It’s hard to launch an action hero franchise based on a comic book character when you can’t deliver dazzling special effects, innovative super powers, imaginative action scenes, uncanny makeup, vibrant costumes or a consistently affecting storyline. Those essential elements are missing in this feeble origin tale about a superhero who deserves better.
Far off in another galaxy opening scenes depict Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), commander of the Kree civilization’s militia called Starforce. He’s training a soldier named Vers (Brie Larson, Oscar-winner for Room) in martial arts combat. The characters/actors don’t seem particularly convincing. The Kree are at war with the Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline); they’re green shape-shifters with elf ears who can turn themselves into anyone they see. It’s hard to spot the Skrulls; they’re difficult to track and can sneak up on you quicker than a heart attack.
The battle between the Kree and the Skrulls shifts to the 1990s on earth, aka Planet C-53. Vers’ trip to the planet triggers memories. Was she there before? Did she have a pivotal role in a crucial event? Why do people call her Carol? Her voyage of self-discovery may be more fascinating than her mission.
First views of the footage are disappointing. The costumes (Sanja Milkovic Hays) are dull and lack eye-catching colors and designs (Oscar-winner Ruth Carter’s clothes in Black Panther made a statement as important as any aspect of that film). The makeup (Erica Akin) is uninspired; especially on the Skrulls who look like they’re wearing green Halloween masks from Toys R Us. Set decoration (Lauri Gaffin), art direction (Elena Albanese), production design (Andy Nicholson) and cinematography (Ben Davis) all look rehashed from other nondescript action hero/sci-fi movies. Add in the dullest of special effects (once you’ve seen Larson shoot power waves out her fists, it loses its shimmer) and visually everything is humdrum.
With nothing to look at, attention gets focused on the story, direction, pacing and acting: One civilization fighting another civilization is not exactly an earth-shattering premise. When the oh-too-conventional script by writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) and co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet concentrates on fighting green plastic looking beings, it shoots blanks. A subplot that centers on Vers’ personal hurdles and discovering her previous life hits its target.
Adding in funny moments about the ineptitude of ‘90s technology, compared with today’s high tech causes several smirks (remember floppy discs and pay phone booths?). Plus, the characters on earth, like the smart-mouthed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who works with an organization called S.H.I.E.L.D, fellow pilot friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) and the enigmatic Supreme Intelligence being (Annette Bening) provide needed diversions.
Hopefully, if Boden and Fleck go on to direct more Marvel films, they’ll keep these standards in mind: Rivalries between warring factions have to be vicious, not polite. Fight scenes should be thrilling. Battles in space need to be spectacular. Airplane chases should be riveting. Fistfights have to be imaginatively staged and choreographed. Chase scenes where heroes run after enemies must be an adrenaline rush. If you can’t hit those marks, why bother?
Editors Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham do the best they can with the footage they were given. What’s on view has a rhythm. It’s not like you’re squirming in your seat for 2h and 4m. Boredom is not the overwhelming takeaway. Neither is excitement.
Brie Larson, an excellent dramatic actress, injects humanity, doubt and imperfection into her Vers. It’s just enough to make what could have been a cliché character somewhat intriguing. Not much more. Jackson as Fury buddy’s up to the lead and adds comic relief. Jude Law is miscast and too British and reserved for his mentor role. Mendelsohn fares slightly better as the green monster Talos. Other supporting actors don’t get enough screen time to show their real talent: Gemma Chan, Algenis Perez Soto and Djimon Hounsou.
The perfectly written, directed, acted and produced Wonder Woman should have been nominated for an Oscar. It paved the way for Captain Marvel to succeed as an art form, at the box office and with a female protagonist in a predominantly male genre. WW casts a shadow so big that any similar film that follows will have to bring its A game to equal it and an A+ game to beat it. Captain Marvel rates a C. It’s distinguished from other MCU movies by its female lead. Otherwise it is way too ordinary and middle of the pack.
In the least, thanks to this prequel, audiences will know how Captain Marvel got her ultra-powerful mojo and how the S.H.I.E.L.D. got its start. Discerning action film fans may wish the film aimed higher than that.