If Marvel producer Kevin Feige has learned one thing, it’s that it takes more than skin-tight costumes and special effects to make a good superhero movie.
Part of the reason there’s still a market for Marvel movies nearly a decade into Feige’s tenure is that he and his collaborators tell stories that just happen to have characters who can do things biology currently doesn’t allow but probably should.
Spider-Man: Homecoming, for example, was like a John Hughes (The Breakfast Club) teen dramedy where the lead character could shoot webs, and Iron Man asked pointed questions about the arms race while still managing to be entertaining.
Captain Marvel has the requisite eye candy, but co-writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) manage to set up an engaging enough story to involve both die-hard Marvel Cinematic Universe fans as well as those who might have skipped an installment of The Avengers.
They also manage to get the most out of a cast loaded with Oscar nominees and headed by an Academy Award winner.
Brie Larson stars as Vers, a galactic warrior who can’t quite fit in with the rest of the Kree race. Her commanding officer Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) consistently outmaneuvers her in hand-to-hand drills.
Unlike the rest of her squad, she has a sense of humor and a series of dreams of her life on the distant planet of C-53. The Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening) sends them on a mission to extract a spy hiding in a territory overrun by a group of pointy-eared aliens called the Skrulls.
Not only are the Skrulls hostile to Vers and her fellow Krees, but they can shape-shift to look like friendly troops. As a result, Skrulls are especially good at setting up ambushes.
If trying to keep track of all the goofy-looking aliens is starting to get taxing, don’t worry. The movie takes a radical turn when Vers escapes from the Skrulls and lands on C-53.
We call it Earth.
Because Captain Marvel takes place in 1995, there are several jokes about technological and commercial trends that haven’t stood the test of time. It also explains why superspy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a full heard of hair, both eyes and little of the ruthless cynicism that shows up in earlier films.
Boden and Fleck have a lot of fun with the nostalgia but, thankfully, worry more about plot twists and character development than assembling a ’90s playlist.
While Vers, known on C-53 as Carol Danvers, and Fury are on the side of good, the story works because the characters around them are fluid, and we’re not just talking about the Skrulls’ ability to change form and even DNA.
As the Skrulls’ de facto leader, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) manages to be intimidating and sympathetic with equal finesse. That’s especially impressive considering that his face is buried under pounds of extraterrestrial makeup.
Similarly, Larson easily conveys a warrior’s resolve but also has a fish-out-of-water vulnerability that keeps the story moving between explosions and vehicle wrecks. Watch her try to master a ’90s Internet cafe with dial-up connections. Thankfully, the directors effortlessly shift between giggles and action.
They also poke fun at detractors who have condemned the movie without bothering to watch it. During Stan Lee’s reign at Marvel during the 1960s, he and his legions of collaborators examined real world problems such as drug addiction and racism.
If you’re now angry about politics in superhero movies and comics, you’ve missed what’s already been there from the beginning.
There are lots of subtle and not-so-subtle digs at many of the ludicrous criticisms aimed at Captain Marvel. Vers ignores requests to smile when she doesn’t feel like it and doesn’t let sexist barbs stop her.
Perhaps the best way to deal with unfair complaints is to offer a movie that’s lively and well-paced and rewards those who bother to watch it. That’s what Feige and company have been doing for the last 11 years and what they’ll probably do from now on.
86 Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Clark Gregg, Rune Temte, Gemma Chan, Algenis Perez Soto, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Don Cheadle, Chuku Modu
Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Rating: PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Print Headline: MOVIE REVIEW: Captain Marvel-ous