It’s the age of innocence. The Avengers haven’t yet assembled. S.H.I.E.L.D are still clueless about the sci-fi threats they’ll soon be famous for fighting. And Vers – pronounced Veers – is a trainee in the
Vers (Brie Larson) is a Starforce Military cadet, a wannabe defender of the Kree against the shape-shifting Skrull. Her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) thinks she lacks the emotional self-control to go to war. During an ambush and capture by the Skrull, Vers escapes, only to crash land on Earth in 1995 pursued by the Skrull commander, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), and by the ever-so-suspicious newbie agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a young Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). But nothing is as it seems.
Plus points abound. Indie directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously worked together on Mississippi Grind and Half Nelson, inject Captain Marvel with a whip-smart intricacy of plot, nicely wrongfooting the characters and us. A sense of the surreal works wonders in visualising Vers’ inner disorientation as she tries to sort friends from foes in her fractured memory. And some action scenes stand-out: a full-on train fight between Vers and an old lady is creepy-funny and comic-book rough.
But the directors’ lack of experience of bigger budgets and superhero helming shows up big time. Tonally the film’s off-beam. It’s like someone imitating a Marvel movie, falling flat and making you realise how beautifully judged the others are. The humour misfires. Mostly because Larson misses every comedy beat, overplaying it in word and look. Given her sassy turn in Free Fire we know she can do it. But whether dropping one-liners - having crashed through the roof of a Blockbuster video store - or in her amused double-takes, it’s all mis-timed.
Boden and Fleck even conspire to undermine their own finale. As Vers pitches into her opponents, the directors lay-on a stupid pop-song soundtrack that sucks any edginess and danger right into space. Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy were funny but not when they needed to be serious. They did it right. Captain Marvel is lame in comparison, in both its comedy and action moments. It’s coming to something when a transmogrifying moggy is a highlight.
In Marvel movies the combat sequences are usually pretty nifty. Captain America upped the game, and Ant-Man and the Wasp blended athleticism with bravado choreography. Here – the train sequence aside – it’s a let-down. Larson said she trained for nine months in cardio, taekwondo, kickboxing and judo. You’d never know. Anyone could’ve done them, dully shot and play-fight light. Sadly, too Larson, is no runner. Most Marvel action heroes can kick ass. But if Endgame is relying on Captain Marvel to save the world, she needs to up her game.
Thank heavens for Samuel L Jackson, wonderfully de-aged by CGI to play a younger version of the Avengers’ franchise’s Nick Fury. A cracking performance. So too Ben Mendelsohn, almost at risk of baddie typecasting following Ready Player One, but sinister and funny here, given a greater range, even under the lizard-faced latex.
It does join the dots though about the Avengers’ origins; wittily and quietly done, for the most part. How Nick Fury got his eye patch. How Captain Marvel got her superhero name - and the ‘Avengers’ got theirs. How S.H.I.E.L.D woke up to the alien universe. And how the tesseract – the big cubic MacGuffin at the heart of Avengers: Infinity War and, presumably, Endgame - came to Earth. It’s nicely pieced together and fun for geeks. And it’s artfully shot by Avengers cinematographer Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr Strange). Particularly in the perspective-bending way he evokes the hinterlands between Vers’ possible pasts.
Playing out like a female empowerment video for 12A girls, it lacks the sass and muscle of DC’s Wonder Woman and feels like the weakest of the Marvel movies. And that’s ironic – given that Captain Marvel is supposed to be the most super-powered Avenger of them all.