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Captain Marvel proves the Marvel formula still works, and works well

Spoiler: The formula also works with women

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

In Captain Marvel, Marvel Studios brings to bear the familiar formula of its best origin story movies: character development, good casting, quips, decent-but-rarely-groundbreaking special effects, and a soupçon of political allegory and science-fiction invention.

This sounds like a criticism, but I mean it with sincerity: Marvel Studios rarely makes a truly bad movie, or even a mediocre one. The studio has mastered the building blocks of heroic narratives, and it’s no surprise that Kevin Feige, with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) stuck to the blueprints while constructing its first heroic narrative about a woman (a prospect so daunting it apparently took over 10 years for the studio to work up the courage).

Spoiler alert: The formula also works with a woman. Faithful, but standing alone from the MCU, Captain Marvel is a propulsive, cosmic mystery that slowly but surely pieces together a new character — and then unleashes her in a most spectacular fashion.

Captain Marvel - Brie Larson as Carol Danvers Marvel Studios/Disney

Like a typical origin story, Captain Marvel begins with a character with unrealized heroic potential. Brie Larson plays the role of an amnesiac soldier, Vers, struggling to control the fiery photon powers within her fists, but eager to serve in the eternal war between the Kree and their sinister, could-be-anyone enemies, the Skrulls.

Pursuit of the Skrull terrorist Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) brings Vers to the backwater planet of Earth, where she runs into mid-level SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). There, as the duo unravels Talos’ goals, our hero also learns of her connection to an earthling named Carol.

Carol’s journey is one of self-discovery, and her detective work, sifting through past and present, give Captain Marvel a worthy flight path to follow. Along the way, Larson and Jackson show off an irresistible buddy-comedy chemistry, which is only amplified once the film introduces Maria Rambeau, a moving role from Lashana Lynch.

(Comic fans will be happy to know that Akira Akbar’s role as Maria’s daughter Monica is no mere walk-on.)

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..L to R: Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), ..Photo: Chuck Zlotnick..©Marvel Studios 2019
Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson).
Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Larson is great at the hero pose and the serious good-guy affirmation when bad-guy butt is about to get kicked. But her Carol is also full of one-liners, sneaky grins, and teases. I found myself marveling (if you’ll pardon the pun) at the novelty of this. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is humorous in her naïveté; Black Widow, the Wasp, and Jessica Jones are all business and deadpan snarking. Captain Marvel gives us the rare female action hero who is funny, knows she’s funny, and enjoys it.

Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) in her suit in Captain Marvel Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

Mendelsohn provides another solid source of humor in the film. The CG-assisted Skrull morphing is a wonderful effect, tinged with body horror, but the physical Skrull prosthetics seem to have impeded their actors somewhat. Talos’ face might have moved like a demon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Mendelsohn imbues him with the charm of a fan-favorite Star Trek role.

While Captain Marvel follows the Marvel formula, it takes full advantage of the twists and turns available when your hero cannot remember her past. Everything is a question with different answers, depending on who Vers asks. And that formula takes on even more layers when applied to a female hero; being told that you’re weak, when people around you are actually terrified of your strength, is not a difficult experience to grasp. But it is also a directly relatable one to those who live, and have lived, as women.

And when Carol finally comes into her own, the feeling is electric. Between its big emotions, the movie has plenty of time for memorable details. Annette Bening delivers a complicated and mesmerising turn as the deep-cut Marvel Comics character of the Supreme Intelligence, an alien soldier scrambles for the nearest gun to hand only to fire a Nerf dart, an entire fight scene is set to No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl.” A good laugh is wrung from four characters sitting around waiting for a 1995-era personal computer to chunk its way through opening a short audio file on a compact disk. And the cat... the cat.

The messages of Captain Marvel — about self-actualization, perseverance, and looking past prejudice — are not worn as boldly as in, say, Wonder Woman or Black Panther, but they are there. Captain Marvel comes at its themes sideways, as it has every right to. There is nothing inherently female about Carol’s origin story, and it is possible, and permissible, for a story about a woman to not be a story about Being A Woman.

Captain Marvel takes up that torch anyway. To paraphrase the words of Marvel’s first female superhero to star in her own film: She doesn’t need to prove anything. And nevertheless, she does.

Captain Marvel premieres in theaters on March 8.

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