Maria Rambeau, and the way it shifts as the sequence continues and she gets more and more of her memories back is really terrific. Rambeau telling Danvers about herself was the first time (of three) that I got choked up watching this movie. Also, these scenes are shot in a more naturalistic way that really worked for me.
For the record, the second time I got choked up was when Danvers saw the Skrull families hiding on Mar-Vell’s spaceship and tells Talos, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” And the third time was during the montage of times in her life when she fell down and then got back up determined to continue. Following up that montage with her going full binary was a real fist-pumping moment.
Initially I thought the only part of the plot that didn’t fit together was the emphasis on Danvers needing to control her emotions. Since it was the bad guys telling her that, I figured they were wrong, but there were never any scenes of her screwing up because she tried to control her emotions or winning at the end because she embraced them, or whatever. It wasn’t until I talked about it with my wife that I realized they’d even succeeded in gaslighting me. Carol Danvers is just being herself, behaving normally, and they keep telling her she’s being too emotional. It’s all bullshit. She doesn’t need to reject or embrace her emotions because they have nothing to do with anything. It’s just another way for Yon-Rogg to make her doubt herself and to keep her under his thumb. Realizing this, it’s actually rather brilliant.
I didn’t even talk yet about how well the twists work. I went into this movie absolutely expecting the Skrulls to be the villains, and so in that way the audience is brought along with Danvers in learning the truth and shifting their loyalties. I also had no idea Bening was playing Mar-Vell (though if I had remembered that the original comic book Mar-Vell’s secret Earth identity was Walter Lawson, it would’ve been pretty obvious, so not sure if this is a twist or me just not knowing the source material that well).
I’ll be honest that I’ve always thought of the 90s as being a fairly bleak time for pop culture, but boy they sure managed to find literally every great 90s song and put it on the soundtrack. I wasn’t planning to stay for the credits during my second viewing, but I couldn’t walk away from Hole’s Celebrity Skin.
I know this the longest review ever written, but Captain Marvel, in the comics, is billed as Earth’s Mightiest Hero, and as such some have described her as the modern Marvel analog to DC’s Superman. And they acknowledge this at the very end with a nice little homage when she runs towards the camera and does a little hop to start flying “up up and away”, just as in the classic Superman shows and films.
The action scenes are solid and functional, but there’s nothing all that exceptional to them. Captain Marvel’s biggest flaw is a lack of stand-out “wow” moments. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything here I’ve never seen before. A lot of Marvel’s best films (or really a lot of the best action and adventure films in general) have visuals and sequences that get stuck in your head, almost like a good song, and this movie doesn’t have that. I sort of wish they’d filmed the whole movie in the more naturalistic way they filmed the Louisiana scenes. I don’t know if that would’ve even worked, but it would’ve been more memorable.
The CGI isn’t Marvel’s best. I wish Captain Marvel flying around and kicking butt somehow looked more like a real person doing it and less like a video game character. The de-aging effects were pretty good on Nick Fury (and by pretty good I mean “only sometimes distracting”) but Phil Coulson never looked like a human being anytime he was on screen.
I could’ve done with a lot less “Hey, remember the 90s?” moments. I don’t know how you avoid them completely in a period piece, but some stuff like slowly watching a CD-ROM file load on an old computer could probably be cut.
I wish we had more of Gemma Chan’s Minn-Erva. She’s instantly captivating, and has borderline nothing to do. Plus, she dies at the end, so unless there’s going to be a prequel to this prequel, she’s gone for good.