‘Captain Marvel’: An Engaging, If Somewhat Fleeting MCU Throwback Prequel

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(2019—Directors: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)

— by Renard N. Bansale

Low ★★★½
(out of 5 stars) 

   “Name a detail so bizarre a Skrull could never fabricate it.” … “If toast is cut diagonally, I can’t eat it.” — Carol Danvers/Vers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and Agt. Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson)

Potential spoilers below

When Avengers: Infinity War set off a year-long intermission for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it left two key questions lingering: First, where was Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man during all of this? And second, who or what would rise to give the heroes what they need in order to defeat Josh Brolin’s Thanos? As it turned out, the MCU had to turn back time to answer both questions. While the answer to the first question did not involve that far of a step back, the answer to the second appears to have been found just over two decades earlier, when pop culture was still recovering from the loss of Kurt Cobain, pagers were still commonplace, and female U.S. Air Force combat pilots were few and far between. Captain Marvel is to the MCU what the recent Bumblebee film is to Transformersgrounded and back-to-basics where it needs to be, yet somewhat eerily underwhelming due to all the complex storytelling that came before it.

It is 1995: On the distant Kree Empire’s capital planet of Hala, up-and-coming Starforce member Vers (Brie Larson) keeps having nightmares involving an unknown older woman (Annette Bening), who also appears to Vers as her unique vision of the otherwise immaterial Supreme Intelligence, ruler of the Kree. Both the Supreme Intelligence and Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), her mentor and commander, remind Vers to restrain her emotions. A botched Starforce rescue mission as part of the Kree’s ongoing war with the shape-shifting Skrulls (led by Gen. Talos, played by Ben Mendelsohn) results in Vers crash-landing on Planet C-53/Earth. Finding an unlikely ally in Agt. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D., Vers must evade her pursuers in order to learn more about her possible past life as a U.S. Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers and her connection with a Dr. Wendy Lawson—the same woman from her visions.

It may seem odd for me to compare Captain Marvel, the twenty-first installment in the MCU, with the recent Bumblebee, but please bear with me. Both prequels serve different purposes: Captain Marvel answers a question lingering after the MCU’s most recent and devastating all-hands superhero team-up, while Bumblebee reboots a big screen toy commercial franchise whose indulgent and profitable days were apparently behind it. Each prequel, however, involves more straightforward plotlines compared to their fellow franchise entries. It is perhaps this hallowed-out sensation—going from more to less—that gives them a certain air of disappointment, as if to express, “After spending all that time doing too much and going all over the place, to varying degrees of success and memorability, this is all you can muster when distilling your big story down to its core, when providing the answer to the current big obstacle in the heroes’ way?”

Just imagine if both of these prequels had come out a decade earlier, prior to the real-life start of their respective franchises, rather than now to rectify a situation or to fill in a decades-old gap.

Still, while Captain Marvel’s whole is slightly less than the sum of its parts, the parts do, in fact, leave me feeling pleasant whenever I dwell on them. Even those who have yet to see 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy (a personal top 3 for the MCU) and have no clue who the Kree are will be impressed by how Captain Marvel simply jumps into its under-burdened story. The prequel spends the barest time on Planet Hala before proceeding to the fateful mission that brings Brie Larson to Earth. Ms. Larson and Samuel L. Jackson (de-aged with visual effects, supervised by Christopher Townsend) may share an immediate rapport, but the easygoing Ben Mendelsohn is the cast’s MVP, switching accents between American and his native Australian with astonishing ease under two hours of Skrull makeup and prosthetics. (Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck last worked with Mendelsohn on 2015’s Mississippi Grind, which also starred Ryan Reynolds.) ‘90s technology and music choices are present without getting in the audience’s faces, while I wholeheartedly welcome any reference to The Right Stuff (e.g., VHS box and Pancho’s Bar) and Top Gun (i.e., Goose the…um, “cat”). Finally, it makes me glad that Captain Marvel does not waste either Jude Law, Lashana Lynch (as Maria Rambeau, Danvers’ best friend and fellow Air Force pilot), or Annette Bening. Ms. Bening in particular gets to play a dual supporting role and dance a bit to Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” (always a pleasure to the ears, especially in the theater). Give it another decade and the MCU will become more like Doctor Who (then and now) or Harry Potter, in that any major American movie star who does not feature in it will be perceived as an exception to the rule.

If Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s from last year arguably pioneered the cinematic gaze towards that decade sandwiched between ‘80s excess and the internet-driven 2000s, then Captain Marvel is that cinematic gaze’s mainstream welcome celebration. Granted, the twenty-first entry to the MCU comes in response to the destruction that concludes Avengers: Infinity War, but that does not mean a novice cannot enjoy Captain Marvel as a standalone superhero spectacle. Compared to the light and non-origin comedic sidequest of Ant-Man & the Wasp, Captain Marvel serves as a crucial puzzle piece, hidden beneath forty-plus hours of a humongous and ongoing superhero epic. Sure, an earlier appearance could have spared some suffering, but now that the piece has revealed itself, one cannot help but say under their breath, “Took you long enough,” grinning as they do so.

I hope you are ready, Thanos, for what is to come.

(Parental Note: Captain Marvel has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language.” It has also been rated PG by the BBFC for “moderate fantasy violence” and “implied strong language”, and A-III (Adults) by the Catholic News Service for containing “much combat violence, most of it stylized but some of it harsh, fleeting anatomical humor, a few mild oaths, at least one rough term, and a handful of crude and crass expressions.”) 

(P.S. Keep an eye out for one of the last obligatory Stan Lee cameos (Requiescat in pace, good sir.) as well as a mid-credits scene and a post-credits scene.)

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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