The special forces sub-genre combines elements of the cop, spy and soldier film, and is characterized by jargon, hardware, institutionalized yet independent characters and almost-but-not-quite overwhelming odds. Notable examples include “Tears of the Sun,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Triple Frontier” and “The Expendables” franchise. Given their practice of taking established generic traditions and infusing them with superpowers, it is consistent that Marvel Studios turned to this relatively limited sub-genre for its latest entry. Despite its alien war and the threat of the invasion of Earth, Captain Marvel emphasizes camaraderie within various different groups. Into this interplay of common procedures, described by Nick Fury (a digitally youthified Samuel L. Jackson, “Glass”) as the “universal language” of war, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck weave a story of memory, combat and empowerment. These themes are established from the opening sequence, as Kree special forces operative Vers (Brie Larson, “Kong: Skull Island”) is troubled by memories, works out her tensions through combat with her commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”) and is steadily empowered as she explores her memories and undertakes further combat.
Through its emphasis on the universality of combat, especially that conducted by special forces personnel with specialist skills and weapons, Captain Marvel continues Marvel’s practice of featuring extra-terrestrials who are not particularly alien. As in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Thor” (including “Thor: The Dark World” and “Thor: Ragnarok”) and “Avengers: Infinity War,” members of various races including Kree and Skrulls act just like (American) humans. This is true of the Kree special forces team, the Skrull troops that they encounter and who seek to glean further information from Vers’ mind, and the human forces including Fury and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, “Much Ado About Nothing”) and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Keller (Ben Mendelsohn, “Robin Hood”). As these various teams prepare for and execute their missions, companionship and tensions are a common feature among them.
Commonality is important in this film, as recognition between soldiers of different armies proves key to overcoming shared enemies. Alliances form and falter, loyalties are tested and appearances are always suspect. The deceptiveness of appearances is explicated by the infiltrating Skrulls, who assume the forms of other species, and the A.I. governor of Kree society the Supreme Intelligence, which interfaces with individuals and assumes the form of an important figure to that individual. Yet even those whose outer form is constant are not always what they seem.
This is true of Vers, who despite insisting that she has no past, spends most of the film discovering her past and, consequently, her identity. Vers’ discovery of herself, Earth and the complexities of her mission is frequently expressed through physicality, as she engages in combat with a variety of foes, shoots through water, sky and space, and emits photon blasts from her hands. The viewer is drawn into these sequences by Boden and Fleck’s dynamic direction, which blends extreme close-ups with sweeping pans, long shots that capture the combat choreography while handheld over-the-shoulder shots propel the viewer into the midst of the scene. Vers (later known by other names) steadily increases in levels of power but never fails to be human and relatable. A key instance of this comes when Vers is involved in a high-speed chase both on foot and through a train, and when stepping off the train in search of her quarry blows a strand of hair off her face. It is a tiny moment, but one that confirms this is a character of physicality, grounded in something similar to our reality, possessed of recognizable foibles, fears and expectations, many of which she comes to question as the film progresses. This questioning and the resultant discoveries contribute to the film’s exploration of empowerment, with knowledge truly bringing power.
This study of empowerment is the film’s main contribution to the superhero genre’s ongoing exploration of power and its various uses. Power may appear to be granted but is actually constrained. Power can cause destruction, but potentially salvation. And gender power is interrogated. Captain Marvel makes a significant presentation of female empowerment, as the film charts the course of a woman taking ownership of her self, her abilities and her role, often in defiance of men’s instructions. While many films feature female protagonists, these protagonists are largely defined in their relation to men, and the arc of the character is essentially of a man in drag. Captain Marvel does not reinvent the wheel by creating a female narrative, but co-writers Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet do show the potential for a female-centered superhero/special forces adventure. Robertson-Dworet especially may be a significant figure in terms of female writing in action cinema, as her other credits include “Tomb Raider” and the forthcoming “Silver Sable,” “Marian” and “Gotham City Sirens.”
In Captain Marvel, Vers has no romantic interest and the relationship that builds between her and Fury is one of camaraderie, while her most important relationships prove to be with other women, including Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch, “Bulletproof” TV series) and Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening, “20th Century Women”). Male characters frequently play second fiddle, and while this focus on women in mainstream cinema is still disappointingly rare (and therefore refreshing), it does represent part of a larger trend. “Wonder Woman” demonstrated that a female-led superhero film could be a commercial and critical success, and female-centered films have become more prominent across genres, recently including “The Favourite,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” “Fighting With My Family” and “On The Basis of Sex.” In a post #MeToo world, maybe we are at a turning point and such representations will become more commonplace.
In case all of this sounds horribly pretentious, the political developments in film production and visual culture are not overstated in the film, as Captain Marvel is a rompingly good adventure, shot through with winning humor, exhilarating action and emotional payoffs. The 90s setting allows for plenty of nostalgia in terms of fashion, music and jokes about state-of-the-art technology including pagers and dial-up internet. There is also much for devoted fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), including Fury and Coulson and the wider influence of S.H.I.E.L.D. The terms “Avenger” and “remarkable individuals” come up, and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) as well as Korath (Djimon Hounsou, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”), previously seen in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” also make appearances. While there is little innovation in terms of the “alien,” the ways that characters and even actors turn out prove to be surprising. With its finely tuned blend of character, story and spectacle, that works both independently and as part of a larger mythos, the future of the MCU has a strong foundation in Captain Marvel.