My favorite films, superhero or otherwise, adhere me to characters in such a way that I don't want to leave their world. That magic has largely eluded action movies, in general. Superhero films are no exception. So much effort is spent blowing things up, it's hard to address character, plot, and so on. Captain Marvel doesn't break the trend. However, it tries hard. And it eschews romance in favor of female friendship, something rarely seen in any genre.
Captain Marvel, the first stand-alone female superhero film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the sixth example ever made (Sheena, Warrior Princess, Tank Girl, Elektra, Catwoman, Wonder Woman). Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the first woman to direct a Marvel movie, the film sets up April's Avengers: Endgame by introducing a game-changing new superhero.
Origin stories are often infuriating because the protagonist almost always waits until the end to become the hero we paid to see. Captain Marvel falls into this trap too, but it keeps things interesting by flashing back while unraveling a mystery. Vers (Brie Larson) is a powerful Kree warrior who discovers her life is a lie. There's a reason she doesn't remember anything beyond six years ago. Captain Marvel tells her origin story with a non-linear narrative that mirrors the hero's amnesia.
It was six years ago an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers crashed an experimental plane with a light speed tech payload. Shown in jagged flashbacks, we learn Carol was blasted in an explosion and infused with powers beyond reckoning. (Her fists are essentially photon cannons.) But Kree soldiers were on their tail, looking for the light speed tech. Danvers was taken to Hala, the Kree capital where a transfusion mixed her blood with the aliens' own. It's there she's made her home, but she remains human and her emotions often get in the way of the Kree doctrine.
That's where the movie begins, as Vers sets off to learn her true Carol Danvers history. On Earth, it's 1995 and she runs into young S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who've both been dosed with anti-aging CGI. Fury quickly becomes a believer in Danvers and helps her unearth old government files that shed light on where she came from. Danvers is shown in gritty flashbacks getting up after falling down. She's resilient. Unfortunately, we don't learn much else about her, except for one thing: She had a best friend, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).
There's a scene where Carol arrives at Maria's house that looks exactly like a million scenes in a million other movies. Maria can't believe her eyes. She thought her friend was dead in that plane crash years ago. She watches in disbelief and the two slowly reunite. In all those other films, this scene happens between a man and woman, or two men. From The Count of Monte Cristo to Batman Begins, storytellers have reunited old lovers, family members, and friends after years apart, but perhaps never like this — never where it's the emotional core of the film.
There's a real connection between Carol and Maria, not to mention Maria's daughter, Monica (who, in the comics, becomes Photon, a future Avenger), and the movie needs it. Captain Marvel is largely formulaic. There's even a training sequence. Characters largely exist as a means to an end, and Larson and Jackson find zero chemistry. Watching Jackson fake laugh through hokey dialogue is the movie's low point. However, there's something to care about between the hero and her long-lost friend.
It's interesting Captain Marvel, written by Boden, Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, looks to a best friend as the hero's touchstone instead of a love interest or family member. In flashback, we watch Carol and Maria in Top Gun mode as wing women heading out into the wild blue yonder. In another, they revel in a karaoke performance. The flashbacks color the friendship, but the actresses carry the emotional weight in their interactions together. As Carol spends more time with Maria and Monica, she remembers more, and she builds new memories as well. In the film's third act, after all the truth is revealed and the timelines catch up, Maria takes to the skies with her best friend and they kick the ever-living shit out of everyone. We've seen men do this plenty of times, but it's a new era.
While it's tempting and obvious to hope for a romance between Carol and Maria, I think fans should appreciate the power of their friendship instead. Captain Marvel is largely uninterested in sex, a curious development considering female superheroes are traditionally as naked as possible onscreen, and/or caught up in a too-wholesome romance. It follows suit for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, who updated the archetype for all time with Black Widow (the next female superhero to get her own stand-alone film), and has largely kept sex on the back burner in favor of wholesome relationships. Captain Marvel contains another one, a revolutionary relationship, and it's the heart of the entire thing.