As a quick reminder, last week when reviewing Captain America: Civil War I said this about stories:
A good story has three main features: a dynamic main character, a challenging conflict, and an interesting quest.
This particular story is ostensibly about self-discovery. An alien Kree warrior named Vers crash-lands on Earth, pursued by shape-shifting Skrulls. Thing is, though, Vers knows this place. She keeps seeing it in her dreams. So she goes looking for her past, accompanied by eye-patch-less SHIELD agent Fury. (Yes, just Fury.) We watch as she unravels her backstory and realizes her full power and potential, becoming a hero.
Captain Marvel has some deep-seated issues from a writing and acting standpoint, especially regarding its main character and conflict. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film; it’s not. Parts of it were spectacular and fun. Let’s start with those.
Predictably, Captain Marvel‘s well-shot and the visual effects are superb. Directors Anna Bodin and Ryan Fleck bring a sizable amount of deftness to their first big movie. Most of the shots feel natural and unique at once. Such cinematography keeps the audience grounded, and it’s not something Marvel movies have constantly done well. Remember Thor‘s near-constant, nausea-inducing Dutch angles? Yeah, none of that here.
The acting is mostly great too. Ben Mendelsohn is obviously having fun with Skrull general Talos. It’s good seeing Clark Gregg back in an MCU movie. Newcomer Lashana Lynch takes on her role with aplomb, coming off restrained yet powerful. She acts circles around other, more experienced stars. More of her, please. Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, an absolute laugh riot at points and a capable hand at others, embodying an up-and-coming Nick Fury perfectly. He fills several scenes back up with charisma when leading lady Brie Larson sucks it out.
You’re going to hear (or perhaps you’ve already heard) critics say that Larson’s Captain Marvel is a Mary Sue. Don’t get me wrong, the criticism applies. But what is a Mary Sue? To understand that, we need to know what a good, well-written protagonist looks like.
Put succinctly, the protagonist is the good guy. Usually, they start the story down on their luck or lacking something. Then they’re faced with an obstacle, something they want to get past or overcome. But to do that, they first have to make a difficult change, to find that thing which fundamentally completes or betters them. Once the protagonist chooses to make this change, they overcome the conflict and reach their goal. This is called an arc, and it is the superstructure of nearly every story.
A Mary Sue is just a protagonist who makes no significant, hard, fundamental choice that enables them to succeed. They are already so complete and capable that they handle the obstacles in front of them with relative ease. It never feels like they’re in true peril or at a disadvantage. Without a flaw to overcome, the story drives the protagonist; the protagonist doesn’t drive the story.
We hear countless times from Jude Law’s Stock Kree Leader Whose Name I Don’t Recall that Vers needs to “control her emotions” to become the best version of herself. It’s a really ham-fisted attempt to set up a female-empowerment-related conflict that Larson’s Vers clearly does not need to overcome. Larson plays Vers (or Captain Marvel, if you prefer) in such a flat, unaffected manner that it undercuts the script. Even the conflict’s resolution comes off as a “the-power-was-inside-you-all-along” solution that would feel more at home in a Disney princess film.
So there’s little inner conflict within our protagonist. What about the outer obstacles, though? Well, those are mostly missing too thanks to the film’s big twist. SPOILERS in the next paragraph.
Like I said, this film’s supposedly about Vers discovering her past life and the truth about her abilities. Yet that happens about halfway through the film. Then after we discover that the Skrulls were just a head-fake villain and the Kree are the real baddies, Captain Marvel goes all glowy and the finale just deflates. All those who oppose the good Captain fall easily, and sometimes comically, as she breezes through her former Kree compatriots. But it doesn’t feel earned, because we haven’t really seen our protagonist really struggle with her lack of power at any point.
To sum up, Captain Marvel has plenty of entertaining moments, but our heroine herself is a sizable drag on the film, more a blank cipher than a person. Brie Larson acts best when she has someone to bounce off of – as I said, thank goodness for Sam Jackson – but when she doesn’t, hoo boy. And without much of a driving conflict, the film’s not up to usual MCU standards.