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Captain Marvel could have been a better prequel

Commentary: Sure, I like No Doubt, but the 1990s setting was a missed opportunity to give us a different view of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel Studios

Captain Marvel is a lot of fun. Carol Danvers slots perfectly into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a playful, powerful superhero who's a blast to hang out with while she blasts bad guys -- and all to a retro 1990s soundtrack.

If there's one thing that bothers me, however, it's that the film doesn't do enough with the fact it's a prequel. The 1990s setting, long before the events currently unfolding in the MCU, makes things difficult for the filmmakers, because as with all prequels, we know broadly how things are going to pan out.

Brie Larson is Carol Danvers, Marvel's 90s hero.


But at the same time it gives the filmmakers an exciting extra dimension to play with: audience expectations. We know where certain characters end up -- but we don't know how they end up there. We know Nick Fury from previous movies as a badass with an eyepatch. Rewind to the 1990s and he's entirely ocularly intact. So how did he lose that eye? Captain Marvel answers that question in a playful and extremely unexpected way.

Unfortunately, that's about it. Apart from the question of Fury's eye, the 1990s setting is basically nostalgic set dressing, setting up jokes about Blockbuster and classic girl power anthems like Celebrity Skin by Hole and Just A Girl by No Doubt. Which is all great, especially for viewers of a certain age.

It's just that when it comes to the actual characters and continuity of the Marvel universe, Captain Marvel's prequel setting feels like a missed opportunity.

I've argued before that prequels are inherently rubbish unless they follow one golden rule: they have to tell us something we don't already know. A truly effective prequel should change how we perceive the films or books or TV shows that came before (or after). If it doesn't put a new spin on the familiar, what's the point?

Captain Marvel, unfortunately, just gives us a bunch of things we already know.

Take Nick Fury, as played by Samuel L Jackson with the help of some actually pretty nifty digital de-aging effects. There are decades of backstory in the comics about Fury's adventures as a soldier and spy, but we've seen precious little of that on the big screen. How did he become part of super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D.? What sacrifice shaped him into the hardbitten badass we know?

Captain Marvel doesn't tell us.

Captain Marvel and Nick Fury meet in the 90s.


When he first rolled up on Carol I thought woah, is he a cop? For a moment, I was really intrigued. But no -- at the start of the movie, Fury is an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. At the end of the movie, he's still an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Yes, there's a neat little reveal that ties into the Avengers movies, but a guy writing a memo is not a character arc. Nothing about Fury changes during the movie.

Except maybe his depth perception.

Imagine if the filmmakers had applied the same playful subversion of expectations to Fury's character as they did to his eye. What if he was still a soldier when we meet him? What if he was a hawkish warmonger, whose encounter with Carol Danvers helped him to understand there's more to life than earthbound squabbling? That would have been interesting.

There is some lovely use of backstory within the film. Instead of a linear origin story, Carol's arc harks back to the past events that shaped her, which is what you want from a prequel. We see her becoming a pilot, making a tough leap in air force training, crashing a go-kart. Flying, jumping and racing -- she literally goes higher, further and faster.

Agent Coulson and Nick Fury on the case.


It's not just Fury who's basically the same as we already know. The Tessaract, Korath, Agent Coulson and Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy show up, and nothing changes for any of them either. It's just a cute reference for the fans, when it could have been so satisfying to see their encounter with Carol Danvers change their lives.

What if Ronan's defeat had set him on the path to his GotG villainy? What if the filmmakers put as much effort into Coulson's characters as his CG de-aging? What if he'd been, I don't know, a corrupt alcoholic LA cop reluctantly investigating a break-in at a Blockbuster, only to be profoundly changed by the experience into the Coulson we know?

Or what if -- go with me on this -- what if when Coulson was replaced by a Skrull, nobody noticed? What if the Agent Coulson we've seen throughout all the Marvel movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, the guy we've known and loved for 10 years, was a Skrull all along?

Mind. Blown.

OK, that's a pretty left-field idea. But you see what I'm saying. Captain Marvel's prequel setting created an opportunity to hit us with wild and unexpected twists on our expectations, like Tony Stark ditching his secret identity in the very first Iron Man movie, the Mandarin's identity in Iron Man 3, or even the big twist in Captain Marvel that reworks decades of comic continuity.

To be clear, Captain Marvel is Carol Danver's origin story, not a dedicated Avengers prequel. And Marvel has had plenty of chance to flesh out its male characters while women have played a secondary role -- especially in the early days of the MCU (Iron Man, Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man 3... it's taken us a while to see women center stage). If we didn't complain when Black Widow or Peggy Carter played second fiddle to a leading man, perhaps we shouldn't expect fully fledged arcs for male characters when a woman is front and centre. Perhaps character arcs for Fury and Coulson would undermine the focus on Carol's journey. That's absolutely fair.

But I still feel there was an opportunity here to show a different side of the Marvel Universe. I love Elastica and Garbage as much as the next '90s kid, but a prequel should be more than an excuse for some retro tunes.