One need not enjoy watching the films produced by Marvel Studios over the past eleven years (as I do not) to acknowledge that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, if nothing else, unfailingly consistent. Producer Kevin Feige rules with a heavy hand, and if that means that it's almost impossibly rare for one of his movies to exude any kind of actual personality or creative inspiration, it's even rarer for one of them to be actually bad. I would in fact go so far as to say that the last actually bad MCU film was 2013's Thor: The Dark World, five and a half years and 13 films ago. And that movie had an excuse, by being the rarest of all: it is the only Marvel Studios film that had a broken, tortured production, going through a couple of directors and ending on Alan Taylor, who got credit but was fired during post-production. That film earns its confused, damn near incomprehensible story structure and half-formed character arcs, and the fact that it finally manages to eke out one of the franchise's best action sequences for its climax counts as a proper miracle of the first order. It's a disaster, but from disaster it was born.

I don't know what the hell Captain Marvel thinks is its excuse. At this point, making Marvel films has become a process with faultless, machinic timing - none of the occasional hiccups of fellow Disney insignia Pixar, or the regular crises of Lucasfilm. Getting these movies turned out is neither an art nor a science, but it's at least a very smoothly-honed craft. It does not allow for mistakes. So what I don't get is how that factory could have allowed this screenplay, by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet, to come out into the world: it is, God bless it, a fucking trainwreck. That's true at the level of dialogue, which is easily the worst to have smeared any film in this franchise since Joss Whedon set the template with his manic, quippy The Avengers, lo these six years ago: since then, the Marvel films not involving James Gunn or Taika Waititi have basically consisted of various screenwriters putting on their best Whedon impersonation, generally to fine, if banal effect. Same with Captain Marvel, but the quips in this case are miserably bad, stiff non-jokes that make up for their clunky diction with a profound lack of wit.

Even more than that, it's true at the level of the story, which is an almost impenetrable slog of pulp sci-fi notions of intergalactic wars and an amnesiac supersoldier, expressed without a modicum of camp or passion. Instead, and in keeping with Boden & Fleck's career-long tendency towards mild, plotless character sketches, Captain Marvel tries to get by on little characters beats. Which is fine and all, but the world-building still needs to happen, come hell or high water, and it definitely, absolutely doesn't. The first of the film's (at least) four acts is inordinately terrible, dumping exposition out by the barrelful, but doing it without any focus or aim, so you just kind of have to pick up bits along the way. The main bit is that Vers (Brie Larson) is a warrior-in-training for the great intergalactic Kree army, serving under Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) in the battle against the shape-shifting alien race of Skrulls. She has amnesia. Skip ahead a bit, and she crash-lands on Earth in 1995 (the source of many uninspired jokes and one supremely annoying song cue), where she crosses paths with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), agent of the U.S. government agency S.H.I.E.L.D., and together they team up to find a particular Skrull leader named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), who has come to our planet looking for a technology being developed by Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), who looms large in Vers's forgotten history as a human pilot for the U.S. Air Force named Carol Danvers.

Once we get to that point, the film can at least be parsed, though it is damnably full of gaps and half-measures. The biggest of these center around Vers/Danvers herself; it is very obvious that Captain Marvel yearns to be a character study, watching as a woman re-learns who she is, but the filmmakers have forgotten the crucial step of actually letting us follow along on that journey. Even by the end of the film, I'm not sure if I understand how much Danvers actually remembers about her human life, versus how much she's basically just taking on faith; she just kind of figures stuff out when the script needs for her to do so, and that includes all sorts of Earth technology and Earth customs and Earth slang, on top of the far more pressing matter of her own opaque past. Larson fights the good fight in trying to make a character out of this; she's a damn sight better than she was in her last big-budget effects movie, 2017's Kong: Skull Island, but there's only so much that even the most gifted actor can do with a role made almost entirely out of taped-together ellipses. And so Danvers emerges, not as a personality, but as a narrative mechanism, and that in a narrative whose solitary function (outside of doling out some scrawny in-jokes for the fandom, including a cameo from a character from Guardians of the Galaxy who definitely never needed to come back) is to introduce us to the character who'll be serving as deus ex machina in Avengers: Endgame in a few weeks. (Edited to add, post-Endgame: Or, as it turns out, to not even be a deus ex machina, but to just kind of, like, happen inside the movie for a few minutes).

The story that the film tells in the interim is a fairly generic tale of secrets and lies, hidden truths revealed, and populations of aliens who've come, visually and thematically, straight out of Star Trek. Moreover, it's the boring Star Trek, the kind where Michael Piller used bad metaphors to talk about Native Americans. What keeps it going is the interplay between Larson and Jackson (who has been subjected to de-aging CGI, mostly to good effect; but the shots that look bad are really, really appalling), who have a kind of ramshackle buddy cop relationship that can mostly survive the fact that Danvers has no personality and Fury has a fairly shallow one, only becoming interesting when he gets to fawn over a mysterious ginger tabby cat named Goose. It's never funny - the writing's not good enough for that - but it's at least mirthful. And that's all the more true when they're forced by circumstances to spend time with Talos, graced with the film's only actively good performance, courtesy of an unusually weightless, bubbly Mendelsohn (speaking with his native Australian accent, which probably helps explain the weightlessness). It's pleasant as a hang-out comedy, probably because that's what directors Boden & Fleck are capable of; when it tries to be anything else, it collapses on the spot.

As an action-adventure, a sci-fi epic, or just about anything else, Captain Marvel is simply dreary. Besides its confounding script, it suffers from inexplicably bad cinematography, by Ben Davis, which routinely drapes everything in an impenetrable shroud of gloom; it also suffers from the directors' addiction to medium close-ups, apparently the only shot scale they can imagine using for conversations, emotional breakthroughs, fist-fights, or memories. When a group shot appears, it is an almost spiritual event; when a wide shot appears, it's like the whole movie suddenly turns on for one brief moment, as we are permitted to watch the spectacle of seeing a superhero interact with her environment. At any rate, the film has no interesting in making its action legible, nor does it seem to be choreographed with enough cunning to be worth the effort of making it out. Just about the only real pleasure the film has to offer as popcorn cinema is that its CGI is generally quite excellent. This is something that we can by no means assume with Marvel (in their 20 previous films, I would say that only 2016's Doctor Strange has persistently great visual effects), so seeing the sprawling Kree homeworld, the sleek flight of spaceships, or Danvers's special powers (which look goofy, but, like realistically goofy) at least offers a hint of the florid Jack Kirbysms that Guardians and Guardians 2 trafficked in. The world it presents is confusing and not worth visiting, but at least it's realised with a great deal of flair. The story is a boring mess, the characters barely-cohesive strings of clichés, the setting a gross bit of nostalgic pandering, and the overall tone that of obligatory place-setting for the next entry in the series; but it knows how to popcorn movie, at least.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 3)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016)
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)
Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019)
Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019)
Spider-Man: Far from Home (Watts, 2019)