It took Marvel Studios eleven long years to bring fans a female-led film, and expectations have been running high among MCU devotees. Fortunately, Captain Marvel isn’t much worried about the hype train behind her—she’s too busy having fun.
The weakest part of Captain Marvel is unfortunately the opening half-hour where we meet our hero and establish the arc of her journey. The Kree capital planet of Hala seems as though it’s been rendered as an afterthought, and the “mystery” of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and her time as Kree Starforce agent Vers is never tantalizing or unpredictable enough to provoke much surprise. It doesn’t help that the dialogue starts off strangely clunky, and every early action sequence seems as though it’s been designed merely to prove that Danvers can do everything we’ve already seen male action heroes do in other movies—not a great place to start a female hero from, because honestly, who cares? Once Danvers lands on Earth and starts palling around with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, clearly having the most fun he’s ever had playing the character), the film finds its voice and instantly leaves those awkward initial moments in the dust.
Set sometime during the 1990s—and the film is incredibly fuzzy on that note, not only refusing to give us an exact year, but choosing songs that occasionally push the credibility of the exercise (Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” was released in September of 1998, in fact)—Captain Marvel is trading on a specific brand of nostalgia that hasn’t been touched upon since Captain America’s very first outing. In this instance, it is perhaps more smartly situated, as the audiences watching Marvel movies are better positioned to remember the 90s and feel wistful over grunge, Blockbuster Video, and TLC’s “Waterfalls” playing on the radio. In addition, it’s somewhat tickling to know that the kids who have grown up on these films will have a chance to truly understand and appreciate the pain of dial-up connections, and how slowly everything once loaded on our ancient desktops.
There are plenty of easter eggs for fans of the films and of the comics. (There’s a perfect blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Kelly Sue DeConnick, the writer responsible for putting Danvers in the Captain Marvel suit after years as Ms. Marvel and various other alter egos.) The popularity of Carol Danvers since she took over the Captain Marvel name in 2012 has been staggering and heartwarming in its ferocity, and the film manages to highlight all of the things her fans have come to know and love about her. Tying Carol firmly into the MCU mythos could have easily felt like a workbook’s worth of extra credit assignments, but the film has no trouble seeding all these odds and ends in a way that feels entirely breezy.
In a landscape where she is currently one of the only female superheroes with her own movie named after her, Captain Marvel doesn’t pretend that sexism has nothing to do with the difficulties Danvers has faced. We see it in her own past on Earth, and then again from her Kree cohort; her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) constantly chastises Danvers for giving into her emotions when she fights, tying it to her human heritage. Every woman sitting in the theater knows what this really means, that being “emotional” is just a code word for being too female, and that the pretended hindrance of emotionality is just another way of hampering half the world. The film takes this theme a step further and continually props up the benefit of using emotion as a guide, of remembering that there is no way to responsibly wield power without emotion as a backdrop to our decisions. This becomes even more important as the film delves into the war between the Kree and the Skrulls, and has a massive impact on how the story tackles compassion over military might.
The women in Carol’s life rightly make up her most important bonds, from her best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), to Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), to Carol’s Air Force mentor Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening). Aside from Black Panther (which managed to achieve this with stunning and pointed ease), Marvel films have struggled endlessly on this account—an unsurprising side-effect when your main central superteam started off as five men and one woman. To have another chance to enjoy these bonds, to appreciate the ways in which women can and do raise one another up, nurture and adore each other, and give tirelessly to one another is a balm for the heart. But the film doesn’t stop there, because all of the men who stand in Carol’s corner also show their strength by being kind and loving, ready to absorb new ideas and evolve. Even the normally prickly Fury doesn’t stand a chance against Carol’s sardonic delivery and winning smirks.
The movie’s climax sees another Marvel superhero come into their power. It is what audiences expect, what we’re excited to see, what we keep coming back to enjoy regardless of formula, or marketing, or the ease with which studios produce endless copies of them. But there’s a surprise to Captain Marvel that only her dearest fans likely saw coming—coming into your own is fun. These stories, filled with pathos, with pain and transformation, they are always sold to us as something that must be suffered through and learned at great personal cost. Carol Danvers doesn’t have time for any of that, because there is no burden in the pure jubilance of being a woman who understands her own power. There is no pain to be found in knowing that you are strong enough, brave enough, smart enough, loved enough, enough enough. That is the deepest desire of so many hearts made real, and it could never hurt us.
Perhaps the next greatest gift that Captain Marvel gives us is an entirely symbolic one. There is a single moment in the film, one which makes it clear that Nick Fury required a catalyst in order to bring about all his ideas for protecting Earth in the future. In that moment, the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes its entire domain—a cinematic empire, countless beloved characters, the heritage of the Avengers—and makes an unexpected bequeathal. Ten years on, and we finally learn whose legacy we’ve been upholding all this time…