Young girls can learn a lot from Carol Danvers about trusting their instincts – especially if they ever need to know if it’s okay to punch a sweet old lady in the face.
Captain Marvel is something of a triumph. What could in other hands have been a dull by-numbers story – with its straightforward plot and simple messages – actually creates clarity and space for young girls to explore that message and connect with a superhero who could be like them.
While the excitement is sometimes tempered, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have delivered a perfectly-paced, brightly fabulous superhero film that’s sincere without being earnest – and with a hefty sprinkling of wit. And while it’s a particular treat for teenage girls it should delight many others too.
Six years after being rescued by the Kree from a wasteland of fire and twisted metal, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is in a state of confusion. She’s trying to move forward but is utterly adrift, because of the blank space where her memories should be – and her mentor Yon-Rogg’s conviction that her success as a fighter is dependent on suppressing her emotions.
It’s a double whammy for a young woman finding her way: our memories help make us, and the insistence that she ignore her instincts and let head overrule heart is a dig at traits perceived to be feminine.
Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) is always pushing his way into her head, trying to fill the space where her past should be; a clever move, with Law scarily ambiguous.
Also a clever move was setting the film in 1995, the heyday of many teenagers’ parents. While Captain Marvel unfolds in LA (and thousands of miles above it) the 90s cues are familiar to many of us. Alta Vista, unreliable dial-up broadband, “two-way pagers”, and of course Blockbuster, where Carol literally lands. (The 90s soundtrack too is a corker: Elastica, Garbage, No Doubt, TLC, Nirvana.)
The Kree have their own Supreme Intelligence, and with a title like that who wouldn’t cast Annette Bening? Dressed in a silver bodysuit with short silver-white hair, Bening isn’t actually God (not in their world anyway), as the Supreme Intelligence has no physical body. Everyone sees them in the form of someone personally important to them, though Carol doesn’t know who this woman is or what she means.
Carol finally gets to see action on a mission to rescue an agent whose cover has been blown. But the planet, at the outer reaches of the Kree empire, has been infiltrated by Skrulls, shapeshifters who can change into anything they’ve seen.
They capture Carol, and it’s when they try to access her memories that she finally sees fragments of her past on Earth, as a pilot in the US Air Force; including her work with the elusive and mysterious Dr Wendy Lawson, who had been working on a lightspeed engine.
It’s technology the Skrulls are desperate to track down, to give them an upper hand in their ongoing war with the Kree. (Ben Mendelsohn plays Skrull leader Talos with an elegance that really draws out the ambivalence of war and what it makes of its soldiers.)
Escaping from the Skrulls she lands on Earth, or rather Planet C-53 (honestly we should go back to that name, it sounds a lot more professional). Crash landing in our favourite video store, Carol soon has to escape both the pursuing Skrulls and also S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who is now faced with incontrovertible evidence that we are not alone.
At its heart Captain Marvel is about Carol learning to understand herself: where she came from and what she’s capable of. It’s a common message for young girls, though it’s rarely delivered with such a powerful mix of humanity and self-belief.
The characters’ clarity of purpose is actually one of the film’s strengths. It never feels messy or weighed down by overreaching ambition, and its key protagonists still have flaws and flakiness mixed in with their determination to do the right thing.
As so often happens a supporting character with a big personality threatens to take over, and here it’s Goose the cat. The name is apparently a tribute to Top Gun (though I’m going to give you a cat-related spoiler note and tell you that unlike Top Gun Goose, CAPTAIN MARVEL GOOSE DOESN’T DIE. That was a double spoiler wasn’t it. Apologies if you’ve never seen Top Gun).
I wonder if that fact that Goose is ginger is also a tribute to Jonesy from Alien. Goose also gets to go into space, and the poor moggie’s reaction to G-force is one of the film’s funniest moments. (Do not try this at home.)
Goose and Nick Fury’s relationship is a heightened version of most cat/so-called-owner situations, with Goose in charge while Fury hangs on for any morsel of affection whatever the cost. I doubt I’m the only one yowling for Fury & Goose the buddy movie.
Beyond the Furry-Fury dynamic (though Goose is only occasionally dynamic and then entirely on his own terms) the main friendships in Captain Marvel feel true to their core.
Carol and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) were air force colleagues on Earth, best friends as they faced down the sexism of the USAF, and as Maria brought up her young daughter. Meeting up six years later, their friendship still endures as Maria teams up with Carol once more.
Fury and Carol have a witty camaraderie from the off, their layers of self-protective wariness gradually peeling away once they’re thrown together against common enemies.
And what of Larson? She’s fearless and thoroughly believable as a young woman trying to untangle her past so she can have a future, even when that means learning to trust the voice inside her to harness her own huge powers. She’s almost unstoppable (both a blessing and a curse. Great for peace on Earth, not so great for tension and excitement).
Having been held back for so long, Carol wants to push forward at warp speed on her own terms, and Larson delivers. The lies people have told her give her as much oomph as her need to discover her history. Carol Danvers is a superhero driven by a determination to right wrongs and go forward on her own terms.
Note: There is a Stan Lee cameo (a lovely one) and the opening credits are a tribute to him. There’s also a mid-credits scene which links to Avengers: Endgame.
Watch the Captain Marvel trailers and check out images and posters: