Conversation about the arrival of Brie Larson-starring superhero movie Captain Marvel has inevitably revolved around the fact that for the first time, Marvel Studios has released a movie with a solo female lead (Evangeline Lilly co-headlined with Paul Rudd for last year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, but Larson strikes out alone).
Coming nearly two years after Warner Bros hit Wonder Woman, the move does go a small way towards redressing the gender imbalance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and has inspired a subsection of bitter men to try and tank the film’s review rating before they’ve seen it) – but when watching the finished film, I found it was far from the only way Captain Marvel breaks the Marvel mould.
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Over the years, Marvel Studios and Disney have found a remarkably solid model for producing enjoyable superhero flicks, and in the last few instalments of their interconnected movie universe there have been remarkably few misses.
Of course, Captain Marvel doesn’t divert from this formula TOO much – there’s still a fair few one-liners, CGI-friendly action and teases for future movies as Larson’s Carol Danvers fights to protect Earth – but it does make a few tweaks that I wasn’t expecting, and which made for a refreshing way to take the blueprint forward.
For example, as far as I can recall with the exception of Taika Waititi’s zany Thor: Ragnarok, Captain Marvel may be the first solo Marvel movie without a romantic subplot, with no love interest cropping up for Carol/Captain Marvel (Larson) throughout the entire length of the action.
Instead, the emotional heart of the film is unquestioningly her bond with best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter Monica (a future superhero in the source comics), her growing warmth with future Avengers bagman Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and, arguably, her empathy for the other people and beings she meets in the story.
“I think there is a love story at the centre of it, but it’s not a romantic love story. It’s a friendship, it’s a female friendship,” Gemma Chan, who plays Kree sniper Minn-Erva in the film, told me recently.
“And I think that’s beautiful, and as you say really unusual, in a film like this. Particularly a superhero film.”
This makes for a welcome change from the slightly shoehorned-in love interests of certain Marvel films (Rachel McAdams in Doctor Strange and Emily VanCamp in the latter Captain America films, for example), and gives a sense that we’re not just watching the same old story all over again – a complaint often levelled at Marvel’s remarkably consistent filmmaking style.
Structurally, too, the film does things a little differently. It’s no secret that Captain Marvel takes a slightly roundabout route to explaining its lead character’s backstory, starting off with Carol as a Kree warrior with no memory of her past, crash-landing on Earth after a mission goes wrong and forced to hunt shape-shifting Skrulls in 1990s America.
Instead of introducing Carol as a hotshot pilot who gains powers in an accident, gradually learns to use them then fights a coincidentally-powered villain (basically, the plot of Green Lantern), this origin story is revealed in dribs and drabs through flashbacks, while the villains have a more organic, believable and lived-in backstory all of their own that is revealed over time.
I’m not always a fan of flashbacks as storytelling, but here they’re used fairly deftly so that we can begin the film in media res, and it works well.
Of course, dropping the origin story isn’t unique to Captain Marvel – the studio has generally been phasing them out since 2016’s Doctor Strange, with Black Panther and Spider-Man introduced in Captain America: Civil War, already powered, before getting their solo movies – but it is the first time the formula has been dodged within a film that also had to present a lead character to audiences for the first time. Like I said, breaking the mould in more ways than one.
There are a few other ways Captain Marvel shifts the superhero conversation throughout the film that I won’t reveal here – this is definitely a story to see unspoiled, more than most – and while I left the cinema feeling as entertained as ever after watching a Marvel movie (like I said, they’re consistent), I also found myself more refreshed by the whole thing than I often am.
Of course Captain Marvel’s gender is the headline-grabbing, course-correcting aspect of this film, attracting the most media attention – but within the movie itself, it ultimately doesn’t define Carol any more than her background, abilities and relationships with those close to her (barring a few flashbacks suggesting how her gender impacted her pilot career in the 1980s).
Instead, it’s just one part of a tapestry of changes making this a fresher than usual sort of Marvel story, and just the breather we needed before we get stuck back into the main meat of the MCU in Avengers: Endgame. Fingers crossed Brie Larson can bring a touch of this magic when she joins the rest of the Avengers in April.
Captain Marvel is released in UK cinemas on the 8th March