The MCU steps into its past to preview its future in ‘Captain Marvel’

CapnMarvel

The Marvel Cinematic Universe goes backward in order to show us the way forward in Captain Marvel, a solid origin story and an effective throwback to the franchise’s roots that still feels relatively fresh and innovative. While certainly not without its flaws, as the next episode in this now 21-part series, it ultimately leaves us with a sense of excitement for what lies ahead for a number of reasons, as well as the sad realization that in just seven weeks, it’ll be time to start saying some goodbyes.

(WARNING: SPOILERS FOR CAPTAIN MARVEL WILL FOLLOW)

Given the fact that Carol Danvers will be so integral to Marvel’s next phase — which makes sense for a character whose name is literally Captain Marvel — there’s a lot riding on this movie. It’s crucial that she be someone we want to spend more time with, and in that way, the film is a rousing success, although it cheats in some way by pairing her with a character we all already know we like, Nick Fury. To borrow some wrestling terminology, Fury’s a face helping get the new kid get over with the crowd, and it works wonders. When given a chance to shine on her own, Carol shows clear promise, even if her characterization is a little on the thin side until near the end since it’s not until that point that she even understands who she is.

Even more so than Carol herself, though, what makes this movie work for me is Maria Rambeau. Lashana Lynch absolutely knocks this supporting role out of the park, and I found myself as invested in this friendship as any actual romantic relationship in the MCU. The entire stretch at Maria’s home is the beating heart of this movie, and for how often Marvel gets accused of watering down directors’ visions, this felt very much like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck being encouraged to bring their indie film sensibilities to the biggest movie franchise in history.

And while it has become a lazy criticism to say that Marvel movies are endlessly repetitive, Captain Marvel is anything but, introducing audiences to Carol in an interesting way by utilizing a narrative structure unlike that of any other MCU film. Seemingly aware that audiences are growing tired of traditional Point A to Point B origin stories, Marvel in recent years has opted to shake it up, bypassing the origin completely with Spider-Man and now by making Carol Danvers’ past into a mystery, one that centers her journey and livens up what could have been a somewhat tired Phase 1 style superhero fare told in a linear format.

In fact, the movie throughout flips our expectations on their head, especially for those familiar with the source material. In particular, the twist that the Skrulls — or at least these particular Skrulls — are actually the good guys may be the most truly surprising MCU reveal in recent memory, and casting Ben Mendelsohn as a villain who turns out to not be a villain at all was a masterstroke. Villain reversals like these don’t always work for me, but I was surprised at how quickly I fully fell in love with Talos, and how upset I was when it seemed he was about to die. The movie also shoots down the widespread fan theory that an adaptation of Secret Invasion is coming next, although I suppose that could still be possible just with a different faction of Skrulls.

In other ways, though, Captain Marvel also feels like a walk through the MCU’s greatest hits, a mix of a classic, methodically-paced origin story for an idealistic young member of the military i.e. Captain America: The First Avenger combined with cosmic space fantasy of a Guardians of the Galaxy. It isn’t necessarily as daring or genre-bending as some recent MCU entries like Thor: Ragnarok, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

With this in mind, the film’s place in the broader MCU struck me as particularly fascinating. It’s opening a month before Avengers: Endgame, which has been billed as the conclusion to everything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building up to so far. Nothing afterward will theoretically be the same, and Kevin Feige has teased it as a finale to everything we’ve seen since Iron Man.

So perhaps we’ll look back at Captain Marvel as one last trip down memory lane before the grand finale, after which everything shifts into a new direction and there won’t be so many glimpses backward or reliance on old plotlines anymore. It’s certainly the most fan-service focused non-Avengers film in quite some time, with the whole thing not only being an origin story for Carol but for Nick Fury and the Avengers itself as well. Plus, we’ve got Coulson and Ronan showing up for no real reason, and the Tesseract not just appearing but, in a masterstroke, actually being the source of Carol’s powers. And, of course, we’ve got the grand — and hilariously anticlimactic — reveal of how Nick Fury lost his eye, as well as an explanation of how the Avengers initiative formed in the first place.

I can totally see the argument that all this fan service is needless and distracting, bogging down a movie that should be hyper-focused on setting up a single character. But I personally loved just about all of the classic MCU tie-ins, which I don’t think were just for the heck of it. Instead, this all helped Marvel bring this character into the fabric of the universe in a way that feels natural and not like she’s being shoehorned into a complicated history after the fact without any real connection to the series’ roots.

But I also can’t help but wonder if this could be an example of Marvel really indulging itself knowing that this and Endgame will be the last films that rely heavily on the lore of the first few phases. So the movie ultimately left me feeling nostalgic, but not for the ’90s. I came away feeling like I had just watched a great late Phase 1 or Phase 2 MCU movie and, while looking ahead toward this character who represents the series’ future, realizing just how much I’m going to miss its past.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

  • My main issue with this movie is just that the action scenes are fairly unmemorable. Most of them either take place indoors, under extremely poor lighting conditions, or both. One of my most anticipated things about Endgame is now just seeing an action scene featuring Carol that is easy to follow and lit properly.
  • One other concern I have coming out of the theater is the implication that the next Captain Marvel movie is going to be another prequel. I was cool with this one taking us into the past to establish Carol’s place in the MCU, but I’d really rather the series not continue going backward and not forward. Perhaps Carol’s adventures will feel disconnected from the rest of the series’ events to the point that the next movies won’t feel like prequels (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 technically took place before Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, after all, but no one thinks of that as a prequel), but I’m not sure I’m a fan of a situation where we watch a trilogy of films that we know ends with Carol being summoned back to Earth to battle Thanos.
  • I’m not even entirely sure how shocking of a twist Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg being evil is meant to be, but the movie sure doesn’t do a great job of hiding it.
  • We’ve got to talk about the ’90s references, of which there are at least three too many. We get it! We’re in the past, when computers were slow and people rented videos! I did love the gag of everyone waiting around while the audio file loaded, but in my opinion, you get just one of those in a movie like this. And all of the sound drops were a little too much. It works in Guardians of the Galaxy when the pop songs are integral to Peter Quill’s emotional journey. But here, there’s no real point other to remind us what year we’re in.
  • Was it meant to be funny how hilarious Talos looked wearing a regular suit jacket? Because I was never able to get over that. It doesn’t help that I’m not convinced I like the look of the Skrulls. They’re a little too Doctor Who-y for me.
  • On paper, I’m into the idea of Nick Fury getting the Avengers name from Carol. But the execution, involving him dramatically typing the word “Avengers” on his computer, was just a little too silly for me, exactly the kind of “ah ha! here’s that thing we know!” played out moment that bothers me in prequels.
  • I’m still kind of wrestling with how I feel about Nick Fury losing his eye because of a cat scratch (well, a Flerken scratch), but I’m leaning toward loving it. It’s the complete opposite of the typical prequel cliche that assigns some grand cosmic significance to every single thing we know about a character. After so much buildup, any scene of Fury losing his eye probably would have felt underwhelming, so why not lean into it and turn that into the joke?
  • Speaking of jokes, the humor in this one was a bit more hit and miss than other recent MCU entries, which more often fired on all cylinders when it came to the comedy. A couple of Carol lines, in particular, were kind of duds, perhaps because the movie can’t quite find the balance between Carol being confused about who she is and taking everything around her very seriously because she’s on a mission and having this wise-cracking devil-may-care attitude that lets her make jokes about everything. There’s that moment in the car with Nick Fury, for example, where Carol says “noble warrior heroes” in reference to the Kree, and it almost seems like she’s being sarcastic. What tone are Boden and Flek going for here? Is Carol making fun of all of this, or not?
  • Now that we’ve seen both of the Marvel films between Infinity War and Endgame, it’s hilarious that of the two movies, the one more important to Endgame is arguably Ant-Man and the Wasp. When an Ant-Man movie was announced years ago, who would have guessed the fate of the entire MCU would eventually rest on his shoulders?
  • I never would have expected we would leave this movie without a clear sense of what Carol has been doing for the past several decades and why Nick Fury never called her before. Has she really been on that one mission all this time? And did Nick really not consider anything else before Infinity War to be an emergency? I get what they’re going for — that Nick wanted Carol to be an absolute last resort only if the Avengers failed — but I feel like when a city is about to barrel toward Earth and the Avengers really seem like they’ve failed, that’s kind of a last resort! Then again, perhaps the films will explain that Nick really did call her, but she just didn’t answer in time.
  • I’m getting real tired of this pattern of one post-credits scene being significant and the other being a joke where part of the gag is how anticlimactic it is.
  • But that mid-credits scene is just spectacular, and I was pleasantly surprised we saw as much Endgame footage as we did. Even after only seeing Carol in a single movie, in which she interacts with tons of classic MCU characters, it’s still surreal and incredibly exciting seeing her show up at the Avengers compound and surprise Black Widow. Seven more weeks. Let’s do it.

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