Starforce member Vers of the Kree Empire has been suffering from recurring nightmares. Through brief glimpses, she sees an older woman, though the meaning behind these visions eludes her. Her mentor and commanding officer, Yon-Rogg, trains her to control her abilities, reminding her to suppress her emotions in battle. She and the rest of her team are sent on a mission to rescue an undercover operative who has infiltrated a faction of Skrulls. The Skrulls are alien shapeshifters warring with the Kree. Their commander, Talos, captures Vers during the mission. She manages to escape from their ship in an escape pod, but crash-lands on a planet named Earth.
WARNING: This review will contain spoilers for the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon thus far.
As the twenty-first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel seems like a downright inopportune time for an origin story. Once the series began gaining traction, Marvel Studios would typically introduce a character in media res. Peter Parker, being one of the most famous characters in Marvel canon, made his debut in Captain America: Civil War under the assumption that the average filmgoer was already familiar with his backstory, thus putting the onus on them to fill in any blanks. Meanwhile, T’Challa, who also appeared for the first time in Captain America: Civil War, became the main focus of his own film, Black Panther. Ryan Coogler’s effort took an interesting approach in that the character’s first film was a life-altering event rather than a true origin story. He had been a major character before his first appearance, so the main purpose of Black Panther was to fully establish the extent of his importance.
Unlike Peter Parker or T’Challa, the only hint audiences received that Captain Marvel exists in this universe was at the very end of Avengers: Infinity War. Upon witnessing half of New York’s population disintegrating, former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury manages to send a distress signal on what appears to be a pager before he himself succumbs to this horrific phenomenon. Fortunately for him, the signal was received. What this film had to do was establish why the person on the other side of the pager is Nick Fury’s lifeline. Given that he didn’t feel the need to use the countermeasure in The Avengers to halt Loki’s interdimensional invasion, it can be inferred this person is just that powerful.
In hindsight, I could tell Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were aware their audience was familiar with what a superhero origin story entailed. Therefore, I have to give them credit for playing around with the origin story’s basic conventions so effectively. The moment the audience asked the duo who Captain Marvel was, they answered in a way so as to misdirect the audience and keep them guessing – an impressive feat when you remember this film is a prequel to Iron Man, taking place in 1995.
When Vers crashes onto Earth, she quickly attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson. Just when Nick Fury and Phil Coulson are about to take her into questioning, the Skrulls touch down on Earth, forcing Vers to chase after them. Vers eventually loses the trial, but Talos, disguising himself as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Keller, orders Nick Fury to work with her on the condition he does so alone. The two of them meet up and discover that a pilot was said to have died in 1989 testing an experimental engine designed by Dr. Wendy Larson. That pilot’s name was Carol Danvers. Vers was name the Kree gave to the pilot after they found her broken dog tag.
This is what allows Captain Marvel to stand out from other origin story films; the protagonist is learning about her backstory alongside the audience. In fact, the initial premise of this film is a complete falsification. Danvers and Dr. Larson were accosted by Yon-Rogg when he learned the latter had been working on an engine that, once outfitted onto a spacecraft, can exceed the speed of light. After shooting down their plane, Danvers destroyed the engine and absorbed its energy. This had the side effect of rendering her an amnesiac, which the Kree exploited to their own benefit.
What helps make this development effective is that the Skrulls prove to be a particularly terrifying foe. Talos himself is played by Ben Mendelsohn, a man who had been typecast as a villain in several films leading up to the release of Captain Marvel. Moreover, their abilities evoke classic horror films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing in how they can replicate any living being perfectly – even DNA samples would match the individual they’re impersonating. They would be the perfect antagonists to have in an alien invasion film, for the protagonists couldn’t know who to trust – a feeling shared by the audience. It then comes as a surprise when it turns out the Skrulls are not actually evil, but rather a persecuted race the Kree have been trying to exterminate. Talos himself has a ruthless side to him in how he threatens a child at one point, but these extreme actions are clearly brought on by sheer desperation rather than malice. Dr. Larson’s true identity is Mar-Vell, a former Kree who sought a power source known as the Tesseract in order to help the Skrulls escape the empire’s wrath.
This twist could be considered a little predictable in that the Kree have been shown to be nothing but evil imperialists in past installments. Guardians of the Galaxy in particular had Ronan the Accuser as its central antagonist – a man who would stop at nothing to gain absolute power. It’s still effective because in the comics, the Skrulls and Kree are equally evil, though the latter are the ones who cast the first stone. If nothing else, the Skrulls’ ability to impersonate anyone perfectly makes the Krees’ insistence that they’re a real threat more credible. It could therefore fool anyone who has been keeping up with these films that maybe, just maybe, the Kree are on the level for once. As soon as you have all the pieces, the context for what you witnessed is turned on its head.
Because of its placement in the series’ timeline, Captain Marvel could be seen as an origin story for Nick Fury as well. He has always been an important character in this cinematic universe, but he almost always played a supporting role. Nonetheless, the audience saw enough of his character throughout these films to know who he was. He was a highly cynical person, yet he didn’t let his own reservations about the world stop him from trying to make it a better place.
Captain Marvel makes him the deuteragonist, and seeing him before he became the worldly, stoic person who assembled the Avengers is fascinating. Considering the persona he projected in most of these films, it’s highly amusing that we learn he can’t resist petting a cat they come across when looking for information about Dr. Larson. We also learn he is unable to consume toast cut diagonally. What really helps is that Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson play excellently off of each other. It almost turns into a buddy cop film at times with the no-nonsense Carol Danvers interacting with the talkative Nick Fury. When joined by unexpected tritagonist Talos, the three form a highly effective, determined team.
The final act is where this film truly shines. Talos’s family and any remaining Skrulls are on board a space cruiser orbiting Earth that had been completely cloaked for six years. Unfortunately, Starforce follows them and captures Danvers, bringing her before their ruler, the Supreme Intelligence. They attempt to get Danvers to surrender her will to the Kree Empire, believing that she can transcend her human origin and be reborn as something better. Danvers shows them exactly what the human spirit is capable of by destroying her inhibitor implant, thus allowing her to use the powers she absorbed from the engine’s blast.
Once she has unlocked her full powers, she turns out to be the single most powerful being in the series’ canon thus far. Realizing he is in over his head, Yon-Rogg calls upon the Accusers to finish what they started by atomizing Earth from orbit, thus guaranteeing the eradication of the Skrulls. Even when Ronan and his forces launch their entire payload, it proves completely ineffectual; Danvers manages to destroy every single missile fired at the planet without breaking a sweat. Yon-Rogg attempts to engage Danvers in combat one last time, offering to throw down his weapon for a fair fight. Danvers responds to this proposition in the most pragmatic way possible – by blasting Yon-Rogg into a nearby rock, telling him she doesn’t need to prove anything.
Humorously, the cat Fury is fond of, Goose, is feared by both Talos and the Kree, who call it a Flerken. While it sounds as though the aliens merely have a different name for a harmless animal, they were not exaggerating. You get to see for yourself when the alleged cat devours several Kree soldiers at once and swallows the Tesseract as though it were a medicine tablet. Though friendly to her allies, Goose does have her limits, as Fury finds out the hard way when she claws out his eye, thus providing his iconic look.
It is once all of the loose ends are tied that Danvers, before departing to help the Skrulls find a new home, gives Fury the modified pager he would use two decades later. Inspired by what he has witnessed, Fury begins drafting an initiative with a simple goal: locate heroes such as her to defend Earth from threats like the Kree. For want of a name, he finds a photograph of Danvers in an Air Force jet. Said jet bears the call sign “Avenger”.
Considering that films in the third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe tended to continue the stories of characters who were already established, Captain Marvel stands out as an anomaly. If it wasn’t for the stinger at the end or Infinity War signposting to the crowd the importance of this character, Captain Marvel wouldn’t have felt out of place among the series’ first installments such as Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, or Thor. From a chronological standpoint, it makes perfect sense that it would be stylistically similar to those three films, but in terms of how the story as a whole was presented to us in the real world, it’s a little bizarre.
I can imagine some people would take this to mean that Captain Marvel is a bog-standard origin story wherein you’re waiting for the pieces to fall into place. While I can’t deny that it is predictable in some respects, this film was clearly written in a way that addresses such a preconceived notion. Indeed, Ms. Boden and Mr. Fleck’s effort does a remarkable job playing around with the very idea of an origin story, delivering an experience that feels fresh despite having to establish a new character relatively late in the overall narrative. With its nineties aesthetic and stellar cast, Captain Marvel managed to get the Marvel Cinematic Universe off to a great start in the final year of the 2010s.
Final Score: 7/10