Two years ago, Wonder Woman proved a female-led superhero movie could reach the highest levels of the genre, with Gal Gadot proving robust and redoubtable, yet also charming and feminine. I spent Captain Marvel waiting for Gadot. What I got was Brie Larson: charmless, humorless, a character so without texture that she might as well be made out of aluminum.
Captain Marvel might be the first blockbuster movie whose animating idea is fear. Every page of the script betrays terror of what people might say about the film on social media. Give Carol Danvers a love interest? Eek! No, women can’t be defined by the men in their lives! Make her vulnerable? OMG, no, that’s crazy. Feminine? What century are you from if you think females should be feminine? Toward the end of the movie, when a villain preparing for an epic confrontation with Carol, the fighter pilot turned Superwoman, chides her that she will fail because she can’t control her emotions, there is no tension whatsoever. We’ve just spent two hours watching her be utterly unfazed by anything. Giving Carol actual emotions would, of course, lead to at least 27 people calling the film misogynist on Twitter, and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are petrified of that.
Just to be completely, unerringly, let’s-bubble-wrap-the-universe safe, Boden and Fleck decided to make Danvers stronger than strong, fiercer than fierce, braver than brave. Larson spends the entire movie being insouciant, kicking butt, delivering her lines in an I-got-this monotone and staring down everything with a Blue Steel gaze of supreme confidence. Superheroes are defined by their limitations — Superman’s Kryptonite, Batman’s mortality — but Captain Marvel is just an invincible bore. The screenplay by Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, with a story by the three of them plus Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve, presents us with Brie Larson’s Carol being amazingly strong and resilient at the beginning, middle, and end. This isn’t an arc, it’s a straight line.
When we first meet the title character, she is called “Vers,” a soldier in the Kree civilization on a faraway planet. Coached by her mentor (Jude Law), she is doing battle with the shapeshifting race of rivals — the Skrull — when she gets thrown across the galaxy and deposited on “Planet C-53.” Specifically, this means the roof of a Blockbuster Video in Los Angeles in 1995. Discovered by SHIELD agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson (Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg, each playing a 30-years-younger version of himself using the new digital age-erasing tech), she uncovers secrets about her buried past: She isn’t a Kree warrior at all but American fighter pilot Carol Danvers. She was testing a secret weapon with the aid of a superior officer (Annette Bening) when everything went blank. Meanwhile the Skrull and the Kree follow her to Earth, and one not particularly interesting plot twist ensues.
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Carol looks up an old friend, a fellow feminist fighter pilot named Rambeau. As played by Lashana Lynch, she is another Mary Sue, boringly capable, flawless, and stalwart. Rambeau is a single mom with a daughter, but when she considers leaving the planet to join Carol’s war with the aliens, the idea of abandoning her kid is played for laughs, not drama. The directors are afraid that suggesting women tend to put their children above all else will get them called out as retrograde by the Jessica Veryangrys on Twitter. They don’t realize that treating every potential obstacle as no problem whatsoever makes for a very dull movie.
Although the Nineties soundtrack — No Doubt, Nirvana, Hole — gives the movie some lift, the filmmakers can barely locate any comic inspiration in the period. A problem with Nineties nostalgia is that unless you were on the Internet, or a cellphone, things didn’t look that different. There’s only so many laughs to be extracted from “cell phones were chunky” or “Alta Vista was the search engine.” Nor does Danvers seem like a naïf or a fish out of water à la Superman or Wonder Woman: She calls Fury’s “state-of-the-art two-way pager” a “communicator,” but otherwise, she immediately adjusts to anything. Larson, who became a star in 21 Jump Street seven years ago and has not done anything better since (especially not her Oscar-winning turn in the appalling film Room), has quickly become one of Hollywood’s most humorless and insufferable actresses, and her personality rubbed off on the character. There isn’t an ounce of self-deprecation in her.
The trap the filmmakers set for themselves is this: They set out to make a girl-power statement — but feared acknowledging any differences between men and women. Despite Larson’s sylphlike build, there is no suggestion at any point that she might be overmatched by a guy who is 80 or 100 pounds larger, like Djimon Hounsou. If being female is defined as “exactly like a male, only more resilient,” how interesting is that?