Pity the poor sap in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe tasked with updating timelines and redrafting the superhero family tree. The rate at which fresh blood is shoehorned into the potentially bamboozling umbrella narrative and placed among already familiar characters is enough to make anyone snap their pencil in despair and slope off for a pint.
Case in point is Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, whose first 25 minutes on-screen is an intergalactic back story of such scattergun detail that one supporting player is heard crying “Am I the only one that’s confused here?!” Just who are these alien shape-shifters that she and other jump-suited warriors are trying to vanquish? Why is everyone indulging in old-fashioned fisticuffs when they have the power to shoot bolts of electricity from their palms? And what does Annette Bening have to do with any of it?
Subtlety has never been a hallmark of the franchise (currently at 21 films and counting), and there are times when Captain Marvel takes glee in using a ballistic missile to crack a Brazil nut. More often than not, the movies’ crash-bang-wallop mayhem and increasingly necessary plot exposition is neatly tempered by wry, self-effacing humour, but while there are certainly elements of the latter here, the overall balance is a little lop-sided.
When our heroine first falls to earth, after a poorly lit fight scene where it’s hard to tell who’s got the hump with whom, she plummets through the roof of a branch of Blockbuster Video, dusting herself off amid shelves of VHS tapes and zapping a cardboard cut-out of Arnold Schwarzenegger for good measure. It’s one way of time-stamping the period, and viewers are specifically informed a few minutes later that we’re in 1995.
That places the action before most of the other Marvel flicks, as evidenced by the arrival of
Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, still relatively low on the totem pole at worldwide law enforcement wallahs SHIELD and with a full complement of working eyes. As Larson’s character experiences brief flashbacks to what appears to be a previous life, Fury rides shotgun while she tries to piece together the past – much like Jackson’s down-at-heel private eye did with amnesiac assassin Geena Davis in 1996 action thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Fury and The Protagonist Formerly Known as Carol come to realise that humble Homo sapiens are caught in the crossfire of a cosmos-spanning conflict between alien races (the “Kree-Skrull War” first reared its head in a 1971 issue of The Avengers), while at the same time the film gingerly dips its toe in a feminist agenda as Danvers’s patchy memory recalls days when she and fellow flying ace and BFF Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) were Air Force test pilot fodder forbidden from undertaking combat missions.
Carol’s “I am woman, hear my roar” credentials are further underscored by a jukebox-friendly soundtrack liberally peppered with big hits by female singers routinely described in the media as “feisty” (Courtney Love, Shirley Manson, Gwen Stefani). However, the inference that she, Maria and Annette Bening’s enigmatic scientist are the saving-grace antidote to masculine military aggression is conveyed with awkwardness – surprisingly so, when you consider that co-director Anna Boden is one of four women credited among the writers.
Larson’s bow as the Marvel Universe’s first top-billed female heroine (who will return for Avengers: Endgame in April) is almost certain to ruffle some feathers – look at the hullabaloo surrounding the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot or Ocean’s 8. She acquits herself well enough, although it’s not the most charismatic performance you’ll ever see, her best scenes tending to be in tandem with Jackson whose fish-out-of-water reactions give her something to bounce off.
Still, the inevitability that Captain Carol will fly and fight another day, way beyond the next Avengers instalment, means there should be opportunities to put a little more meat on her character’s bones. She’s a welcome addition to the aforementioned Marvel family tree; let’s just hope she’s given a sturdier branch next time.
Captain Marvel is released in cinemas on Friday 8 March