Please note that this is a SPOILER FREE discussion of the writing aspects of the Captain Marvel film, not a review, and spoiler comments will be deleted unread.
There is an inherent problem with writing stories set in an existing world that must fit into an already established canon. I call this The Prequel Trap and I first really experienced it when Star Wars 1, 2 and 3 came out in cinemas all those years ago. The problem is inherent in the fact that there are already major, existing canonical films that set up the world we are experiencing, and the prequels must hit certain plot beats to keep the continuity intact. Oftentimes, this forces the films to be less than what they could be, and much less of their own thing, rather than being allowed to fully bloom and grow into a solid story.
Captain Marvel falls into this same trap, and it does the story a major disservice.
Captain Marvel is forced into a continuity that has over 10 years of work behind it, twenty movies, countless comics tie-ins, and thousands of hours of fan speculation and videos behind it. It is set in the 90s, well before the events of the other films, and is essentially a prequel to the rest of the canon. It is forced, therefore, to play by rules and continuity already set out by the rest of the world. It is limited by events and plot beats that have happened in the future of the franchise.
The writing included many references and nods to things that have already happened in the films, especially surrounding Nick Fury, that would feel more natural and less of a wink and a nudge to the fans who have studiously watched every film a hundred times, had we not already seen these references happen in the previous films. As it is, the action and story feel like it was written with a checklist in hand, forced to conform to a very rigid outline set by the events of the previous films.
I also feel that Captain Marvel was done a disservice in the same way that the Thor movies were done a disservice; it is a jumping off point that is required to set up and expand the universe for other aspects beyond earth and the heroes there.
Thor was very much used to introduce us to the cosmic, to set up events for Thanos, for the Infinity Stones, and for Doctor Strange and The Guardians of the Galaxy. It introduced the world to the cosmic, to magic, to the fact that there are other worlds and universes beyond the Milky Way. Thor: The Dark World introduced us to The Collector, who played a major role in Guardians of the Galaxy and Infinity War.
The unfortunate part of forcing a movie to be an introduction point to a grander world is that it hinders the storytelling and never fully allowed the Thor franchise to be its own franchise. Unlike Iron Man or Captain America, both Thor and Captain Marvel fall into the same trap of being forced to set up events and worlds far beyond the scope of the humans and heroes on Earth. Iron Man has always been grounded, so to speak, in the general reality of living on earth, and his movies drive that home. Thor and Captain Marvel are introduced as an introduction, a lead-in to a world beyond what any other heroes are dealing with regularly, and it makes them less of their own world and franchise because it forces them to be the gateway to these other worlds that eventually bleed over onto earth.
It’s a frustrating position to be put in as a writer – both being forced to play in a world that has already been set up and has an active, growing canon and continuity, and to create a compelling gateway to a world that isn’t already on the table, whilst maintaining the originality and coherence of your own story – and it is difficult to execute skillfully, so often it falls flat.
Captain Marvel wasn’t given the chance to be her own thing. She was forced into a prequel that played off of the existing MCU, setting things up for Infinity War, rather than allowing her to be her own franchise and truly downplaying what could be a fantastic starting point for the new era of heroes after Infinity War.