A Marvel Cinematic Universe tentpole with a bit of “Top Gun” sprinkled in, “Captain Marvel” is famously the first Marvel Comics film centered on a female character. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Like its tough, smart heroine, “Captain Marvel” dances to its own beat; it’s an origin story that isn’t structured as an origin story but gets there all the same. A Marvel Comics tentpole with a bit of “Top Gun” sprinkled in, the film introduces a new superhero to the (very crowded) Avengers universe: Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), a former Air Force officer and test pilot named Carol Danvers who — for reasons that will eventually be explained — is now a half-human warrior in a distant galaxy. The film also features Samuel L. Jackson as a young Nick Fury; Jude Law as an Oprah-esque mentor who trains Carol to be “the best version of yourself”; Annette Bening as something called the Supreme Intelligence (which sounds about right; thank you, casting director); and a scene-stealing orange cat named Goose. In other words: yes, it’s fun.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Sugar,” “Half Nelson”), “Captain Marvel” is famously the first Marvel Comics film centered on a female character, but otherwise it follows a plotline similar to every superhero movie: evil (in this case, the shape-shifting Skrulls) threatens, good prevails. And while for me it didn’t quite hit the emotional heights of “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” (the DC Comics hit from 2017, also centered on a female warrior), or the irresistible wit of “Thor: Ragnarok,” it’s an appealing introduction. The screenplay is cleverly twisted; we begin in the middle of Captain/Carol’s story, not knowing what she doesn’t know, and make our way slowly back to her past, picking up characters (and that stowaway feline) along the way.
Those not intimately acquainted with the comic books might find the film a bit slow to start — until Captain Marvel, sent to Earth to battle the Skrulls, crash-lands in a Blockbuster Video store. (As is appropriate for an arrival from space, she’s briefly intrigued by a VHS tape of “The Right Stuff.” Yes, it’s the ’90s.) As soon as she meets Jackson’s Fury — the character’s just beginning his career as a government agent, and is called upon to investigate her unexpected arrival — things click into place; the two actors have an easy, funny chemistry, and the film nicely balances saving-the-day-swooping-around with charming character bits. (Also displaying star-quality chemistry: Jackson and the cat, who really should get their very own franchise.)
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Along the way, we get a bracing depiction of female friendship — pilot Maria Rambeau (newcomer Lashana Lynch), Carol’s former Air Force colleague, proves herself to be this film’s secret superhero — and some impressive deployment of Captain Marvel’s photon-blasting hands. (No, I don’t know exactly what this means, but it’s sort of like Spider-Man’s webslinging except with fire, and it looks very cool.) And we walk away savoring the sight of Larson, eyes blazing, sauntering off in a leather bomber jacket tossed over her red-and-blue Captain Marvel suit. This superhero, coolly straddling two worlds, returns soon in “Avengers: Endgame” this spring; I hope that jacket comes, too.
★★★ “Captain Marvel,” with Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Algenis Perez Soto, Clark Gregg, Jude Law. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, from a screenplay by Boden, Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language. Opens March 7 at multiple theaters.