Dear Marvel Studios: Your Cosmos Isn’t Nearly as Interesting as You Think It Is
Captain Marvel’s biggest problem isn’t the superhero, it’s the galaxy she lives in
Captain Marvel is by no means the greatest superhero film ever made. Even so, many people found Marvel Studio’s first and long overdue movie led by a female character to be unexpectedly lackluster. The titular hero may not have the cultural cache of Wonder Woman, but the Air Force pilot-turned-alien super-soldier Carol Danvers isn’t the problem (nor is Brie Larson’s well-reviewed performance). The real problem is that Marvel has vastly overestimated how much people care about what’s happening in its movie universe’s… well, universe.
Let me stop you before you tell me how much you love Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, or the goofy, retro delight of Thor: Ragnarok. Yes, all three of these ostensibly comic book films are undoubtedly science fiction that primarily take place in space or on other planets. And it’s undeniable that the first Avengers movie and Avengers: Infinity War featured alien invasions and became two of the highest-grossing films in history. Based off box office receipts, at least, audiences seem to love the wider Marvel cosmos.
They don’t. People loved Guardians for the four oddball characters who make up the titular team, not because it introduced the imperialistic Kree empire or the intergalactic space-cops known as the Nova Corps to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The second GotG movie wasn’t compelling because it gave us a lengthy history lesson on the primordial, godlike beings called the Celestials, but because the heart of the movie was the relationship between Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and his father Ego (who also happened to be a Celestial and a planet). And I defy anyone who’s read fewer than 100 Marvel comics to tell me the names of both generically evil alien species that serve as cannon fodder in the first Avengers movie and in Infinity War.
It doesn’t matter what their names are, because they still exist solely to give the heroes things to punch (or hammer or repulsor blast or… arrow). People certainly didn’t need to know anything about the Celestials to enjoy GotG2. And the Nova Corps ended up being such an important force in the Marvel galaxy that Thanos essentially killed them offscreen, just before the events of Infinity War even began. (RIP, John C. Reilly’s Corpsman Dey.)
Marvel Studios can tell us the Kree and the Nova Corps and the Celestials and everything else are incredibly important, but they haven’t been able to actually show us that they’re important.
Even the goofily exhilarating Thor: Ragnarok didn’t win over people because of the Star Wars-esque look of its alien world, but because of the loving/antagonistic relations between Thor, his brother Loki, and his “friend from work” the Hulk.
The Marvel movies have presented the cosmic elements as important parts of their storytelling universe, and it makes sense because they have indeed been major components of the comic books themselves. Over the past 60 years, they’ve helped form the backdrop for — or directly inspired — some of the publisher’s best-known, best-loved stories. But in the movies, they’re just glorified, galactic set dressing.
Marvel Studios can tell us the Kree and the Nova Corps and the Celestials and everything else are incredibly important, but they haven’t been able to actually show us that they’re important. That’s a Creative Writing 101 failure.
This forms the crux of the problem with Captain Marvel, as the movie hinges on an eons-long intergalactic battle between two alien races, one of which we’ve briefly met and the other that is entirely new to movie audiences. (Spoilers follow.)
The movie draws a lot of inspiration from “The Kree-Skrull War,” a comic storyline from 1971–72 that was one of comics’ first major and most popular crossover events — a yearlong saga that roped in heroes from all over the Marvel universe. Although, when I say “draws inspiration from,” I really mean “there is a war between aliens called the Kree and aliens called Skrulls” — and that’s about it.
This war is the conflict upon which the bulk of the movie hinges, but no one explains why the war is being fought, let alone why we should be rooting for the Kree other than that’s the side Carol Danvers is on when the film begins. The Skrulls are the bad guys primarily because they look like lizard people, and also because their name sounds like “skull.” This haziness eventually turns out to be part of the plot, but that doesn’t make it any more compelling for the film’s first half. And since the movie eschews the traditional linear superhero origin story, Captain Marvel feels largely unmoored at the beginning.
Still, the generic war might be forgivable if the Kree had any sort of personality whatsoever. They live on Generic Sci-Fi Planet #4 — lots of tall buildings with a singular funky design aesthetic, and also flying cars, the trademark visual cue that you’re not on present-day Earth. The Kree boss is essentially the Matrix, with Annette Bening as Morpheus. Even after the movie ends, about the most distinguishing thing you can say about the Kree is that many of them are blue. (But not all of them.) Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, who is supposed to be one of Carol’s most important, defining relationships, rarely rises beyond “somewhat paternalistic mentor.” Her other Kree “teammates” barely have lines. And even if you thought Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser was a nuanced villain in GotG1 (he was not), his appearance in Captain Marvel is nothing more than a glorified cameo.
Again, it’s not like the Nova Corps/Celestials/etc. are any more intrinsically compelling than the Kree. But what gave the Guardians of the Galaxy movies so much personality is that they also included the best, most memorable aspect of Marvel’s comics universe — its weirdness.
Think about GotG’s gun-toting Rocket Raccoon, or the lovable sentient tree-man Groot. Or the fact that Star-Lord’s dad is, in fact, a Living Planet. Or Jeff Goldblum’s incredibly Goldblum-ian performance as the Grandmaster in Thor: Ragnarok. (Although to be fair, just about everything in director Taika Waititi’s Thor movie is weird, which is largely why it’s so delightful.) All Captain Marvel has going for it is the cat Goose, who is a gag more than an actual character, plus Ben Mendelsohn’s memorable performance as the Skrull leader Talos and his delightful if consistently jarring decision to use his natural, incredibly Australian accent to voice an alien lizard shape-shifter.
This is a bummer, because it’s not like the Kree — or the Skrulls — lack for fascinating elements. In the comics, the Kree are made up of warmongers, pacifists, revolutionaries, more revolutionaries, and something called the “Lunatic Legion.” The Supreme Intelligence, instead of being a VR module, was a giant, surly head-blob in a large jar. There was one Kree who was buried under Stonehenge 3,000 years ago and named Demon Druid! As for the Skrulls, they had a Super-Skrull that could even duplicate superpowers. Better still, the Fantastic Four once hypnotized a few Skrulls into becoming and believing they were cows.
Please imagine how much better Captain Marvel would be if she had been kicked by an alien in disguise as a cow.
Of course, it’s completely natural that the movie would need to mercilessly streamline decades of comics history to make a coherent movie, but it’s a bummer Captain Marvel sanded off so many of the edges that make the Marvel Universe’s, er, universe so interesting. This is not to say the movie isn’t worth watching; again, the superhero and the movie are a lot of fun when they move away from the dull, mythos that anchors the film (for both good and ill). Plus, Avengers: Endgame will certainly be richer for having seen Captain Marvel, given that the character — long confirmed as the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — will play a major role in the Avengers’ rematch against Thanos.
Or you can go to merely resend the message that yes, believe it or not, people will watch superhero movies starring female characters (although given that the movie earned $455 million worldwide in its opening weekend, Marvel Studios has probably already heard this message loud and clear). Now, if only they would get the message that Marvel’s cosmic mythos isn’t that interesting. It’s the characters — the talking raccoons and tree-people and Jeff Goldblums and yes, the Captain Marvels — who are.