It’s 1995, and the Kree warrior Vers (Brie Larson) has just crash landed on the planet Earth after escaping capture by the evil Skrulls, shapeshifters engaged in a galactic war with the Kree. While Vers’ mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), provides support from orbit, Vers must team up with young S.H.I.E.L.D agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to find the Skrull infiltrators.
With a synopsis like that, never let it be said that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not accessible to newcomers. Yet despite all the intergalactic race wars and silly names, this latest entry into the Marvel Studios’ ever-expanding universe feels about as fresh and welcoming to comic book rookies as it’s possible to be. This is helped in no small part by Captain Marvel’s 1990s setting: not only with sight gags involving Blockbuster Video and Street Fighter II arcade cabinets, but also with a structure and sense of humour that feel like the midpoint between Lethal Weapon and Suburban Commando.
Thankfully, Captain Marvel is not just a nostalgia trip, and both in tone and theme feels fresh and relevant. A mid-stage plot twist reveals telling expectations about heroes and villains in superhero narratives – undercut somewhat by the film’s blatant and queasy sponsorship deal with the US Air Force – while Yon-Rogg’s repeated warnings to Vers to keep her emotions in check are an obvious critique of the enduring discourse of the ‘hysterical woman’. It’s the leads’ chemistry, however, that truly sells the proposition.
Teaming newcomer Larson with Marvel veteran Jackson pays dividends, with the pair bouncing off each other in the time-honoured tradition of the 90s buddy movie. As expected of the talented lead, Larson is by turns charismatic, funny and more than able to handle herself as the eponymous hero. To have a star expressing a different kind of charisma than just another snarky genius with daddy issues is extremely welcome. Vers is knowing, funny and hard as nails without needing to revert to the same old man-child merry-go-round.
While this is Larson’s light show through and through, it’s also great to see Jackson finally have something more to do in one of these films than dish out exposition (even more so than in his turn in Captain America: The Winter Soldier). It’s doubly refreshing to see him playing somewhat of a rookie to Larson’s hardened space soldier, playing against the badass type he’s comfortably settled in to for the last twenty-five years. Sadly, it’s the same old Marvel problems that bring down Captain Marvel. Indie writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck prove themselves adept at character development, but less so in the action stakes, which are a disappointing mish-mash of frantic editing and missed beats. The potential fun of No Doubt’s I’m Just a Girl in a later fight squandered by sloppy mixing and a distinct lack of rhythm that smacks of a second unit going through the motions of stitching the sequence together.
Captain Marvel’s colour palette, too, is depressingly grey and flat throughout. It’s a problem that has dogged Marvel’s films for years and one that the studio is seemingly in no rush to rectify. Cinematographer Ben Davis’ careful lighting choices are sadly no match for the digital grey of Marvel’s colour timing process. Clearing the decks for next month’s mega-finale Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel succeeds as a rollicking-good film in its own right. Accessible to newbies and satisfying to fans, it’s about time that brilliant performers like Larson were given their time in the spotlight. But Marvel, please, can we sort out the colour?
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell