No Doubt’s hit single “Just A Girl” dropped in 1995. It was bouncy and LOUD and fun, and more importantly, it gave young women of my generation a subversive party anthem that let us scream our discontent with the expectations placed upon us because of our gender while also being proud members of that gender. And now, almost 25 years later, Captain Marvel has taken “Just A Girl” and laid it over a bad-ass fight sequence, while Carol Danvers kicks the absolute crap out of some aliens in space.
It is a thing I never knew I needed in my life.
Is it a little too on-the-nose? Oh, absolutely. But in a lot of ways their use of that song is the perfect window into the film itself — a film which, I should say up front, I loved. But it’s also a movie that is smothered under the weight of A LOT OF EXPECTATIONS. Of course it is — this is Marvel Studio’s first solo female superhero film we’re talking about here! Will it be feminist enough? Or TOO feminist? Will it satisfy the comic book fans who know the history of Captain Marvel forwards and backwards, and who may be quick to point out that WELL ACTUALLY Carol was called Ms. Marvel for a very long time, and WELL ACTUALLY Captain Marvel was originally an alien dude named Mar-Vell and WELL ACTUALLY Monica Rambeau was the first woman to go by Captain Marvel and why can’t she ever catch a break? Will it satisfy the moviegoers who haven’t read the comics and don’t know their Captain Marvels from their Warbirds anyway? Will it set up Avengers: Endgame? Will it prove itself worthy of coming out before Black Widow got a solo feature?
Will it be great? Or — more importantly — will anything LESS than great be an absolute failure?
And just like “Just A Girl” before it, Captain Marvel is both proud in its girl power while also pointedly frustrated that those are the terms it’s being judged upon. It panders to your expectations, while simultaneously subverting them in clever and unexpected ways. And in the end, both Carol Danvers and the movie itself flat-out reject those expectations being placed on them, with a climactic hero moment consisting of the phrase: “I have nothing to prove to you.”
So, how do we get to that point? Well, first there’s the slow-but-necessary first act to plod through, which finds Carol Danvers on the Kree homeworld of Hala, working for their Starforce in their long, bloody war against the Skrulls, a shifty race of alien shape-changers. She has no memory of her past, and no idea who she is. All she has is her job in the present and her comrades — including her tough-love superior officer named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). He’s the kind of boss that believes in her, expects big things from her, but also tells her she’s too emotional and that the only way she’ll succeed is to suppress what’s in her heart and use her head. Sure, he’s an alien complaining about a human flaw, but it’s also a note that’s designed to sting with painful familiarity to any woman in the audience.
All the Krees-in-space stuff is necessary if only to set Captain Marvel apart from the standard superhero origin rut we’ve all grown accustomed to (after all, this is the final film of Marvel’s Phase Three slate). We basically meet Carol in the middle of her own story — unraveling her past as she moves into her future and becomes the hero we’ve been waiting for. It’s mostly just a structural trick. And if the first act pales in comparison to the rest of the movie, which finds its rhythm once Carol gets to Earth, at least it’s filled with an array of interesting characters who are better than they really need to be (Gemma Chan’s Minn-Erva and Djimon Hounsou’s returning Korath are particularly delightful).
During a mission gone sideways, Carol gets ambushed and captured by a band of Skrulls, who manipulate her memories to try and find the whereabouts of the MacGuffin … I mean, Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), a scientist working for Project Pegasus to develop a lightspeed engine they desperately need to get their hands on. Who Lawson is, and why her work is so important to the Skrulls, are some of the niftiest surprises you won’t see coming, especially if you’re familiar with the comics. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
Carol breaks free from the Skrull ship and plummets to Earth… in 1995 (hello, Blockbuster!). And it’s there that she runs afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., which sends a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to investigate the woman who fell from the sky (don’t worry — the de-aging special effects they used on Fury are practically seamless, and far less jarring than they look in the trailers). Fury’s not buying her warnings of an alien invasion until he sees the evidence himself. And when he realizes that Skrulls have infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., he’s forced to partner with Carol to get to the bottom of things.
Yup, Captain Marvel basically turns into a buddy cop movie for the second act, and the chemistry between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson is downright effervescent — though the script gives them an assist by providing fantastic banter for them to play around with. For so long the MCU has relied on Jackson to swan into the proceedings with a cocked brow and an acerbic tongue — the mastermind who sees the big picture and has a plan for everything. But here he’s pitch-perfect as the slightly less hardened spy going head-to-head with someone who has seen things on a wider scale than he ever imagined. And Larson? She’s wickedly funny, yet so sincere. She plays Carol with a twinkle in her eye and swagger in her step, eager to meet every challenge — not to prove herself, but because she has the self-confidence to carry her through. Larson makes you believe that Carol is already a hero, and has always been a hero — on Earth, on Hala — and the only question is whether she can be an even better one once she casts off the terms dictated by others. She pushes herself higher, further, and faster with joy.
There is so much in this movie that we could dissect, from its chick-rock soundtrack (Hole, Garbage, En Vogue — hell, I’m pretty sure the movie is set in the ’90s solely to justify the music selection) to the surprise cameos and those two end-credit sequences (stick around!). Goose the cat (?) is not only a delight but also a crucial part of the proceedings. And Ben Mendelsohn breaks out of his reputation as the go-to bad guy to bring nuance to his Skrull leader, Talos. But mostly I’m impressed by just how shrewdly and faithfully the film embraces all of the source material while subverting it in unexpected ways. This may not be the best Marvel Studios film, but I actually think it might be the best, or at least the smartest, Marvel Comics movie out there.
But is Captain Marvel the movie you want it to be? I don’t know. It just… is what it is. And you can love it or hate it, and that’s fine. In a world where so many people are quick to tell us why we can’t do something, or that we aren’t enough — as women, as HUMANS — all we can do is try. We may fall hard, but we get back up. Not to prove ourselves to anyone else, but because it’s in our nature. It’s who we are. It’s a power we all share. And it’s Carol’s power too! All the crazy flaming energy blasts and super-strength and flight, those are just the tools that help her succeed — but her real power is her ability to persevere as a woman, as a person, and most of all, as herself. A fully-formed, flawed, and fascinating hero.
So yeah, Captain Marvel is just fine as it is, thank you very much.
Header Image Source: Marvel Studios