In “Captain Marvel,” the newest film from the Disney/Marvel juggernaut, Brie Larson plays Vers (say it “veers”), a soldier with the Kree, an imperial alien race locked in a seemingly endless battle with the Skrulls, shape-shifting aliens who can assume the look of anything they want. Vers knows she is one of the good guys — as she says, the Kree are a race of “noble warrior heroes.”
Vers knows she is Kree, but she is also clearly something else, what with the photon blasts she can shoot out of her hands. Her memories only go back about six years or so. She has dreams of another life, a life that is clearly that of a human, and of friends she can’t remember. Her cranky mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law, as unpleasant as ever), just wants her to focus on being the best warrior she can be.
After a fight with the Skrulls goes sideways, Vers falls out of the sky and crashes through the ceiling of a Blockbuster. She is on Earth (aka the somewhat-backward planet C-53, according to Kree star charts). It is 1995, which we know by the music, the pagers and a few dial-up jokes.
The crash attracts the attention of one Nicholas J. Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged and playing a more chill version of the Marvel spymaster), at this point a lowly SHIELD agent. After some typical misunderstandings, Fury and Vers spend the rest of the movie trying to find out exactly who Vers is. Was she an American Air Force pilot? What happened six years ago? Why does she keep dreaming of Annette Bening with a gun? Is the Kree/Skrull war exactly what it seems? (Spoiler: They cast Jude “Young Pope” Law as her mentor — of course it isn’t.)
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With “Captain Marvel,” Disney and Marvel are trying something kind of interesting with their grand narrative. In setting the film 13 years before the events of “Iron Man” kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they are essentially making her their ur-superhero, the signal that "We are not alone in the universe and maybe we should try to find some heroes that are here on Earth" (as opposed to relying on them to drop out of the sky). What if, after Captain America went into the ice, the next hero Earth got was Superman and Wonder Woman as the same person?
That might explain why so much of “Captain Marvel” — and I’m not even sure this is a criticism — feels like it was assembled from bits of other Marvel films. We've seen Jackson and Larson’s ok-you’re-an-alien? dynamic in the first Thor film. There are also bits of the original "Superman" movie, "Iron Man" and "The Avengers." (Yes, there are two stinger scenes, one during the credits, one after.)
This is designed to feel like the movie Marvel would have made first, had this iteration of Captain Marvel been around back then. Explicitly designed as a feminist figure in 1977 — her first heroic codename was Ms. Marvel (as in not Miss) — the character has been kicking around in various guises for 40 years, mostly in side roles. A recent revision by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick made her a genuine marquee player in the Marvel Universe.
A few choices in "Captain Marvel" are a little suspect: Universal translator or no, it is genuinely odd to hear Ben Mendelsohn’s regular ol’ British accent come out of a Skrull face. And given its marketing toward kids, it’s not surprising that the script does its level best to be pretty easy to follow. The emotional beats are extremely straightforward. It seems to take forever for Vers and Fury to figure out what is going on and allow her to go full-demigod. (I also could have used a bit more of Lashana Lynch as one of Vers' old pals.)
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Directed and co-written by the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson,” “Sugar,” “Mississippi Grind”), “Captain Marvel,” unburdened by a decade of cinematic universe continuity, has a chance to be a different type of Marvel movie. It’s the first Marvel solo film with a female hero, for one thing. “Captain Marvel” works best when Larson’s kabillion-watt grin is allowed to explode off the screen. As the recent Superman movies never bothered to tell us, being a demigod is pretty fun. “Captain Marvel” is a hero that Marvel fans deserve, even if the movie that introduces her isn't everything you want it to be.