It’s hard to believe it took 21 installments before Marvel introduced a female lead, especially with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique and Halle Berry’s Storm.
Ironically, it’s the one area where the DC Extended Universe actually beat Marvel to punch thanks to the blockbuster success of Gal Gadot in Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” (2017).
Be that as it may, the time has finally arrived with “Captain Marvel,” a film that plays it safe with familiar formula but is so entertainingly empowering that it will inspire girls everywhere.
The story opens with former U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as a member of the intergalactic fleet Starforce, fighting alongside Kree to battle the rival alien Skrulls. Along the way, she’s haunted by visions of her human past, forcing a return to Planet C-53 (Earth), where she overcomes her amnesia to discover the source and extent of her super powers.
Oscar winner Brie Larson is a compelling choice for the lead, having appeared in the quasi-superhero flick “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010). Her breakthrough came in the South By Southwest champion “Short Term 12” (2013), followed by “The Spectacular Now” (2013), “Trainwreck” (2015) and her Best Actress win for “Room” (2015), which remains one of the best films of this century. Since then, she’s stumbled a bit from the overblown “Kong: Skull Island” (2017) to the lackluster adaptation of the best-selling book “The Glass Castle” (2017).
Now, “Captain Marvel” is the blockbuster rebound she needed, thrusting her into the spotlight for a whole new generation of young moviegoers to admire. Ironically, she’s an enigmatic icon whose personality remains uncertain due to the amnesic premise of Carol piecing together her backstory alongside the audience. We never feel like we get to know her until the final act.
At least she holds her own in the action sequences, starting the film in a training bout of hand-to-hand combat. The scene opens with her already on the ground, joking that she was just punched in the face by her male counterpart. At first, we think this is a calculated attempt by Marvel to avoid man-on-women violence, but the scene ends with such a punch on screen.
It’s a fascinating cultural bellwether, showing the erratic evolution of Hollywood ethics from (a) acceptability with James Cagney grapefruits in “The Public Enemy” and Cary Grant face palms in “The Philadelphia Story,” to (b) a taboo subject only reserved for villains (i.e. Michael slapping Kay in “The Godfather: Part II”), to (c) now equal footing in men vs. women slugfests.
Jude Law and Annette Bening memorably play flip sides of the coin, respectively playing her alien mentor Yon-Rogg and her human mentor Mar-Vell. Rounding out the cast are Ben Mendelsohn as the shape-shifting Skrull leader and Lashana Lynch as the wise veteran friend Maria raising her precocious daughter Monica (Akira Akbar, Young Beth from “This is Us”).
Best of all, we get the glue to the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, who was digitally de-aged 25 years in order to play a young Nick Fury. The technology has increasingly improved over the past decade, including Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800 in “Terminator: Genisys” (2015) and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in “Rogue One” (2016). It’s also fun to see Fury before the eye patch, as we learn exactly how he lost his eye (it’s hilarious).
Beyond the deep roster, the most memorable roles are actually cameos, first by an adorable cat named Goose (i.e. “Top Gun”), and second a touching tribute to the late Stan Lee in both the opening credits and his final cameo. My vote: if they can digitally de-age Jackson, they should keep digitally putting Stan Lee in every Marvel film (surely, he’d want it that way).
Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”) carry on Lee’s legacy of lighthearted popcorn fare despite a slow start in outer space bogged down by a gloomy, cluttered Act 1. Like “Aquaman,” it’s disorienting to fracture the narrative of an origin story, rolling out the source of her powers in jarring flashbacks rather than active, high-stakes moments. It’s too cute by half and the one place where a more linear approach would prove more accessible.
There are other more formulaic moments, as Larson spares the villain for another sequel. We won’t spoil why or how, but it’s consistently odd how superheroes have no qualms killing a million henchmen then feel guilty about harming the evil mastermind in the final showdown. Do supervillains pay superheroes under the table to ensure that there’s another prize fight?
While this reveals flaws of the larger franchise model, there’s no denying the nostalgic joy of the “fun and games” in Act 2. The script takes off when Larson lands on Earth for a distinctly “Men in Black” vibe, genuinely surprising plot twists and plenty of ’90s pop culture references. You’ll delight at CD-ROM gags, Nine Inch Nails T-shirts and Blockbuster Video settings where Larson zaps a cardboard cutout of “True Lies” and inspects a VHS copy of “The Right Stuff.”
The message is clear — in a superhero world previously dominated by men, Captain Marvel has the right stuff. Thus, it’s worth the price of admission alone for a climatic montage of the heroine getting knocked down and standing back up at different stages of life. It’s on the nose, but it’s a rush watching her kick butt to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” as Gwen Stefani wails:
Oh, I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite
So don’t let me have any rights
Oh, I’ve had it up to here!
Yes, Marvel is pushing its chips all in on the feminist front, revealing that the words “Marvel” and “Avengers” were invented by female characters and allowing a woman to be the great savior as we build up to the franchise culmination next month in “Avengers: Endgame.” After two end-credit teasers (one amusing, one advancing the plot), we only have one thing to say:
Watch out, Thanos.