Captain Marvel takes a while to click, but eventually comes together for a payoff

Carol Danvers has been a C-list character in Marvel Comics for most of her 50-year history. Only within the past seven years has she held the mantle of Captain Marvel that sells her as a pretty big addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Danvers has a convoluted comic book history, one that surely made her difficult to distill into something simpler for a movie. Yet like Tony Stark before her, the lack of a signature storyline made Danvers a blank slate for Marvel Studios and the five writers (including Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Nicole Perlman and Inside Out‘s Meg LaFauve) who took a crack at Captain Marvel‘s story.

A comic book overhaul in 2012 by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (who appropriately has a quick cameo in the movie) made Danvers a tougher, more accessible character fueled by all of the doubts and obstacles encountered throughout her life. That perseverance is what pushed her into becoming an elite fighter pilot and gave her the edge to stand as an equal with Captain America, Iron Man, and the other Avengers.

That’s the character we get in Captain Marvel, providing Brie Larson with a strong hero to portray and a template for directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck to follow. Marvel is hoping that Danvers is a figure to build the next phase of its blockbuster films around, someone who can resonate with audiences like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have.

As expected, Larson embodies Danvers’ inherent swagger well. She knows she’s really good at what she does, whether it’s as a fighter pilot or an alien warrior in the Kree Starforce. Yet she doesn’t know who she is, in terms of her memories and background. Danvers has no struggles with finding a purpose, but is it the right one? That uncertainty creates a vulnerability which makes her a compelling character. And it also fuels a rage that simmers just beneath her stoic exterior.

Another trait that makes Danvers so appealing in the comics is an acerbic wit which gives her charm. The scenes with Jude Law and Samuel L. Jackson are the best in the movie because of it. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, whittling them down with slicing quips. Law’s Yon-Rogg and Jackson’s Nick Fury make able tennis partners, serving and volleying to provide much of the story’s entertainment.

Some might view Larson’s performance as too closed up, not human enough. But from the very beginning, we’re told that Danvers has been trained to keep her emotions in check by the alien Kree, lest she lose control of the extraordinary abilities she possesses. If she doesn’t show much of a personality, it’s because she doesn’t know who she is. All she has to go on is what Yon-Rogg and the Kree’s Supreme Intelligence (embodied by Annette Bening) tell her. And Danvers increasingly suspects that she’s not being given the entire story.

Danvers’s arc is learning who she is and where she came from. That character-driven narrative is likely why Boden and Fleck were Marvel’s surprising choices to direct this movie. Nothing in their shared filmography indicates that a blockbuster superhero, galaxy-spanning epic was a natural next step for them. Although if you listen to their 2016 interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelmanwhich Koppelman recently reposted — both Boden and Fleck indicate that they’re interested in directing a studio project, largely for the doors it could open for them.

Neither Half Nelson, Sugar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, nor Mississippi Grinddepict a typical hero’s journey. However, the main characters overcoming their personal struggles may feel that way for them. (By the way, not enough people saw either of those films, and they’re all worth checking out.) Against the backdrop of an interplanetary war between the Kree and shape-shifting Skrulls (led by Ben Mendelson’s Talos), Danvers has an internal conflict to resolve.

For the first two-thirds of the movie, Captain Marvel doesn’t feel like it quite fits together. Maybe that’s because Boden and Fleck’s approach doesn’t mesh with the Marvel movie-making machine. Based on reports, the studio maps out most of the story and action beats for its films while the directors fill in the character and dialogue notes.

Amusement Park Podcast: Captain Marvel reaction

But maybe what feels like a bad fit is intentional, attempting to emulate Danvers’ disjointed state of mind. Through most of the story, she’s trying to put her memories back together. That actually kind of resembles the mess of her comic book history.

Danvers was originally Ms. Marvel, a name that screams 1970s. Eventually, she joined the Avengers. Then her powers were taken from her by Rogue — yes, that Rogue from the X-Men. In the 80s, alien experiments turned her into Binary, more of an energy-based character who had the powers of a star.

By the 2000s, she had reverted back to a hero with Superman-like powers of flight, enhanced strength and speed, while also retaining some of her Binary abilities, allowing her to absorb energy and shoot photon blasts. She called herself Warbird, a nod to her past as an Air Force pilot.

In the 2010s, however, Danvers became a more integral character in Marvel Comics mythology and a key member of the New Avengers. DeConnick soon brought her into sharper focus during that 2012 comic book run, much like Iron Man got a movie-ready narrative that streamlined his origin in Warren Ellis’s 2005 “Extremis” story arc.

Taking the Captain Marvel name was perhaps the best example of Danvers asserting herself and claiming her identity. It was something which writers and editors probably should’ve thought of decades ago. Fortunately, the creatives figured out that a strong female character who might be the most powerful Avenger of them all was exactly what Marvel Comics needed. The same may hold true for Marvel’s movies as they move on to the next phase of their development.

Once everything clicks for Danvers, the story follows suit and Captain Marvel becomes the ascendant crowd-pleaser we’re accustomed to seeing with Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. It takes just a bit too long to get there — and like with many recent movies and TV shows taking place in the 1980s and 1990s, like Bumblebee, Deadly Class, and The Umbrella Academy, the music of the era is used as a crutch — but the eventual payoff is worth the setup.

The true payoff will likely be seen in subsequent movies as we get to see Carol Danvers play a role in Endgame‘s resolution, interact with the other Avengers, and lead Marvel’s cinematic heroes into the future.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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