The Marvel movie machine is a well-oiled one at this point. Nine years and 21 movies later (!), it sometimes feels like the machine is left on automatic…cranking out new audience-tested/approved product month after month, with only the occasional standout film being remembered more than 24 hours later (“Black Panther” “Winter Soldier”). These days, I go into a Marvel movie with almost the same feeling I had when I registered for Selective Service at age 18…because I had to. As a longtime, card-carrying, Comic Con attending-nerd, seeing these movies feels downright obligatory.
The latest issuance from the Marvel factory is “Captain Marvel” (the title isn’t quite as shamelessly self-promoting as it sounds), starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson (who was absolutely raw in 2016’s “Room”) and a returning Samuel L. Jackson as SHIELD operative “Nick Fury.” The movie is co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (both of whom hail from indie films), and is written by Boden, Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Meg Perlman and Meg LeFauve.
****MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD****
One would think that after so many years of retelling the basic superhero origin story, it’s like the Requiem Mass…different music, same lyrics.
In fact, most superhero stories of the past 10 years have been the same story: a ’normal’ character is pulled out of their routine life, acquires awesome powers, learns of their secret destiny, joins a quest to stop Bad Guy(s) from gaining an all-powerful glowing thing. The End. I’m not exactly ruining anything when I say that is (with some variation) the essential story of “Captain Marvel” as well. But “Captain Marvel” isn’t quite a rubber-stamped Marvel/Disney joyride. The thrill is not necessarily in the story itself; it’s the details that allow “Captain Marvel” to truly take flight.
There are a few subversions of expectations (and not the clumsy, awkward kind we saw in “The Last Jedi”). We also have a confident lead in Brie Larson, who reminds me of a high-octane Anna Paquin. Larson shares the screen with longtime vets Samuel L. Jackson and Annette Bening (who plays multiple roles).
Suffice it to say, I knew next-to-nothing about the backstory of Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers (whose name sounds very close to DC Supergirl Kara Danvers). I wasn’t sure if Danvers was an Earth girl with extraterrestrial memories or an extraterrestrial with implanted memories of a life on late 1980s Earth.
That confusion is just fine. It’s best if you don’t know, either. Imagine a “Superman” movie where Clark Kent wakes up not knowing if he were born as Clark or as Kal-El, and you get the basic idea. If anything, my own initial confusion over Danvers’ backstory helped to put me inside the character’s head.
The bulk of the movie takes place in 1995, which, at the risk of carbon-dating myself, makes this a period piece. 1990s-era internet (with its ridiculously slow loading and dial-up speeds) is hilariously recreated, as are other little touches such as grunge clothing, Blockbuster Video stores, Radio Shacks, Nine Inch Nails t-shirts, and other tidbits that took me back to my own young adulthood spent in that era. Hard to believe that was 24 years ago (!!).
The subtle period recreations are so enveloping that there were times I felt I was watching a 1990s-era movie. There is even a car & train chase sequence (set in Los Angeles, no less) that felt like it was taken right out of “Lethal Weapon 3” or “Speed.”
The 1990s vibe is further cemented with a seamlessly de-aged Samuel L. Jackson, who looks exactly like his “Pulp Fiction”-aged self (minus the Jheri curl-fro).
Jackson and Larson enjoy a delightful dynamic as the SHIELD super-spy and his crafty, enigmatic ward try to piece together the mystery of her life, as she learns to slowly unleash her incredible powers. I’m betraying no secrets by saying that Captain Marvel is one truly kick-ass Avenger.
There is no shortage of talent in the supporting cast either. We see Jude Law (“Gattaca” “Sherlock Holmes”), Gemma Chan (“HUMANS” “Crazy Rich Asians”) and Djimon Hounsou (“Aquaman”) as a few of our hero’s extraterrestrial wartime comrades. Law stands out from the pack as Danvers’ mentor and commanding officer, Yon-Rogg.
We also meet Carol’s ‘real’ family in the form of her former Air Force bestie Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and adorable daughter Monica (Akira Akbar), who are shaken but delighted at the sight of their friend’s return. Lynch and Akbar serve to humanize Carol Danvers, making her all the more relatable to the audience. To say they are vital is an understatement.
Speaking of vital, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ‘bad guy’ Keller, aka “Talos,” played by the wily Ben Mendelsohn (“Rogue One” “Ready Player One”). He is the greatest wild card, as his secret gives the movie its unexpected political depth as well. Keller/Talos makes Carol question everything she thought she knew about…well, everything. It’s through the dissection of her loyalties and duty that the film makes allegorical statements about the misuse of American might and military power (as well as the dangers of hating others simply because you are taught to do so).
Much like “Captain America: Winter Soldier” (arguably “The Empire Strikes Back” of the Marvel cinematic canon), we find traditional ‘heroic’ values and morality upended. This is what elevates another potentially tired superhero movie (i.e. “Thor Ragnarok,” “Age of Ultron”) and gives “Captain Marvel” its heft and importance, without losing its sense of adventure and fun.
A cat also plays an important role in the movie, which is subtly telling, since cats have long been associated with feminine power (both in literature and pop culture cinema). The movie’s cat, like the hero herself, is somewhat underestimated…until we see what lies beyond its furry facade.
The movie’s female-centered power is a fact that doesn’t draw undue attention to itself, either; it simply is. We see flashbacks early on in the film where a male USAF pilot says something grossly sexist, and another about women not being able to fly in combat (yet), and that’s pretty much it. 2017’s “Wonder Woman” used its World War 1 setting to make statements about gender inequality, but “Captain Marvel” virtually ignores making literal statements and just gets on with the action…which, ironically, makes the greatest statement of all.
****ONE NECESSARY SPOILER! *****
Oh, and if you don’t know this about Marvel movies already, you need to sit all the way through the credits. There is important information about the next movie (“Endgame” coming out next month) as well as a joke-coda. Both are worth the minor discomfort of a full bladder.