Captain Marvel is all over the place, careening from far-flung laser-spraying cosmos to the car-chasing streets of ’90s Los Angeles. This latest Marvel Studios expansion pack stars Oscar winner Brie Larson as an amnesiac. (She’s haunted by memories of Annette Bening, as all the best humans are.) So the main character doesn’t know who she is, and the movie around her has a similar problem. Captain Marvel only figures itself out toward the end, when a couple twists I won’t spoil sharpen the spanning saga into a motley-crew errand of mercy.
First comes the intergalactic war. In one corner: the shapeshifting Skrulls. In the other corner: The Kree, basically humanity with more blue people. The Kree take orders from the Supreme Intelligence, a complicated bio-organic collective consciousness computeramabob. The Supreme Intelligence has an important mission for a special crew of coed military grunts. Every squadmate has a unique skillset. Vers (Larson) is the muscle, wielding fiery fists of photon energy. (Her name rhymes with almost every word in “Tears for Fears,” but I’ll keep calling her “Larson” because “Vers” looks weird to write.) Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan) is the laconic sniper. The commanding officer (Jude Law) doles out gruff sensei advice. Korath (Djimon Hounsou) is, um, also the muscle, but this muscle was in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, praise continuity.
A new assignment sends the team to a planet of ruins. Their starship becomes a submarine, their submarine fires torpedoes, and they are the torpedoes, deploy-blasted to a wartorn shore wearing breathing helmets with decorative mohawks. The first act’s frontloaded with cool space stuff, never to be repeated! The movie takes a detour to planet C-53, a blue spheroid locals call Earth. “It’s a real s—hole,” says Minn-Erva, her words echoing our own Supreme Intelligence, unfortunately. After an orbital scuffle, Larson crashlands into a Blockbuster, where the year is 1995 and video will never die. Some Skrulls are nearby, emerging out of the Pacific onto a SoCal beach — a glorious scene worthy of Roger Corman, and that’s before the surfers arrive.
The Skrulls could be paranoia-inducing bodysnatchers, Twilight Zone-ing communities apart from within. (How appropriate, given recent miserably toxic turns in online fandom, that their name somehow nods toward the word “trolls.”) But the action-addled plot makes the Skrulls extremely findable, and punchable. One thrilling sequence sends Larson pummeling through an elevated MTA train. Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck can’t really find a coherent tone, going on kinetic autopilot as the fights veer back-and-forth through the stratosphere. In pure MCU terms, this is a step down from the demented toonscapes of Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, but a step up from the tech-corridor blandeur of something like Ant-Man and the Wasp or any movie where various Avengers hang out in offices.
They say there are only seven plots, and I guess one of them is “Samuel L. Jackson helps a badass woman sort through her memory problems.” In our mid-90s, Jackson was working with Geena Davis’ amnesiac assassin in The Long Kiss Goodnight. In Captain Marvel’s mid-’90s, he shows up as Nick Fury, younger-looking and still a biclops. Jackson has played the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in, I counted, 47 movies since 2008’s Iron Man. And this is his finest hour in the megafranchise! Previously, Fury has been gruff, omniscient, authoritative. Captain Marvel reveals he’s a cat person, as all the best humans are. And Jackson has a lot of fun playing, basically, the comic relief, a regular-joe crimefighter paired with a starship trooper.
Meanwhile, Larson’s troubled by confusing flashbacks. She is a Kree soldier, so why does she keep seeing an old life in the United States Air Force, test-piloting planes toward infinity and beyond? In those memories, she has a trusty compadre, another groovy aviatrix named Maria (Lashana Lynch). And there are brutal remembrances of bros being bros: Snippets of dialogue yell that female fliers are too emotional, or not strong enough. Some Iceman wannabe explains it’s called a “cockpit” for a reason, get it?
Larson is the first female to headline her own Marvel Studios movie. That’s the kind of horrorshow fact that leaves you wondering what stone age Hollywood history bombed itself back to sometime around 2008, like there were never any Hepburns at all? Captain Marvel can feel overly (corporately?) anxious about its own feminism. Larson remembers a struggle to be taken seriously — the Air Force didn’t even allow female fighter pilots until 1993! — but those memories are locked away from her current Kreeward existence. Until very late in the film, she’s a bystander to her own hero’s journey.
I’m losing track of what is a spoiler and what isn’t. The movie does, too, burying itself in mystery that’s unnecessary (because it pushes the truly interesting dynamics toward the third act) and obvious (our protagonist is forced to be the most clueless character onscreen) and ludicrous (the final revelationstorm leaves you questioning one race’s confoundingly elaborate military strategy). The list of writing credits include Boden, Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Nicole Perlman, Meg Lefauve, Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice. You worry everyone had a different notion of what the hero should be: hardcharging, easygoing, swaggering, nonchalant, self-aware, confused.
Another performer might have tried to sort through this motivation blitzkrieg. I’m thinking of some poor someone like Andrew Garfield in his Amazing Spider-Man wrecks, playing such an eerie studio-noted personification of grinning grief that he came off like a sociopath. Larson has a disarmingly low-key delivery, chasing aliens across planets like she’s counting the minutes to lunchbreak. At one point, a nemesis Skrull screams in her face — and she screams right back, like this whole cosmos-saving adventure is a fun opportunity for a round of “Yes, And.”
She’s well-matched by an antagonist played by Ben Mendelsohn, sorry, meant to write BEN MENDELSOHN! The wonderful Australian actor has lately earned some good beach house money, I hope, with sniveling baddie turns in Rogue One and Ready Player One. His role in Captain Marvel is something different, and something special. We meet him as a Skrull with one accent, and then he’s a “human” with another accent. Meanwhile, as a figure whose role requires much explanation, Bening has a lot of fun on a greenscreen stage. Also, there is a really great cat.
The movie’s treatment of its source material is clever. There are so many Captain Marvels in comics history, and yet there’s not quite anyone in Captain Marvel named Captain Marvel. The 1995 setting is occasionally fun, a little thin. One bit of Marvel Universe continuity left me burying my face in my hands, wondering how one franchise could make the same plot mistake so many times. The soundtrack features TLC and No Doubt and even Nirvana — an all-demographics lineup, nonspecific for Now That’s What I Call Music!, but Gwen Stefani should soundtrack more punchfights. At one point, Larson dons a Nine Inch Nails shirt and kneecap-ripped jeans, with a flannel tied around her waist. “Grunge is a good look for you,” says Fury, and you wish just one person in this Disney simulation was authentic enough to scream “NINE INCH NAILS ISN’T GRUNGE, YOU NARC!”
Is there a deeper read on the nostalgia? The Air Force memories explicitly conjure 1986’s propagandoid cheesefest Top Gun. (The supporting feline Fury loves is called “Goose,” homaging Anthony Edwards’ doomed copilot.) And when Larson lands in Blockbuster, she blasts a shadowy nemesis — which turns out to be a cardboard stand-up of Arnold Schwarzenegger from True Lies. There’s the inadvertent ghost of a Sylvester Stallone reference buried in Maria’s last name, “Rambeau.” And 1995 was the year Samuel L. Jackson costarred in the second-best Die Hard movie alongside Bruce Willis. So that’s all Planet Hollywood, and Tom Cruise, too.
Worth remembering, I think, that those guys are what happened to Hollywood history, a populist era of adolescent beefcake thrills, and anyone who didn’t look like them could subsist on that genre’s crumbs of sidekickery and love interest-dom. There was so much more to cinema than blockbusters back then, but the trickle-down effect could feel all-consuming, and eradicative. In actual 1995, Marvel was publishing a lame Captain Marvel comic I collected every issue of, starring a goon named Genis. He was the kind of hero who was everywhere in nerd culture circa then, a Poochie-ish cooligan whose perpetual snark masked a supposedly redemptive bottomless well of self-regarding self-pity. He only got the name Captain Marvel because, no joke, being Captain Marvel was his daddy’s job. We have not left him behind. Those broad strokes describe the hedonist-with-father-issues version of Tony Stark we met in 2008’s Iron Man.
Captain Marvel addresses this history, not quite head-on, but very sincerely, drawing somewhat on the work of comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. There’s something important going on between Larson and Law, though the film separates them for a weirdly long time. And for no reason, we witness the return of Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser, who was already the worst thing about one Marvel movie. Still, the final act reveals richer textures for the characters, converging its sprawling cast into unexpectedly tight quarters. At a moment of high tension, Mendelsohn’s Skrull says: “I get it! We’re all a little on edge!” We sure are, and no movie will rescue us. Captain Marvel is Not Bad, is the unthrilling point I’ve been circling here. But Not Bad is better than where we’re coming from. B