Captain Marvel isn't awful but it's not top-tier Marvel either (some spoilers)

I saw Captain Marvel Friday night with my family and it was…fine. Let’s get the political stuff out of the way first. Is there some girl power stuff in there? Definitely. Does it ruin the movie? Not directly but maybe a little. If you want to know how that makes sense you’ll have to read on and be prepared for some spoilers. Also, I’m going to ramble a bit about how it could have been better.

So the story here is that there’s an intergalactic war between the Kree and the shape-shifting Skrulls. Captain Marvel, who goes by Vers (pronounced veers) is a Kree warrior, sort of like a high-tech special forces soldier. But she can’t really remember her past. She has dreams of another world but she doesn’t know what they mean.

Again, spoiler warning, so keep reading at your own risk. On a rescue mission, she is captured by the Skrulls and they spin through her brain like it’s a hard drive full of video content. They are confused (and we as the audience are confused as well). It looks like she grew up on earth, which makes no sense. She escapes by beating up a bunch of Skrulls and crash lands on earth where she is quickly met by a young Nick Fury.

Most of the rest of the film is a sort of buddy copy story about Captain Marvel, with help from Nick Fury, trying to remember her past. There are fights and close calls and eventually, she finds out who she was and how she got her powers. The buddy cop thing has worked well before for Marvel. In Winter Soldier it was Captain America and Black Widow as a team, looking for answers to a mystery. But that film had an interesting and at times scary villain and a twist (the bad guy was Captain America’s best friend Bucky). The scale felt human and the conflict felt somewhat grounded in reality.

In Captain Marvel, we eventually learn she had a best friend who was also a jet pilot. The friend has an adorable daughter whose father is never mentioned and isn’t around. Because, I guess women’s empowerment is spoiled by men? The friend, Maria, gives an inspiring speech at one point about how powerful and fierce Captain Marvel was even before she was a superhero. But we never really see any of that stuff except in tiny flashbacks. It’s all part of a past that the main character barely remembers. So it feels a bit empty. It’s not grounded in much of anything.

Also, the main conflict is not with a person but with something called “the Supreme Intelligence” which only exists in a sort of VR simulation and which appears in a different form to each person. So the main conflict turns into one of those montage scenes where the main character has to summon her own inner strength. There’s a visual element to it but it’s not exactly happening in the real world even if you assume a world full of superheroes is the real world.

Again, we’re supposed to feel something but it all just sort of comes out of nowhere. You never really believe she’s going to lose which is sort of key to the kind of overcoming-narrative the film is going for. I mean, what is the Supreme Intelligence anyway? How much power does it have? It’s all pretty vague. During this climactic mind battle the power in the ship sort of dims. Is the Supreme Intelligence powered by the ship? How powerful is that? All we’ve seen is the inside of the VR world.

I actually think this could have worked but it just wasn’t set up well. If you’ve ever seen Forbidden Planet, it ends with a similar mental battle in a room full of glowing dials. Earlier in the film, the dials are carefully explained. Each one is ten times the power of the previous one and there are dozens of them. We get a tour of the massive machines generating all that power. So in the final conflict, you have some sense that a planet-sized machine is revving up to kill the heroes. It’s very effective.

Here’s what would have been cool in Captain America. Let’s say the Supreme Intelligence is a computer that runs on the Kree homeworld (I’ve seen the movie and I don’t even know what it is). Let’s say that in its final battle of wills with Captain Marvel, it’s drawing so much power that we see entire cities going dark on the home planet. Maybe the entire planet goes dark and the central computer or whatever is glowing white with heat. And then we cut back to Captain Marvel’s absolute determination and we have a sense she’s fighting the combined power of an entire planet and she’s winning.

Yes, it’s silly but so was Superman flying around the earth to turn back time and I love that so very much! It’s a superhero movie. It doesn’t have to make sense logically or follow actual laws of physics. It has to make you feel something about love or human potential. But we just don’t get any of that in Captain Marvel. Just some electrical problems on the ship and it’s not clear what that has to do with anything because it wasn’t set up properly.

And getting back to love and human potential here’s where I think politics hurt the film a bit. It feels like all of the story choices in Captain Marvel were made to make a point about women’s empowerment. That’s fine except that the screenwriter’s view of women’s empowerment apparently means no real relationships with men. So no romance or hint that there ever was a romance in the past with a man. As mentioned above, even her best friend, who has a daughter, never mentions a man. Why does that matter?

After the movie last night I got home and Wonder Woman was on TV. It was the scene in the little village where Diana and Steve Trevor fall in love. It’s a bit heavy-handed that scene but at least there was some sense of a human connection. Wonder Woman didn’t just exist to kick ass, she was also a person capable of falling in love. And that mattered in the conclusion of the story too. Diana comes from a world without men but finds a man who loves her and is a hero. It’s not really about men, but it’s pro-men in general.

Captain Marvel has none of that. She’s a warrior. A soldier. She makes friends with Nick Fury, but there’s no attraction. Not with the buff Kree commander who trained her. Not with young Nick Fury. I mean, come on, she’s walking around in a tight leather suit the whole movie and Nick Fury never once raises an eyebrow? There is one random guy who tries to come on to her in a parking lot but he’s presented as a creep and that’s it. No love and romance or even a recognition such things exist in this film. It leaves the whole thing feeling a little one-dimensional.

Contrast that with the first Captain America film which was full of romance and attraction. Steve fell in love. The whole movie had the doomed love story as a backdrop and it worked really well. I can’t explain why there’s none of that in this film to help humanize Captain Marvel except for politics. And that’s a shame because it’s silly.

Again, it’s still not a terrible movie. The buddy stuff with Nick Fury mostly works. There is a pretty cool space battle at the end which does take place in the (Marvel) real world. There are some funny moments with a cat and some twists in the plot that work pretty well. It’s not terrible it’s just not as good as you hoped.

So where does it rank? I’ve seen every Marvel movie at least three times and this definitely isn’t in the top tier. It’s no Guardians of the Galaxy or Winter Soldier or Iron Man or the first Captain America movie (which is underrated IMO). That said it’s better than Thor 2 and maybe better than Iron Man 2. It’s fine. Not a failure but not an amazing success either. I like it less than Ant-Man (Michael Pena kills it) and about the same as Doctor Strange. Marvel will still make a ton of money from it and they have time to flesh out the character and maybe make her a bit more than just a soldier in the next 10 films.