A very good year for Marvel Studios is about to get even better. “Captain Marvel” has arrived in town.
Following up on the extraordinary success of “Black Panther,” which created a vibrant Afrocentric world and earned huge sums and three Oscars in the process, Marvel’s first female stand-alone title character makes quite an entrance of her own.
With a luminous and powerful Brie Larson starring as a woman with a knockout punch that would have daunted Muhammad Ali, the news is not that this pre-sold property about a superhero coming into her own will sell a ton of tickets, it’s that it is actually good.
For this we have to thank not only Larson, who absolutely nails the character, as well as co-stars including Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening and Jude Law, but also directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
Even more than “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, Boden and Fleck are stalwarts of the American independent world, with credits including the Ryan Gosling-starring “Half Nelson,” “Sugar” and “Mississippi Grind” placing them in the heart of a universe that would seem to be everything the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) is not.
But Marvel has come to recognize, as this film proves, that even effects-heavy behemoths can benefit from a directing touch that is human not programmatic, that understands character and nuance and can create scenes with an emotional heft we might not expect.
As co-writers with Geneva Robertson-Dworet (with story credit to that trio and Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve), the directors also had a hand in the “Captain Marvel” narrative arc, which is far more complex than business-as-usual superhero origin stories.
Beyond involving us in nonstop plot and events, “Captain Marvel” manages to work in themes both obvious (the empowerment of women) and not so expected (the plight of refugees, the shared humanity of people perceived as the other).
Though it sounds schematic to lay everything out that way, it’s the grace of “Captain Marvel” to make everything it does feel so organic (and that includes the film’s surprisingly funny moments and situations) that we don’t realize we’re absorbing lessons till they’ve already penetrated our defenses.
The key structural idea that powers all of this is simple; in fact it even echoes the plot of the recent “Alita: Battle Angel.”
A woman does not know who she is, and neither do we. As she gradually finds out her history, the audience is in lock-step with her. Since her story is quite an elaborate one, it is unsettling at first.
After a dream in which she finds herself injured and facing death, the woman wakes up on the planet Hala, home of the Kree civilization, a race that views themselves as noble warriors.
Even among the Kree, Vers has a particularly impressive weapon — the ability to deliver devastating photon blasts from either hand — and Yon-Rogg is always on her case not to get too emotional in battles. “Anger,” he says, “only serves the enemy.”
When Vers messes up, she has to have a talk with the Kree’s Supreme Intelligence, an entity that shows itself in different forms to different people. To Vers, it shows itself as a woman (Bening) she feels she knew from earlier in her life but cannot place.
The enemy, as far as the Kree are concerned, has for centuries been the Skrull, a group whose key combat skill is shape shifting — the ability to assume the look of anyone, anywhere, anytime. One of their chiefs is the fierce Talos, played by Mendelsohn (a Boden and Fleck veteran of “Mississippi Grind”).
A tussle with the Skrull, including their attempts to probe her memory, leads Vers to crash-land on planet Earth, circa 1995, right in the middle of a Los Angeles Blockbuster store.
This crash attracts the attention of a very young Nick Fury (Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), just getting started at S.H.I.E.L.D. in a pre-Avengers world. (It took months of painstaking computer time to complete the de-aging work for both actors).
Though Earth seems familiar to Vers for reasons she can’t quite place, those who remember the period will be delighted at the meticulous re-creation by production designer Andy Nicholson and his team.
Not only are the Blockbuster and a Radio Shack brought back, but there’s an LA Weekly box, and references to “The Right Stuff” and pioneer aviatrix Pancho Barnes.
That’s because anyone who knows anything about “Captain Marvel” knows that Vers is in fact American jet pilot Carol Danvers, a flying ace whose best friend and co-conspirator was Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).
Watching Danvers’ story play out, complete with boggling plot twists and a scene-stealing friendly feline, is hugely entertaining, and it can’t be over-emphasized how central Larson, about to become the most recognized woman on the planet, is to the enterprise.
Not only did Larson train for nine months to get her strength to where it needed to be, she seems to embody her character completely, bringing her hopes, her spirit and her lively insouciance to life. To see her realize that the things that make her human and a woman are her strength, to see the joy she feels when she fully comes into her Captain Marvel powers, is a genuine pleasure.
It’s not only heroes who can have superpowers, movies can have them too, and you can add “Captain Marvel” to the small list of those that do.
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: In general release