Expert script-flippage gives texture to the heartfelt female empowerment message within Captain Marvel. It starts as a war-on-terror movie, with the shape-shifting Skrulls as an insurgent enemy, hiding among the locals on a planet that looks like Afghanistan. We arrive at our more current malaise when the film’s true villain starts talking of foreigners who “threaten our borders.” When Captain Marvel is over, one notes that a conventional romantic lead wasn’t here, and also wasn’t missed. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and the five credited writers, give this heroine’s journey the same attractive solitude that male heroes—super and otherwise—have enjoyed in the movies forever.
Brie Larson’s appealing underplaying sells this material, which isn’t the freshest. Her character Carol Danvers has the same last name as Supergirl. In honor of copyrights, Stan Lee glommed onto the name of an established red-clad, magically powered superhero who predated the Marvel Universe. (That previous Captain Marvel is going to be back in the movies for the first time in decades under his new name, Shazam.) The creation of this Captain Marvel is as much a tribute to Lee’s relentless branding as is his mandatory cameo and the posthumous thanks to him before the titles.
Marvel is called “Vers,” an amnesiac soldier of the outer space Kree empire, with the ability to blast photon rays from her fists. The power is a gift from the Empire’s all-highest, an artificial intelligence simulation that appears to her in the shape of Annette Benning. Vers has a rep for being too unfocused and emotional, as she’s always reminded by her superior officer and sparring partner (Jude Law). After a skirmish, Vers is captured by the pointed-eared Skrulls. Her dormant memories are stirred up during an interrogation by their diabolical leader, the Cockney-accented Taros (an amusing Ben Mendelsohn).
After blasting her way off the ship, Vers falls to earth into 1990s North Hollywood. The ruckus summons America’s top secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitized to a younger form, wearing a plastic-y wig, and still possessing both eyes). The corpse of a dead Skrull convinces Fury of Vers’ story. As they try to round up the aliens, the jagged bits of Vers’ past keep flashing back. She recalls her past life as a fighter pilot and her lifelong friendship with her fellow pilot Marie Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).
It’s possible that the lamentation of fanboys has been exaggerated publicity to make a blockbuster sound like an underdog. But there has been some public wailing by fans emasculated by a strong heroine. Hope they’ll save some tears for the scenes where Jackson does some things he may never have done in a movie: helping to wash the dishes and going gooey for a orange kitty called “Goose,” in honor of Top Gun.
Larson and Jackson have a smooth rapport. She brings in a great deal of feeling, but also some playfulness. In the patronization-free partnership with Fury, our heroine can be slightly bratty, pestering him at a bar about why he thinks everyone should call him by his last name. “And what will your kids call you?” “Fury.”
There was a Blue Angels flyby over Hollywood to promote Captain Marvel—the military-industrial-entertainment complex at work. Future historians could note this show of military might occurred during a week of public speculation about drafting women into the military.
But Captain Marvel’s exhilaration isn’t as supermacha as G.I. Jane or Starship Troopers (satire or otherwise, that Verhoeven film was what it was). The movie is not about Vers becoming a good, disciplined soldier. She finds her independence at last. The 1990s setting—used for grunge needle drops and jokes about the slowness of old-time computers—may have been there to remind us of that other intrepid blonde heroine of the era, Buffy Summers, the Slayer.
Despite some starchy Louisiana heartland sequences, this is an effective fantasy of power used with grace and without arrogance, featuring a constantly underestimated figure rising up again after being knocked down. Fully charged up and blazing in the heavens, this Captain Marvel is as fine an embodiment of the Superman figure as there has been in the movies. Hopefully, six weeks from now in Avengers: Endgame, this flying light goddess is going to barbecue Thanos and his conservative austerity program.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Jude Law. (PG-13) 123 minutes.