Every time Marvel tweaks its formula, even just a little bit, there are always … I wouldn’t call them “doubters,” but, maybe instead, “wonderers.” The, “I wonder if Marvel is worried about this one?” contingency. We saw it with the first Guardians of the Galaxy and we saw it with the first Ant-Man. Then whatever movie Marvel was presumed to be worried about goes on to make a whole heck of a lot of money and we move on to the next tweak.
Now, having said all that, Captain Marvel is certainly another tweak in the formula. The advertising for this movie doesn’t quite let on (a) how weird Captain Marvel actually is and (b) that this movie is pretty much a full-on cosmic sci-fi film. I’m going to take a guess that it’s not going to be what most people are expecting. And, for the record, the surprise delighted me.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (if you haven’t seen their wonderful movie Mississippi Grind, drop everything you’re doing and rent it right now), Captain Marvel just might give us a glimpse of what Marvel has in store for us after this next Avengers movie. Marvel has a slew of untapped cosmic characters, but has seemed to want to ease us more into that world over the course of, now, 21 movies. And maybe it was wise to save Captain Marvel until later, because her story is, frankly, a little weird. This isn’t “rich guy builds a suit,” or “high school kid gets bitten by a spider.” There’s quite a bit more going on here and her story can get pretty confusing. (Honestly, after watching Captain Marvel, I’m still not 100 percent certain what Captain Marvel’s powers are? And I’m fine with that.)
Woe is the origin story. We hate them now! Boo! It’s now a punchline about how many times we’ve seen poor Thomas and Martha Wayne get shot and killed. It’s gotten so bad, when Marvel Studios finally got to put Spider-Man into the MCU, they didn’t even bother with an origin story. They just figured we all have the gist by now – and they were right. But what do you do with Captain Marvel? Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson) is so confusing and weird, audiences aren’t just going to “get the gist.”
So what Boden and Fleck do here is lean into the confusion and weirdness. This isn’t a movie where, for the first act, we see Carol test-piloting fighter jets, as the trailers kind of want us to believe. All of that is told in kind of hazy flashbacks as the movie goes along. When the film opens, Carol has her powers and is already fighting with the Kree against the Skrulls. Over the course of the movie – and during a surprise visit to Earth, circa 1995, with the help of a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – she slowly begins to piece together who she used to be and what even it is she’s fighting for right now. (Though, at times, I felt as confused as Carol. Also, I wish we had learned a little more about her. At times she feels more like an ideal than a character. I don’t know, maybe that’s the point.)
There are some legitimately strange scenes and imagery in Captain Marvel, and not “strange” in the quirky tone of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy. This is a full-on, strange, sci-fi film. Some of the scenes reminded me of Rey snapping into the endless mirrors during The Last Jedi. This is a movie that features a cerebral, psychedelic fight set to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.”
And a huge reason this movie works is Ben Mendelsohn, of all people. (I say “of all people” because, under his green Skrull makeup, a lot of people might not even realize he’s under there until they see the movie.) Mendelsohn plays Talos, the leader of the Skrulls sent to Earth to look for Carol. When I first heard he was cast in this role I was a little worried! All too often, great actors kind of get lost in these type of alien/villain roles – but Mendelsohn brings a humanity (Skrullanity?) to this role I was not at all expecting. And it’s no wonder why Boden and Fleck wanted to work with Mendelsohn here again. We are all better off as a society now that Ben Mendelsohn is part of the MCU. (We will talk a lot more about this role after audiences see the movie. There are a lot of surprises I wouldn’t want to spoil.)