Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
A female soldier from a far-off world crash-lands on Earth in the 1990s and soon begins to piece together her mysterious past…
‘So Captain Marvel zaps him right between the eyes,’ John Lennon once sang. That was in 1968, more than half a century ago. But the Beatle could have been psychically predicting the impact of this 2019 superhero film, because the character of Captain Marvel is slick, fun and focused. She aims, shoots and hits her target. (Yeah, yeah, when Lennon made that throwaway reference in the lyrics to his song The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, he actually meant a different comic-book character altogether. *That* Captain Marvel now goes by the name Shazam and, coincidentally, also had a solo superhero movie in 2019.)
But the fact that, for some of us, the film’s title brings to mind a track from the Beatles’ White Album is more than just vague thought association. Captain Marvel is dominated by a theme of nostalgia, of longing for a bygone time, of revelling in reminiscing. It even begins with a unique production-company logo that pays tribute to the Marvel universe’s founding father, the late Stan Lee. Whether you were alive to experience the Beatles first hand or have come to them after the fact, they cast an enormous shadow over pop culture. For most of us, they are one of the pillars of what we think of as ‘the 1960s’; for many, they’ve played a huge role in our lives. But they spilt up 50 years ago. We all have to *remember* them in order to enjoy their music.
Captain Marvel’s lead character, however, can’t indulge this kind of nostalgia because she can’t remember her past. In Hala, the capital of the Kree civilisation – which is another of those skyscraper-heavy alien cities realised via CGI that we always get in these types of films – a young woman called Vers (Brie Larson) is being trained by a mentor-type called Yon-Rogg (Jude ‘Does anyone not guess that he’ll turn out to be a bad guy?’ Law). She’s spunky, sassy and headstrong, has superpowers, and works as part of a gang of military commandos. She’s also sexy, but not in the usual superhero-film way. This character’s allure comes from self-assuredness and arch lines of dialogue delivered in heroic close-ups. She may wear a figure-hugging uniform, but she feels quite different – more confident, more independent, less fanboy-baiting – from Wonder Woman’s cosplay costume or Harley Quinn’s Lolita act. This film doesn’t succumb to ‘male gaze’ objectifying.
Early on, Vers has a one-on-one chat with a mystical deity, the Supreme Intelligence, which seems to run the Kree civilisation. Everyone sees this spirit as someone unique, and Vers’s vision is of a middle-aged American woman played by Annette Bening. Sadly, it’s a fairly clunky opening act, inelegantly full of setup rather than storytelling. In fact, it’s not so much storytelling as ‘storytold’: we have to take in a lot of information, which isn’t always elucidated very clearly.
The upshot is that Vers is struggling to remember her past. When some bad guys later rifle through the deep folds of her consciousness (it’s that type of film), she sees glimpsed flashbacks to what we recognise as a Top Gun-style life on Earth (‘Higher, faster, further, baby!’ being the Marvel equivalent of ‘I feel the need: the need for speed!’). The villains are looking inside her mind because they’re hunting for a faster-than-light engine, which Vers was somehow involved with. But inconveniently for both her and them, she has amnesia.
Thankfully, after 22 minutes, Vers is flung across space and crash lands onto Earth – specifically into a LA branch of Blockbusters in 1995. Our theme of nostalgia really kicks into gear now, whether you’re old enough to remember the 1990s or not. If you are, there’s a whole level of pleasure-through-recognition to be had: we see a poster for True Lies, a VHS copy of The Right Stuff, a GameBoy, cyber-cafes. We hear tracks by Smashing Pumpkins and Elastica. We smirk at the now-dated technology and cars and fashions. It’s all joyful nostalgia, well deployed to get both laughs and to set the scene. (The later use of the No Doubt track I’m Just a Girl in a fight scene, however, may be a contender for the most literal-minded use of a song in any movie ever.)
The film is also wallowing in its own history. The character of Nick Fury – who arrives on the scene after Vers’s crash-landing into the video store – has been an MCU stalwart since the first entry in the series in 2008. Now we have the joy of seeing him at an earlier stage of his life – before the Avengers, before his ‘death’, before he was the leader of SHIELD. The role is still played by Samuel L Jackson, but he’s been de-aged digitally. The special-effects work is utterly magnificent. Seriously, it is a seamless piece of artifice. Fury looks to be about 40 and you very quickly forget that he’s being played by a 69-year-old. All this wizardry also means that we get an additional level of Proustian recollection: Sam Jackson was already a huge Hollywood star in the mid-90s, and another chance to see the actor who played Jules from Pulp Fiction or Zeus from Die Hard with a Vengeance running around on the cinema screen is a real thrill.
Soon, Fury and Vers are thrown together by the plot and they make such an entertaining buddy-cop team-up that you’re left wondering whether we needed all that boring setup on Halo. The actors’ chemistry and comic timing are wonderful and the film comes alive any time they’re in the same scene. How much more elegant and more instantly fun would it have been to *start* with Vers’s arrival on Earth, and for us to learn about her as she and Fury discover things together?
But, a bit regrettably, there’s a plot to service. At least we have Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, a leader of the antagonistic Skrull race who’s seemingly the bad guy of the story but who actually turns out to have a more noble intent. The actor is developing a nice career of playing entertaining foes in genre films (cf Rogue One, Ready Player One), and is great value here. But as the film develops, there are two strands going on at the same time: a story in the present with Talos and his plans, and a story in the past. It’s the story in the past that’s the more resonant.
Via an impressive variety of means – snatched memories, secret military files, exposition from other characters, photos, audio recordings – Vers pieces together her backstory. She was, as we suspected, originally from Earth and was a hotshot test pilot called Carol Danvers. (When taken away from Earth by the selfish Ron-Yogg, his only clue to her identity was a damaged military identity badge showing just the final four letters of her name.) This mixture of tools to tell the story keeps things fresh and interesting, and we feel like we’re discovering information along with our central character. The quest to find out what’s going on – who exactly Vers is, who Annette Bening’s Supreme Intelligence was based on – leads Vers and Fury to a old fighter-pilot colleague of Carol’s called Maria (Lashana Lynch) and her young daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar). The latter can remember Carol from six years previously, despite only being about eight years old – another instance of this film playing with how memories work.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now reached 21. Captain Marvel is the 21st film in the megalithic series that shows no signs of slowing down now it can buy alcohol in America and adopt children in the UK. Whether this entry becomes as memorable as some of the big-hitters that have come before is debatable. But it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well made. It’s also very funny. A scene where characters need to wait several, silent seconds for an audio file to load on Maria’s 1990s PC is a mini-masterpiece of humour and deserves to be remembered for a long time.
Eight Stan Lees on a bus reading the script for Mallrats in preparation for his real-life cameo in that 1996 comedy movie out of 10