Amidst the fallout of a ridiculously dumb controversy, the general consensus is in: CAPTAIN MARVEL is alright. The trolls lost, with the first female-led Marvel Cinematic Universe entry (finally) scoring well enough and exceeding expectations at the Box Office. At the center of this “yay or nay” critical debate, however, is whether Brie Larson’s performance as Vers/Carol Danvers feels underdeveloped.

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Captain Marvel Riding the Terra Train, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

It really depends on who you ask. For some moviegoers, Carol’s “no bullshit” snarky warrior characterization is pretty badass; for others, she’s way too deadpan and emotionless to worth investment. Truthfully it’s a mix of both, but, for some reason, this critique of CAPTAIN MARVEL being underdeveloped is treated as an anomaly. Compared to other MCU heroes and their endearing personalities, she just isn’t that interesting.

What’s ironic about this complaint is how it ignores the original stock state of those veteran superheroes. Most debut performances from MCU characters in Phase 1 and even Phase 2 weren’t necessarily that complex. Rather, the films produced a template for character growth that was expanded upon through sequels and crossovers. This “crossover development” is essential to making character arcs flow throughout a cinematic universe, something CAPTAIN MARVEL has yet to undergo.

Back to the Beginning

Let’s rewind the clock back to 2008. IRON MAN releases in theaters, bringing with it a much different take on character-driven superhero cinema. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark wasn’t just some rich guy who grew sentimental. He was a profiteer of the Military Industrial Complex forced to recognize firsthand his contribution to global terrorism. Tony must change himself to atone for his company’s sins, eventually building the Iron Man suit to fight such tech abusers.

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EVERYONE knew Iron Man after this, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

The other Phase 1 solo films, by comparison, were less ambitious in their storytelling. Thor is an arrogant Asgardian prince humbled by his Earthly exile — predictable, but simple. Steve Rogers’ boy scout selflessness was emblematic of his WWII roots: good Americans vs. evil Nazi/Hydra agents. Black Widow and Hawkeye were simply “there,” looking cool but never showing us much of their backstory. And, minus William Hurt’s General Ross, no plot points from THE INCREDIBLE HULK’s carried over into the MCU. Not even Edward Norton.

This is where THE AVENGERS shows its brilliance in crossover development. It created nuance for characters without much personality and engineered conflict for those whose arcs felt cliched. But all this development came from watching the characters’ interact with one another.

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Avengers Bonding, and Fighting, Builds Characterization, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Widow and Hawkeye’s past S.H.I.E.L.D. history created a character bond where none previously existed. Mark Ruffalo’s Banner/Hulk drama is explored through his newfound friendship with “science bro” Tony Stark. Even Captain America’s morals are tested by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s morally ambiguous approach to security. By bringing these characters together, THE AVENGERS evolves them beyond conventional archetypes.

Narrative Expands

You can see this trend continue throughout Phase 2 and 3: conventional origin stories enhanced through sequels and crossovers. With the exception of the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films, which, like CAPTAIN MARVEl, acted independently from the primary MCU timeline, most films invoked character growth through the cinematic universe formula.

For example, THE WINTER SOLDIER might develop Captain America through his skepticism of the modern U.S. security state. But we must also watch tie-in films like AGE OF ULTRON to understand his rift with Tony Stark in the next sequel, CIVIL WAR. Likewise, cameo appearances from B-list heroes like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange provide context to their future standalone plots. These reoccurring appearances accommodate a status quo constantly in flux, built on the groundwork of interconnected narratives.

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Franchise Characters Assemble, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Perhaps the best example of this development is Thor. For a long time, Thor was simply “there:” fun but underdeveloped. This is especially the case during THE DARK WORLD and AGE OF ULTRON, which never saw the hero progress beyond his Phase 1 characterization.

However, THOR: RAGNORAK and INFINITY WAR use those plot points to bring Thor’s arc full circle. He loses his weapon and an eye before sacrificing Asgard to save his people, only to lose half of them to Thanos’ forces, Loki included. As he comments to Rocket Raccoon, Thor has lost nearly everything from his old life. And we feel his pain because we’ve seen those losses in previous films.

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Thor’s Been Through a lot, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

In other words, even when an MCU title stands on its own, the ongoing narrative remains incomplete. We now perceive each franchise entry as another chapter meant to develop the ongoing cinematic narrative. So how does this tie into CAPTAIN MARVEL?

CAPTAIN MARVEL: Higher, Further, Formulaic?

Whether or not we realize it, Marvel’s emphasis on crossover development puts CAPTAIN MARVEL in a tough situation. She’s a brand new character introduced in the midst of Phase 3, during which every MCU character has been properly established. What’s more, her origin story takes place in a long-distant era (i.e. the 90’s) where Captain America is presumed dead and Tony Stark is a teenager. Beyond her connection to a young Nick Fury, Carol Danvers has no affiliation with the larger MCU world.

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Who is Carol Danvers? Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Now one can argue that this franchise-wide narrative problem doesn’t excuse CAPTAIN MARVEL’s flaws. She’s naturally powerful when the film starts and becomes even more powerful when it ends, creating conflict without battle stakes or vulnerability. And the film’s emotional core- Carol rediscovering her Earth memories — struggles to define what these memories mean to her personally. I can admit these flaws and still enjoy CAPTAIN MARVEL as a fun action film with a hero who knows how to kick ass like its second hand nature.

But, given the hype surrounding AVENGERS: ENDGAME, people aren’t just looking at CAPTAIN MARVEL as a standalone title. We expect it to simultaneously introduce a new character and clarify details about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s unanswered lore. It also has to serve as the Marvel equivalent of WONDER WOMAN. And because all these events predate the established conflict with Thanos, we know CAPTAIN MARVEL’s fate before the movie ends, removing a degree of tension from the film.

Agent of Flerkin

Nick Fury’s characterization in CAPTAIN MARVEL follows a similar critique. Unlike Danvers, Nick Fury has been an established veteran of the MCU since IRON MAN’s post-credit scene. For over a decade he’s been this badass super-spy cipher with a past shrouded in mystery. This puts CAPTAIN MARVEL into a prequel conundrum: how to set an established character on the path to becoming their present-day self.

What we get from CAPTAIN MARVEL is a more laid back, lighthearted Nick Fury in the desk job bureaucrat position, a far cry from his secret agent future. He learns about the existence of aliens, recognizes the potential of rookie Agent Coulson, and establishes a program to locate individuals like Danvers. It checks off most of the boxes expected from months of fan speculation. Yet the biggest secret of them all- Fury’s damaged eye — was met with a mixed reception for rendering many fan theories moot.

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Young, Two-Eyed Nick Fury, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Spoilers: Turns out Goose, the Flerken disguised as a cute cat, scratched his eye out once the primary conflict ended. That speech Fury gave in WINTER SOLDIER about “the last time I trusted someone”- it wasn’t a total lie. He put his trust in that cat after it rescued him from potential death, and Goose still betrayed his face. No wonder he decided to let the rumor of “Skrull interrogator cutting it out” circulate.

Like Captain Marvel’s future involvement, Nick Fury’s arc relies upon expectations of crossover development. Creating the Avengers Initiative, distrusting others and retaining the scarred eye — all defined by an amalgamation of cameo clues. The shared universe narrative conditions us to interpret this character through multiple storyline appearances rather than a single film.

A CAPTAIN MARVEL-ous Future? Let’s Hope So

CAPTAIN MARVEL is “Chapter One” of an ongoing superhero narrative, surrounded by other fleshed out storylines currently wrapping production. It was intentional. With most of the original MCU cast’s contracts expiring, new characters are replacing them as franchise mascots. Thus, her origin film adheres to the conventional MCU formula that we saw in the original Avengers during Phase 1.

But with 20+ entries in the franchise, we’ve forgotten what a “back to square one” formula feels like. Every character to date has grown, suffered losses and made complicated decisions over the course of multiple films. They are no longer the individuals we first saw in their debut films. But because CAROL DANVERS predates the majority of MCU hero origins, her arc feels out of step with the broader universe.

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Captain Marvel Meets the Avengers, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Thanks to the shared universe formula, AVENGERS: ENDGAME will hopefully remedy that character-viewer disconnect. How Carol Danvers interacts with the surviving Avengers will continue her transition from “character template” to “fully-realized hero.” She’ll need to gain their trust, bounce off their jokes and, through the power of teamwork, grow into a more complex character. It’s standard crossover development and, judging by the latest trailer, one Avenger likes Carol already. Let’s hope the rest follow suit.

2 Comments

  1. Damond Williams

    Damond Williams

    March 26, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    Origin stories in comics have a pretty standard set-up. We find out who the character is as a person and then we discover how they come to power and adapt. You don’t get the real meat and potatoes till the sequel(s).

    Reply

  2. Mark Boisvert

    Mark Boisvert

    March 26, 2019 at 9:10 am

    No

    Reply

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