Movie Review: Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel is one of Marvel Comics’s lesser known superheroes. She (and he in earlier decades; Carol Danvers wasn’t the only one to wear the name*) was a minor character up until fairly recent times. Carol Danvers herself (under various identities) was even more so. However, she has always been a feminist character, and yes, Marvel definitely tried to play that up for her big screen debut.

It might be because of this that Captain Marvel has become perhaps Marvel’s most politicized movie, even weeks before it premiered. The trailers got a lot of criticism in certain circles, mostly over allegedly too-heavy-handed feminist themes and lead actress Brie Larson’s acting.

I don’t want to make this a political post, but I feel like I can’t avoid it because the result of this controversy is that I don’t fully trust the reviews on either side. There are a lot people who want to like Captain Marvel for political/social/cultural reasons, but there are also a lot of people who want to dislike it because they’re on the opposite side of those issues. And both of those groups are capable of distorting the reviews. Rotten Tomatoes’s critics give it an 80% fresh rating, but rival site Metacritic rates it at 64%. Meanwhile, on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience gives it 57%, fairly close to Metacritic, but that’s up from a low of about 30% (possibly fueled by bots). When the numbers are this all over the place, who do you trust?

Well, if you’re reading this blog, I would hope you trust me, so here’s my review. The short version is, I liked the movie. It wasn’t fantastic. It certainly wasn’t Marvel’s strongest offering. But it was a fairly enjoyable movie. I’d rank it above several MCU movies that got pretty good ratings from got critics and audience alike, including Age of Ultron, Thor 1 and 2, and dare I say even Iron Man 2 and 3. Again, not the best, but not deserving of the hate it’s getting.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

Again, I don’t want to make this a political post, but I do want to give some semblance of intelligent analysis. Because I believe the movie did have flaws, I had to wonder how my opinion compared with the detractors’. So I went over to the dark side and read a few of the most hostile reviews to try to figure out why they say Captain Marvel is so bad and whether I can refute it. Bottom line: yeah, I mostly can. The haters are being too critical. This is a good movie.

What follows below is a list of the most common criticisms I saw and how I judge them from my own viewing.

“Brie Larson is a bad actress.”

Verdict: wrong. I didn’t think Brie Larson was a bad actress, and I’m not alone in that. For example, Vulture, which gave the film a “spotty” review overall, actually praised her acting. People are complaining that she looks “wooden” on-screen, but I didn’t see it. I think the real “problem” is that they gave her a role that wasn’t written to be very emotive. In the story, Carol Danvers has been trained to be a warrior and to suppress her emotions. Even small displays are criticized by her superiors. When she finally rejects her training, though, she doesn’t become more relaxed and lighthearted. She simply embraces her natural self, who, honestly, is still a pretty serious person.

Of course, this leads us to:

“Captain Marvel has no personality/is a Mary Sue.”

Verdict: it’s complicated. Specifically, it’s complicated because this is such a subjective statement. What does it mean to say someone has no personality? No, I mean that seriously. When you think about it, what does it really mean? I can describe Carol’s personality. She is mostly serious, but snarky, very principled, and extremely strong-willed. She chafes at authority, preferring to go out and do her own thing, but she’s quick to team up with someone she truly admires.

Look, sometimes it’s hard to describe someone’s personality without sounding like a horoscope, but she does have one. Now, is it a bland or unappealing personality? That’s even harder to judge. I’ve read enough fiction and reviews of fiction to know that one person can think a character is the best thing since sliced bread, while another person can think that same character is boring and unreadable. Sometimes, it’s even the same person a few years apart. All I can say is, I was more or less okay with it here

I’d also like to note CNet’s take on this and other issues, which I broadly agree with.

What about the Mary Sue part? Well, no one can really agree on what a Mary Sue is, but the trope is generally regarded as a character who is too perfect. Common traits include having no personality flaws (with the complaint often being no personality, period), always being right, being too powerful for the bad guys to put up a real threat, and, most of all, being boring.

And note that I avoided pronouns in that description. While the trope is prototypically female, you can absolutely have a male Mary Sue. You can find long debates on the internet over whether Superman, the most famous superhero ever, qualifies as a Mary Sue. And let’s be honest, Captain Marvel (at least the movie version) is kind of Marvel’s Superman. Flight, invulnerability, super strength, and frickin’ laser beams that she can smash through an entire alien war fleet with. Mary Sue or not, she has the same problems of writing such a powerful character as Superman does.

However, this assessment does lead us to:

“Carol has no motivation./There are no stakes.”

Related: “It’s boring./The fights were boring./The storytelling was messy./The editing was messy.”

Verdict: mostly wrong. The real culprit here is the opening. The first twenty minutes or so (until she crashes into the Blockbuster) was just confusing. The rest of the movie was fine. Boring? Nope, just the opening—at least, I didn’t see it. Poorly told? Just the opening. Poorly edited? Just the opening. Now, granted, screwing up the first twenty minutes of the movie is a grave sin, but that still doesn’t apply to the rest of it.

The issue was that they started in media res, and it was hard to understand what was going on. Now, in media res is a valid style. Think the Bond movie opening sequence, or a Peter Jackson opening sequence (since he consciously emulates Bond). But in Captain Marvel, it just didn’t work. Carol starts with no memory, fighting as a soldier in an alien war we know nothing about. (The scene in the trailer when the Kree take her and make her one of them was omitted.) But that isn’t all there is to the story. Yes the stakes seem low at first: just the mission and stopping the enemy, but then, it gets more personal. I think the writers were trying to make her work backward and discover her past like a mystery story. I’m not sure I would have done that, but either way, it’s the second half, when her full story comes out, where things get really serious.

“It was too feminist.”

Verdict: mostly wrong. I didn’t think it was too much. I did think it was trying a little too hard, but that is not the same thing.

To see what I mean, look no further than last year’s Marvel hit, Black Panther. As was widely pointed out at the time, Black Panther was a film that was deeply steeped in black and African culture and even politics, and it was basically marketed as the “first” black superhero—and it pulled it off effortlessly. Likewise, Wonder Woman, the big female superhero movie of two years ago, pulled off its feminist message pretty near effortlessly. Captain Marvel hit it a little too on-the-nose when it didn’t need to—things like “Do you know why they call it a cock-pit?” or the motorcycle guy telling her to smile more. The overarching allegory for feminism and female empowerment was fine; it wasn’t by any means “too feminist.” Rather, it was the little things like those that weren’t necessary to the story that felt a bit forced.

“That was a stupid way for Nick Fury to lose his eye.”

Verdict: okay, this one was totally right. I won’t spoil it for you, but that was just stupid. I wasn’t super-offended by it like some fans were, but it was stupid. And more generally with Fury’s character—Samuel L. Jackson was pretty good, but we didn’t remotely see the character development Fury needs to have between petting a kitty complete with baby talk in 1995 and the hardened soldier we saw from 2008 onward. I honestly don’t know what they were thinking there.

*And before that, Captain Marvel was a character who was bought out by DC Comics and became Shazam, who interestingly also has a movie coming next month.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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