As the tapestry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands further and further, it has become increasingly difficult for individual films to carve out distinctive identities and avoid blending into the overarching narrative and house style of the never-ending mega-franchise. And yet, filmmakers like Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) and James Gunn (the Guardians of the Galaxy movies) have brought their own strong visions to the MCU, putting a personal stamp on what remains a closely managed corporate product. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, as directors and co-writers (with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) of Captain Marvel, had the chance to do the same, with the MCU’s first female lead character, a 1990s period setting and a prequel story not cluttered with existing Marvel movie superheroes. What they deliver instead is a solid, middle-of-the-road MCU movie, better than some but not nearly as memorable as the franchise’s strongest installments.
It’s yet another origin story, which the overwhelming popularity of superhero movies in the last decade has rendered largely redundant, and while Boden and Fleck contain that origin story to lengthy flashbacks, this is still a movie in which a seemingly ordinary person is bestowed with extraordinary powers and has to learn to use them for the betterment of others, eventually saving the world. The audience doesn’t learn the title character’s origin story until nearly halfway through the movie, but Captain Marvel herself (played by Brie Larson) doesn’t learn her origin story until that point, either, since she’s introduced as an intergalactic warrior with no memory of her own past.
On the planet Hala, she’s known as Vers, part of Starforce, the space-faring peacekeeping agency of the Kree race. Her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) trains her in the use of her energy powers, but when she’s captured by the shape-shifting Skrulls, she discovers that she may have led a whole other life on Earth as an Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers. Chasing down the rogue Skrulls, she arrives on Earth, where she encounters S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s not yet the steely, eye-patched leader who brought together the Avengers.
Both Jackson and Clark Gregg (as fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson) are digitally de-aged in an effect more impressive than all of the movie’s massive spaceships, for the way it so seamlessly integrates into the actors’ performances. Much of the movie is a mismatched buddy comedy between Vers the space cop and Fury the Earth cop, and Larson and Jackson have a light, fun dynamic that recalls some of the silly sci-fi movies that might have been rented at the Blockbuster Video where Vers crash-lands in 1995 Los Angeles.
Aside from some obvious jokes about outdated technology and a soundtrack full of 1995’s biggest chart hits, the movie doesn’t really take advantage of the time period, and instead of letting Captain Marvel stand on her own as a superhero, a decade-plus before the emergence of Marvel’s other movie heroes, the filmmakers pile on the MCU references and appearances. Aside from Fury and Coulson, there are two forgettable Kree warriors (played by Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace) who previously menaced the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the mysterious whatsit that both the Kree and the Skrulls are seeking on Earth turns out to be one of the MCU’s most overused items. So many character beats and plot points exist only to connect to other MCU movies (both existing ones, and ones yet to come) that Captain Marvel comes off as an ornate puzzle piece, just setting things (including its main character) in place for other, more urgent stories.
That’s not to say it isn’t often entertaining along the way. Larson makes for a strong, determined hero with the right mix of attitude and idealism, especially once Carol fully integrates all her memories and abilities (in a lively fight sequence set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl”). Ben Mendelsohn shows off his range as the Skrulls’ surprisingly complex leader, and Law gives the imperious Yon-Rogg a proper level of grandeur and gravitas. Thanks to oversight from Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige and the near-limitless resources of parent company Disney, pretty much every MCU movie looks fantastic and provides engaging action-movie thrills.
Boden and Fleck, who previously made earnest indie dramas like Half Nelson and It’s Kind of a Funny Story, add an element of emotional vulnerability that is often more hokey than affecting, although it fits with the throwback vibe of the ’90s setting. Committing fully to that style might have resulted in the kind of superhero movie that made the MCU’s success such an unlikely prospect in the ’00s, but at least it would have given more of an identity to a movie that could have been bold and iconic, but instead settles for good enough.