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Captain Marvel deserves a better movie

Captain Marvel plays it safe when it could have been something fearless and bold.

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel.
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

“Higher. Further. Faster. More.” For the past seven years, that motto has been Captain Marvel’s motivation, and the credo behind the character’s best stories. Those stories indulge Air Force captain–turned–cosmic superhero Carol Danvers and her unquenchable thirst for exploration, leaning into her competitive tendencies and giving her the audacity to consistently risk everything, even if it means failure. The result, and what makes Carol’s interstellar adventures as Captain Marvel so appealing, is a female power fantasy — one that revolts against the real terrestrial injustices that mire women and girls by ignoring those injustices entirely.

What’s more, as Carol comes to life on the big screen and joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she becomes the last hero to join the Avengers before they take on Thanos in next month’s Avengers: Endgame. She represents Earth’s last hope.

So it’s a bit of a shame, then, that in Captain Marvel — directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck with a screenplay by Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet — Carol (Brie Larson) spends so much time being bossed around. The film is supposed to introduce Captain Marvel and show viewers what makes her so special. But it gets in its own way, and though it’s set in the past, it sometimes suffers from having to connect Carol to the future.

The main culprit is that the screenplay is rooted in an origin story where the lead hero doesn’t even know her real name, let alone who she is or what she stands for. Because she suffers from trauma-induced amnesia, Carol spends large periods of time listening to other people tell her about her past life. And these secondhand observations and anecdotes shape who Carol becomes.

Captain Marvel’s screenwriters seemingly wanted to tell a story about how heroes, even the most powerful ones in the universe, may not know their own potential for greatness. But in practice, the story they’re telling instead is more about how the most powerful hero in the universe is who she is not because of some innate understanding of what she can achieve, but because she’s playing a role that others have imagined for her.

Carol Danvers is a good soldier until Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tells her that she’s actually someone who isn’t afraid to buck authority and do what’s right. Carol Danvers drives fast because her Air Force co-pilot and best friend Maria Rambeau says she drives fast. Carol Danvers is fearless because Maria’s daughter tells her that she’s fearless.

In the Captain Marvel comic books, what made Carol appealing is that she was the author of her own destiny. But in her first cinematic foray and this specific telling of her origin story, that part of her history has been skimmed off the top.

This isn’t to say that Captain Marvel isn’t ever fun or joyous. It’s just that for large stretches of the movie, it feels like everyone around Carol, but not Carol herself, is channeling the joys of being a superhero. It’s not until fairly late in the film that Carol finally gets to soar. And even then, I was left hoping for something better for the character.

Captain Marvel is literally about Carol Danvers finding herself

Captain Marvel borrows from both Carol Danvers’s 51-year-old comic book history and the character’s 2012 revamp — by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artists Dexter Soy and Jamie McKelvie — that turned her into a courageous space adventurer and the new leader of the Avengers. But the film’s script turns the richness of Carol’s history and her personality into something of a mystery.

Carol is introduced as a soldier in the Kree army. Though she looks human, her photon-based powers and sparkly fists seem to indicate that she isn’t. She isn’t quite Kree either, as she lacks blue skin or the alien enhancements that her fellow fighters possess.

She, like the audience, doesn’t know how she got here save for a few jagged memories that appear as blurry flashbacks in dreams. But Carol knows, as she’s been taught by her superiors, that the Kree are noble warriors who have long been at war with General Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) and the villainous race of shape-shifting aliens called Skrulls.

And as fate would have it, a crash landing to Earth circa 1995 becomes Carol’s chance to find out who she really is: the person she was before her life with the Kree.

The problem with this memory hunt origin story is that the movie gives her personality amnesia too. Carol is too busy connecting the dots about herself to really have any discernible, organic personality traits beyond wanting to throw punches at wayward Skrulls and wanting to find out more about herself.

At one point, one of Carol’s fellow Kree soldiers admits that she actually doesn’t like Carol — but because we only get to know Carol through other people’s assessments of her, it’s hard to know if Carol actually has any traits — beyond the occasional snarky one-liner — that one would consider likable or unlikable. Is she a one-upper? Perhaps she’s rude? Maybe she ignores personal space? Does she have BO? Or maybe she’s too kind? Too nice to be a soldier? Too relatable? Too funny?

This lack of personality makes her feel more like an action figure or toy soldier than a superhero.

Though there are brief explorations in Captain Marvel about how the good guys and bad guys in war are never as clear-cut as we’re led to believe, and that our enemies could easily be as human we are, a lot of the movie is spent on other characters trying to jog Carol’s memory.

And the result is that other characters, including the villains, get to have all the fun and show off their supersize, memorable personalities.

We find out that everyone calls Nick Fury “Fury” — even his mom. We also learn that Talos is essentially the charismatic and wise-cracking Tony Stark of the Skrulls, and that to his frustration, not all Skrulls are as savvy as he is.

Carol’s best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) says Carol wasn’t allowed to fly with the men, and so she and Maria would sneak into the hangars early to practice (some six or so years ago). Even Carol’s cat Goose gets in on the action. And without giving too much away, Annette Bening’s mysterious character seems to all but slink away with Carol’s big heroic moment.

Carol’s fantastic, searing memories and stories, particularly ones shared with Maria, are limited to brief flashbacks and montages. Frustratingly, we never get to fully see Carol ripping through the sky against men’s orders or peeling out in her Mustang.

That’s a storytelling decision that leaves Larson playing numb through the first third of the movie, and it stifles any kind of charm offensive until the movie’s second act.

The movie feels like a trailer intended to show you how powerful Captain Marvel is, rather than the story of how she became a hero

Carol’s amnesia plot is told through the lens of a space opera, a buddy cop comedy, a coming-of-age flick, and a ’90s lesbian romance (she even has a beloved leather jacket) that, just like many movies from the ’90s (think Fried Green Tomatoes or A League of Their Own), is full of lesbian subtext but stops short of actually pulling the trigger.

These approaches vary in effectiveness, with Carol and Nick Fury’s buddy cop romper being the most enjoyable part of the film — Larson gets to be more vulnerable and hilarious playing off Samuel L. Jackson’s not-yet-jaded Fury. After all, Captain Marvel takes place in a simpler time for Fury, before he had to deal with wrangling all the Avengers together in one place, fighting off Hydra, and defending Earth from an intergalactic invasion.

But toward the end of the movie, it shifts into a different mode that sets up how Captain Marvel may be the Avengers’ last hope against Thanos.

The movie ultimately becomes an electric light show with Carol at the supernova center of it. It’s an awesome spectacle that mashes up a space chase and a hero going into god mode — so much so that I briefly wondered if it might be unfair to Thanos to have a cannon like Captain Marvel joining the remaining Avengers.

But lost in the afterthought of this spectacle is a cogent idea of what actually makes Carol a hero worth rooting for or one who’s different from the rest of the team.

Captain America, even without the powers of super-soldier serum, “can do this all day.” Spider-Man always gets up. Thor and Black Panther share the defining character trait of a pledge to their homelands and their people. Scarlet Witch and Vision are motivated by love and love that’s been lost. And Tony Stark is driven by his unrivaled ego.

After seeing Captain Marvel, it seems like the filmmakers and Marvel haven’t quite decided yet what will come to define Carol Danvers. There’s a nod to resiliency — a montage of Carol in her younger years getting up and brushing off bruises and falls. There’s also a hint that emotion and compassion — despite what her Kree superiors and the Air Force boys’ club tell her — isn’t actually weakness but rather is part of what makes her powerful. It may also turn out to be independence, as she fully embraces and believes she deserves the power she’s given.

These are all good reasons to root for Carol as she becomes the newest member of the MCU. But Captain Marvel doesn’t highlight any of them in a rousing, snappy way. I was hoping for something higher, further, faster, and more.