At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — after 21 films and almost three phases — the standard has been raised higher than the 93-story Avengers Tower. That’s why it’s somewhat jarring that “Captain Marvel,” the latest entry, is so average. The first female-fronted Marvel film is more reminiscent of the first “Captain America” or “Thor” than any of the recent bombastic MCU flicks. With compelling characters but a lackluster plot, “Captain Marvel” features crowd-pleasing moments but, overall, settles as a middling Marvel movie.
The film takes place in the 1990s and follows Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), a Kree alien soldier with a forgotten past. When the shape-shifting, green-skinned Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), begin searching for an energy core, Danvers heads to Earth and teams up with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to secure the core before the Skrulls find it. Along the way, Danvers fills in the details of her past and realizes that the world she thought she knew is not what it seems.
Larson makes a solid first impression as Danvers, acutely balancing snarkiness with gravitas. Not as overtly funny as Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, yet not as stoic as Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Larson strikes a superb balance and carries the film on her back with gusto. Larson further establishes her place as one of today’s most skilled actresses, coming off 2015’s Oscar-nominated “Room” and 2017’s delightful blockbuster, “Kong: Skull Island.” While the plot is just fine, her character stands out; it will be interesting to see her rapport with the other Avengers in April’s “Avengers: Endgame.”
The best and most surprising aspect of “Captain Marvel” is Mendelsohn’s Talos, another example of Marvel’s recent trend of compelling antagonists. The Skrulls could have very easily served as gimmicks, with Scooby-Doo-esque reveals but faceless, dull aliens underneath. Yet directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck astutely evade this pitfall by honing in on their leader, Talos, and giving the role to the brilliant Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn mastered the role of villain with his roles as Orson Krennic in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and Nolan Sorrento in “Ready Player One.” Talos is his most impressive yet, although the actor is hidden beneath several layers of green makeup. When a villain nearly brings the audience to tears, you know that he won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
What sinks “Captain Marvel” most prominently is its tragically average plot. The pieces are there — Larson, Jackson and Mendelsohn — but the plot isn’t nearly as interesting as it should be. Much of the film focuses on Danvers overcoming her amnesia and discovering her past. However, the constant montages and flashbacks make her memory loss feel like a forced method of telling her origin story. It feels as though we’ve seen this exact story before, but done better (case in point: the “Bourne” franchise).
In addition to a poor plot, none of the set pieces are particularly memorable, nor are the supporting characters. For a superhero film to rise above mediocrity, it needs at least one unforgettable fight scene. “Captain Marvel” has none, and even the colossal, climactic battle is more like CGI mayhem than a testament to Danvers’ supernatural abilities. As for the secondary characters, none is given their due, apart from Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). The legendary Annette Bening is wasted as Dr. Wendy Lawson, a shadow from Danvers’ past. Gemma Chan, who broke out in last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” is criminally one-dimensional and only appears in a few scenes as Minn-Erva. Even Clark Gregg, who was de-aged for the film along with Jackson, plays an insignificant role in his reprise of Phil Coulson from “The Avengers.”
At the end of the day, Marvel knows how to please its audience, and “Captain Marvel” is no exception. Whether it’s with Goose, Danvers’ adorable intergalactic cat, or an unhealthy number of ’90s references, audiences will likely fall for at least some parts of the film. Wondering how Nick Fury lost his eye? Get ready to find out. Itching to know what Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) was up to two decades before clashing with the Guardians of the Galaxy? You’ll get a scene or two of insight. These diversions contribute a few laughs but fail to save the film’s lackluster plot.
In another universe, “Captain Marvel” would likely be a standout superhero flick. Although the film boasts an excellent lead and a heart-wrenching villain, “Captain Marvel” is plagued by undercooked characters and a safe plot. The result is a fine, if forgettable, addition to the Marvel lore that breaks gender boundaries but fails to break any others.