As a longtime (if occasionally lapsed) fan of superhero comic books, I’ve had mixed emotions about the mighty Marvel age of cinema. Close as it has sometimes come, the Marvel Studios machine hasn’t yet made a wholly satisfying movie, in part because of the ways in which it is constantly serving a massive blueprint that can sometimes value — at least in part — formula over individual inspiration. There has been one aspect that has been continually satisfying as I’ve watched these costumed titans brought from the page to the big screen. I am always emotionally moved by the block of comic book writer and artist names that arrive at some point in the lengthy closing credits, recognition that even as the first writer and artist associated with a character are due a “created by” credit, the nature of the form means many of the defining stories arrived later. Black Panther, for example, may have been first conceived by the peerless team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but the character who arrived on the screen had additional DNA provided by Don McGregor, Billy Graham, Christopher Priest, and many others.
Captain Marvel, the latest movie from the comics publisher turned entertainment juggernaut, has the customary hat tip to the myriad creators who’ve had an especially notable influence on the character Carol Danvers since she was introduced, in 1968. For me, though, the most telling and rewarding appearance of a comic book creator’s name was set slightly aside, under the heading “Consultant.” And that’s because the writer in question, Kelly Sue DeConnick, was instrumental in helping Carol — who had previously toiled for the forces of good as Ms. Marvel, Binary, and Warbird — take the mantle that probably should have been bequeathed to her decades earlier. For all practical purposes, the character Brie Larson plays in this new Marvel movie (referred to as Vers and Carol Danvers, but not yet by the more superheroic moniker in the title) is the one that DeConnick realized with various collaborators on art duties. When Captain Marvel is most true to the spirit of DeConnick’s admirable run with the character, the movie soars.
And it is indeed more the spirit than the particulars being adapted for the screen, as liberties are taken, often to jigsaw this puzzle piece into proper shape to snap into place among the twenty official Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that have come before. To begin with, this iteration takes place in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when Nicholas Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, given convincing Oil of Olay treatment by some skillful CGI) was a comparative pup who didn’t yet need to shop for eyepatches. Carol is a warrior hero among the alien race the Kree, soldiering in a ceaseless battle against the shape-shifters known as Skrulls. A mission gone sideways sends her crashing down to Earth, and she gradually becomes reacquainted with a personal history that’s been hidden from her.
Co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (they also figure in the complicated screenwriting credits), Captain Marvel trades on the some of the same girl power satisfaction that gave Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman an energizing jolt. If subtlety is sometimes sacrificed in favor of a good old fashioned stand-up-and-cheer moment, then so be it. The wait has been long, and the continued necessity of more didactic lessons is proven by the futile, obnoxious nattering of misogynistic nitwits who cloak themselves in the unearned piety of their supposed fandom. When Carol declares her independence, I want her to do it with the clearest possible refutation of the cads who try to control her.
Larson is terrific in the title role, bringing her well–established acting chops to Carol’s internal conflicts while also acquitting herself nicely in charismatically holding the screen, which is, let’s face it, a primary requirement of these roles in these movies. The other cast members are solid enough, if clearly secondary to our captain, though Ben Mendelsohn has some marvelous moments as the Skrull Talos, at least when the narrative shifts in such a way that he’s allowed to start underplaying. Boden and Fleck sometimes get tangled up as they try to service the film’s multiple needs, especially faltering whenever the significant tests of the action sequences come around. Even so, their deft touch with character and comic moments goes a long way toward forgiving the scenes that clank with franchise necessity.
These Marvel movies can be fairly measured on different scales. That can seem like lowering expectations because of their blockbuster status, but it’s also about acknowledging the greater degree in difficulty in mounting new adventures as the latest entry of a major ongoing saga of interconnected films. As the ample wreckage of bumbled attempts at cloning the Marvel model demonstrates, it is no small feat being accomplished by producing mastermind Kevin Feige and his assembled filmmaking avengers. Captain Marvel is a solid movie, but it’s in the upper tier for Marvel, the latest positive example of the studio’s recent success in trusting the unique visions of its somewhat iconoclastic directing hires. As was the case with DeConnick in the comics, there’s immeasurable benefit to fully committing to creators who clearly love and want to honor a character. They’re the ones who can take these heroes higher, further, and faster.