CaptainMarvel_Glow** out of ****
Rated PG-13

(for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language)
Released: March 8, 2019
Runtime: 124 minutes
Directed by: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg, Rune Temte, Algenis Perez Soto

And now we know what Black Panther would’ve been like without a visionary director: nothing more than a bunch of sci-fi comic book nonsense.

That’s exactly what Captain Marvel is.

It’s a movie about Krees vs. Skrulls. Whatever they are. That alone should tell you that mileage will vary.

Of course, mileage could go much further with a director like Ryan Coogler (who helmed Black Panther), a filmmaker of depth, one driven by a cultural, thematic purpose – someone with something to say – that can elevate a silly premise with issues of substance and relevance.

Captain Marvel needs that, too, and certainly feels primed for it as Marvel Studio’s first-ever female lead superhero flick, but co-directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck either lack that ambition or Marvel simply wouldn’t let them go there.

I’m guessing it’s Marvel’s heavy-hand constraining the effort because, in a word, Captain Marvel is functional, and not just in a general sense.

For Marvel Studios, it serves a specific two-pronged strategy: introduce a new leader for the next Phase of the MCU (what are we on now, Phase 4?) and connect the obvious dot back to Avengers: Endgame. The closing mid-credits bonus scene, which does the dot-connecting (predictably), will likely get the biggest cheers from audiences. That gasping glee, however, also speaks to how adequate-at-best Captain Marvel is as a stand-alone.

Working mostly as MCU transitional filler, Captain Marvel is a serviceable origin story posing as an entertaining and inspirational one. It succeeds more so as the former (primarily through comedy, less so through spectacle) than it does as the latter. But, just like everything else here, even the laughs feel constructed by writer-room committee, leaning as heavily on 90s pop culture references as a Buzzfeed “OMG, Remember That!” nostalgia list.

As a brand, Marvel can’t seem to resist its own blockbuster formula, dispensing another by-the-numbers hero’s journey for the umpteenth time – coasting on quips, propped up on clichés, with world-building that’s plot-driven, not imaginative – rather than a distinct, singular, complex individual, with specific, fascinating ideas and challenges, in a dynamic sphere or culture (which is what we got from Black Panther).

The script tries to get fancy with a non-linear structure, but that actually starts to confuse the origin…which is, essentially, that human fighter pilot Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) gains superpowers when exposed to a radioactive explosion. Sound familiar, true believers?

The telling of that story, which chronologically starts in the late 1980s, gets a bit too complicated for its own good. Made plain, it involves a post-explosion Danvers becoming amnesiac, being taken to the Kree world where her powers could be honed and utilized, and eventually crashing back to earth in the mid-1990s where she learns her true identity.

Carol’s self-discovery comes with the help of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), pre-eyepatch – though that gets its own origin, too.

Together, with their odd couple buddy comedy banter, Danvers and Fury have to save the world from getting caught in the middle of an intergalactic Kree/Skrull showdown. The whole conflict is a prefunctory exercise that lacks legitimate stakes, a dramatic wet blanket that no amount of shape-shifting intrigue can intensify.

Unlike Wonder Woman‘s Diana Prince, there’s very little to differentiate Carol Danvers from her various male superhero counterparts. There’s the occasional snarky dig at misogyny, or the strained girl-bonding between Danvers and her co-pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), a single mother to a starry-eyed precocious daughter, but it’s all easy, obvious pandering.

Some may argue that dialing back Danvers gender distinction is a step forward, but it feels more like a missed opportunity. As a result, when the daughter (as surrogate for every girl in the audience) beams in heroic admiration up at the colorful, electric Captain Marvel, it’s just another box being checked rather than inspiring genuine chills.

What we’re left with is a female hero origin that’s mansplained. Or, more specifically, Feige-splained, right down to every corporate edict that MCU producer guru Kevin Feige forces upon it. But hey, the movie has some bonkers fun with that cat, so there’s that.

The climactic finale is yet another obnoxious display of video game-styled digital effects overkill. When Captain Marvel blocks a global assault arsenal with spectacular ease, one’s left wondering why older “Infinity War Fury waited until he was dusting into oblivion before he paged this indestructible secret weapon for some help. I mean, since she’s there, maybe call a little sooner.

Look, Captain Marvel will make a lot of money. It’ll entertain plenty of people. What it won’t do, however, is become the next cultural phenomenon. If Marvel wants her to rise, soar, and endure, it’s going to need a much better sequel, one that does more than just entertain; it has to resonate.

Hopefully the Avengers’ endgame will be where that starts.

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