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The MCU Has Failed Captain Marvel
A good arc was hiding somewhere in there, but it never got a chance.
The Marvels isn’t likely to rejuvenate anyone’s interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was hoping it would be that movie. Individual scenes have their entertaining moments, and individual people working on the film clearly possess talent, but nothing jelled.
The problem begins with the first Captain Marvel movie, which came out in 2019. I was rooting for that one, too, but it wound up being the first MCU film to disappoint, breaking an impressive winning streak.
Captain Marvel isn’t terrible. It’s watchable and entertaining enough. It could have been so much better, though, if the story was simply told in chronological order.
We needed to get to know and understand Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as a human being first. Instead, we meet her as a brainwashed amnesiac, and we see her gradually learn information about her true self. But there’s no emotional connection for us or the character. We’re robbed of any catharsis or even any real sense of victory in the end.
Imagine a different structure:
Act One: Carol struggles to succeed as a woman in the Air Force in the 1990s. We get a sense of why that’s important to her and why her friendship with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) is also important to her. Meanwhile, the Kree are up to something, culminating in the incident that gives Carol her powers and amnesia.
Act Two: Jump ahead several years, and brainwashed Carol is living among the Kree, separated from humanity, not even realizing what she’s missing. But we know what she’s lost, and we want her to regain it. A mission brings her back to Earth.
Act Three: Carol rediscovers herself and the people she cares about. Gaining her full power coincides with regaining her humanity and autonomy.
Rearranging existing parts of the movie and going deeper in certain areas could have continued the MCU’s winning streak. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Larson, who has been excellent in other roles, comes across as remote and unknowable, and we never get a full sense of what kind of superhero Captain Marvel is or wants to be.
This creates a significant issue in the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel as well as the new movie. Kamala Kahn (Iman Vellani) idolizes Captain Marvel, but it’s not clear that Captain Marvel ever spent any significant time operating on Earth. So how does Kamala even know who she is, let alone become such a fangirl?
In the MCU as established, it would make more sense if Kamala idolized the Black Widow or maybe the Wasp. A DC kid idolizing Wonder Woman or Superman is obvious, but a Marvel kid idolizing this version of Captain Marvel raises the question of why her specifically. Also compare to Hawkeye. In that delightful series, we know exactly why Kate Bishop idolizes Hawkeye—the series establishes the motive right from the start, and it does so in a way that says a lot about both characters.
Nevertheless, there’s a good idea within the dynamic of The Marvels’ three leads. Maria’s daughter, Monica (Teyonah Parris), is all grown up and possesses light-based powers of her own now thanks to the events of WandaVision. As a child, Monica looked up to her Aunt Carol, but she felt abandoned when Carol left Earth again and spent many years in outer space.
So, Carol means a lot to both Monica and Kamala, but the former is disillusioned while the latter retains her starry-eyed hero worship. Monica also means a lot to Carol, and then there’s the question of how Carol feels about Kamala’s intense admiration. And then how does Kamala feel when she learns her idol is only human after all?
This dynamic, I think, was intended to be the heart of the movie, as it should have been. The script touches on aspects of it here and there, but nothing of substance registers.
The cast does their best. Vellani, in particular, is a pure delight—she sells Kamala’s infectious enthusiasm in an endearing way. She’s the movie’s MVP. Larson has improved from her previous two appearances; she comes across as more relaxed and human here, which benefits the movie. Parris also does good work, as she did in WandaVision, but there’s only so much anyone can compensate for an underdeveloped story.
Instead of solid character work, we get a mishmash of shenanigans.
The first trailer revealed one of the livelier plot devices—a quantum entanglement causes the three women to keep switching places with each other when they use their powers. But it doesn’t happen every time they use their powers. The mechanics could be clearer. Still, it’s a fun gimmick, and its initial uses are as entertaining as the movie ever gets.
Later gimmicks fall flat. They visit a planet that’s a perpetual musical, but it feels like a throwaway gag. Alien cats add further silliness. The movie seems to be aiming for a comically horrific effect with the cats, but it feels out of place, as though the movie has become quantumly entangled with a Rick and Morty episode.
What works in an Adult Swim cartoon does not necessarily work in a Marvel movie. The Marvels, if it wanted to pursue that route, would have needed to fully commit to that level of anarchic absurdity. As long as it retained internal logic, that might have been a valid approach that still left some room for character development. But the movie hesitates to commit to anything.
It dips its toes in absurdity. It dips its toes in character conflict. It dips the edge of a toenail into crafting a villain. It never dives in.
To be fair to the writers, The Marvels is a hard script to pull off because earlier movies failed to provide the proper setup, and I can’t say I would have done any better working in the same environment and with the same constraints.
The Marvels should have been the third or fourth Captain Marvel movie. Let’s say the first movie was closer to the restructure I outlined above. Then the second movie could have shown us Captain Marvel’s adventures in space, with the key event being the one described in the new movie. This second movie needed to start with Carol flying high and at the top of her game, and then end with her being humbled (along the lines of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back). What begins as “Higher, Further, Faster” becomes “Too High, Too Far, Too Fast.”
In the possible third movie, Carol could attempt to bring herself back down to Earth—literally and figuratively. These would be the adventures in which she earns the admiration of kids like Kamala, but she remains haunted by the events of the previous movie.
Then The Marvels concludes her arc. Seeing herself through Monica’s and Kamala’s eyes helps bring about the emotional closure Carol needs, and she ultimately defeats the villain in a big crowd-pleasing finale and solidifies her stature as one of the great superheroes. And this villain, preferably, should have been present and gradually developed throughout the series.
Of course, it’s easy to rattle off the bare-bones structure like this. The real challenge is coordinating an entire studio to make it happen within a larger series of movies and streaming shows.
But if the MCU wants to remain viable, that’s the sort of thing it needs to do. Marvel Studios already pulled it off for a solid decade, so it could presumably do it again. Unfortunately, the MCU has failed Captain Marvel, who can be a great character when treated right.
The Comics Carol
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the comic books, here’s a primer on Carol Danvers in the Marvel (Comics) Universe:
The original Captain Marvel (not the original-original Shazam Captain Marvel but Marvel’s original Captain Marvel) was an alien spy sent to Earth to assess its threat level to the Kree Empire. He grows fond of both the Earth and military base security chief Carol Danvers.
A Kree device of some sort blows up on Carol, giving her powers. She becomes Ms. Marvel and gets her own series, which also gives us the introduction of future X-Men villain Mystique.
Ms. Marvel joins the Avengers, but her tenure is cut short due to an unplanned mystical pregnancy. The less said about this storyline, the better.
Carol resurfaces from limbo just in time for Mystique’s foster daughter, Rogue, to permanently absorb her powers and psyche. Professor X helps Carol piece her memories back together, but the emotional attachments are gone.
Depowered Carol hangs out with the X-Men for a spell and gains new powers while battling the alien Brood. She becomes Binary.
A remorseful Rogue asks to join the X-Men. Professor X accepts her. Carol’s not having it, though, so she leaves and joins Cyclops’s space-pirate dad for outer space adventures with the Starjammers.
Meanwhile, Carol is also a voice in Rogue’s head and occasionally takes over her personality. This was the character’s big claim to fame for a while. Meanwhile, Monica Rambeau is now Captain Marvel and leads the Avengers for a little bit.
Carol eventually returns to Earth, rejoins the Avengers as Warbird, struggles with alcoholism, and gets fired from the Avengers. Tony Stark serves as her AA sponsor.
The Scarlet Witch screws up reality, and in this alternate timeline, Carol is Captain Marvel, the world’s most popular superhero. Reality is eventually restored, but Carol has now seen the greatness she should have achieved.
As Ms. Marvel, Carol resolves to get her act together and work her way up to the A-list. I particularly enjoyed this 2006 series and strongly recommend it. The premise is great: How does she deal with the fact that she should already be better than she is?
A few company-wide crossovers later, Carol takes the name Captain Marvel and is hailed as Earth’s Mightiest Hero. Not The End.
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