*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
STARS Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson
There’s a scene in the first trailer for Captain Marvel that shows the title character (played by Brie Larson) falling from the skies and crashing straight into a Blockbuster Video store, thus helpfully establishing that the movie is set in an earlier period (1995, to be exact). What the trailer doesn’t reveal is what happens next: Our startled heroine whirls around and blasts a large stand-up of True Lies, blowing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s head clean off.
Is this meant to be just a surface gag, and any noggin from any movie stand-up from the period would have served (say, Tom Hanks’ from Forrest Gump or Jim Carrey’s from The Mask or Jodie Foster’s from Nell)? Or is this a statement for those who care to subscribe to it — that the era of the muscle-bound he-man is over and it’s time for the clearly-not-weaker sex to have her moment in the sun, and on the marquee?
It could go either way, but the evidence is certainly there for the latter interpretation. We’re perhaps finally getting that Black Widow movie that’s been promised since the early 2010s, and we already received a Wonder-ful gift in the form of 2017’s box office bonanza Wonder Woman.
And now here’s Captain Marvel, whose mere existence has predictably triggered those male mouth-breathers who think that having one MCU film out of 22 (including the upcoming Avengers: Endgame) that focuses exclusively on a female superhero is excessive and overreaching, just as having one MCU film out of 22 that focused exclusively on a black superhero was outrageous and unfair.
Of course, representation isn’t worth much if the film in question isn’t worth a damn — just ask Elektra or Catwoman. Happily, that’s not the case with Captain Marvel. The truth is that this film is reams of fun and, significantly, no different in quality from past solo superhero flicks produced by Marvel.
Part space opera, part earthbound adventure, Captain Marvel certainly fits nicely into the MCU template, dividing its time between hither and yonder in the same manner as, say, Thor and Avengers: Infinity War. At its center is a young woman who’s known as Vers to those around her — that would be the Kree, a humanoid alien race locked in eternal combat with the shapeshifting Skrull. Vers is part of an elite fighting outfit headed by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and their latest altercation with the Kree and their fearsome leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) ultimately results in her encounter with that aforementioned Blockbuster.
The Earth landing is fortuitous, since Vers has hazy memories of having once lived on this planet, where she was called Carol Danvers and served as an Air Force pilot. In her attempts to piece together the past, she’s assisted by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who at this point in time is already working for S.H.I.E.L.D. but still sports two eyes. Fury doesn’t believe in either aliens or superheroes, though Danvers makes him a true believer on both counts. Also along for the ride is Goose (a Top Gun nod), a strange cat who catches Fury’s, uh, eye.
One of the most appealing aspects of Captain Marvel is the humor as exemplified by Larson’s excellent performance as Carol Danvers. It’s decidedly on the sly side, which marks it as a nice change of pace from such overt jokesters as Tony Stark and Peter Parker. (Oh, yes, rumors to the contrary, Larson smiles in this movie. A lot.) Equally amusing — and ingratiating — is Jackson’s turn as Fury.
This isn’t the Nick Fury who pops up for a few moments to bark orders and make sarcastic asides. Rather, it’s a looser version of the stoic character than we’re used to seeing, and it’s to the credit of the screenwriters (five total, including co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) that Jackson is allowed more room than usual to test-run this other side of the persona.
This is the character’s best use since Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Jackson takes full advantage of the expanded screen time. And even though both he and Clark Gregg (as Agent Coulson) have been made to look younger via digital magic, it’s rarely a distraction. In fact, this represents the best use of the application to date — gone is the creepiness that marred the use of the technique on Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War and Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy.
The plotting isn’t the film’s strongest suit — it’s par for the course with an MCU offering, with the expected origin beats, the usual CGI slugfests, and the normal plot twists that won’t knock anyone out of their seats. But the attention to characterization makes up for it, particularly Danvers’ journey toward becoming a formidable female who ultimately realizes that she doesn’t need to answer to anyone.
As always, stay through the end credits for the usual one-two punch of codas. But more importantly, make sure not to miss the very beginning of the film, when the Marvel logo fills the screen. It’s been altered for this picture, and this modification is both potent and poignant. Nuff said.