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A Marvelous Heroine

Brie Larson
Brie Larson
Walt Disney Studios
 123 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck
Starring: Brie Larson; Samuel L. Jackson   
Captain Marvel

No matter what you think of the Marvel cinematic universe that has unfolded under the auspices of Walt Disney Studios over the last decade or so, the powers-that-be at Marvel are shrewd marketers. Having expanded their universe’s diversity with the addition of Black Panther last year, which resulted in a huge box office success as well as a Best Picture Oscar nominee, they are trying the same thing this year with Captain Marvel, their first female superhero (which sounds so much better than superheroine, something that calls to mind a particular potent narcotic). But, while this latest film is a definite winner with audiences, it’s not in the same league as Black Panther.


Captain Marvel is set mainly in the mid-1990s, a setting that allows it to dovetail with other films in the Marvel universe and trot out several good period jokes but doesn’t really make that much of a difference in the overall plot. The reason the chronology is pretty much unimportant is that the story begins somewhere in outer space, where two warring races, the Kree and the Skrull, have been battling it out for generations. Captain Marvel is actually Vers (Brie Larson), a Kree warrior who, the film gradually reveals, was an Earth pilot named Carol Danvers. Her experimental aircraft crashed, and she was rescued and whisked off into outer space by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), a Kree warrior, who trains her in the various martial arts.


Carol becomes part of an elite fighting force that takes on the Skrull on a distant planet. The Skrull are noteworthy primarily because they can shapeshift and assume the form of any being with whom they’ve been in contact. In their native form, however, they look like a cross between Darth Maul and a Vulcan. The Skrull capture Carol in battle and are able to read her mind enough to learn that she came from Earth. Before they can discover more, she escapes them and manages to get to Earth, followed by several of the Skrull, who find it easy to blend in among the human populace. What the Skrull want isn’t clear, but it has something to do with the secret mission Carol was working on when her plane crashed.


The arrival of Carol on Earth, crashing into a Blockbuster Video, soon alerts SHIELD, and agency director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) winds up in the middle of the battle between Carol and the Skrull. He decides to help Carol, and the two go into hiding, where they soon learn that the Skrull aren’t the only aliens headed to Earth. Yon-rogg and the rest of Carol’s former troopers also arrive, preparing for a final battle with the Skrull. What none of them realize is that, as a result of the plane crash several years earlier, Carol has developed latent superpowers that emerge just in the nick of time.


Captain Marvel gets off to an extremely slow start, one that actually had me squirming in my seat a bit. Almost all superhero origin stories are slow-paced, thanks to having to deliver often clunky expositional material that, in the comics, was often revealed only in bits and pieces over months, or even years, instead of two hours. Here, we get a martial arts training session that seems to have been cribbed from Star Wars outtakes, followed by a battle on an alien planet that features special effects so cheesy that they might have come from a 1950s TV series. This material is about as dull a 30 minutes of footage as you’ll find in any Marvel movie.


Fortunately, that all changes when Carol lands on Earth, in large part thanks to the presence of Samuel L. Jackson. Although Nick Fury has been featured in several Marvel movies, he’s always been a secondary presence. Here, he’s still the second banana, but his role gives him the chance to show off the swagger that is as much about the on-screen persona of Samuel L. Jackson as it is about Nick Fury the character. Also, the film teases with revealing Easter eggs such as how Fury, who has both eyes in prime condition when he first appears, eventually acquires his signature eyepatch.


Another welcome presence in Captain Marvel is Annette Bening as Carol’s mentor, who dies in the crash in which Carol was injured. Bening joins a line of fine actors lending their presence to Marvel films in supporting roles, including Michael Douglas, Tommy Lee Jones, Anthony Hopkins, and Glenn Close. Unlike many of them, Bening doesn’t get into the humor of this movie (and there is a good bit of humor) but serves to ground the film with a more serious portrayal.


Eventually, however, Captain Marvel comes down to the performance of the title character. And this is very much a film about female empowerment, as the backstory shows Carol Danvers being denied the ability to advance in the Air Force. Ultimately, as the newly empowered Captain Marvel, she is able to pull off some amazing feats as her adversaries continue to underestimate her. Brie Larson proves to be a good choice in the title role.


The technical aspects of Captain Marvel improve significantly once the action shifts to planet Earth. Actually, the earlier Earth scenes, such as the elevated train scene in the clip below (featuring a great Stan Lee cameo not shown in the clip), work better than those featuring Carol with her superpowers. I’ve always felt that the more personal and intimate the action scenes in Marvel movies are, the better they are, and Captain Marvel is no exception.


Where Marvel films consistently perform better than those of their rivals from Warner/DC are in the little details. Captain Marvel has a lot of funny material, much of it featuring Samuel L. Jackson given free rein with his character. The movie also introduces a great sight gag in the flerken, an alien that appears to be an innocent orange cat for much of the film until its true colors are revealed in one of the most hilarious moments in the movie. Best of all for Marvel fans are the bits and pieces of the universe’s backstory that Captain Marvel fills in, setting the stage for the upcoming Avengers movie and explaining the cryptic finale of the last Avengers film. These Easter eggs may fly over the heads of those less familiar with the Marvel universe, but the infectiously fun spirit that pervades the movie will be noticed by even the most casual filmgoer.


The best Marvel films, like Black Panther, have a majestic feel to them that’s not present in Captain Marvel. Instead, Captain Marvel is solid popcorn entertainment that overcomes a very shaky start to become somewhat of a hoot later. Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson have a lot of fun, and the story answers a lot of questions Marvel fans have about several of the earlier movies. Captain Marvel isn’t a marvel, but at times it’s marvelous fun.

In this clip, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson chase after a shape-shifting alien.

Read other reviews of Captain Marvel: 

Captain Marvel (2019) on IMDb