Kicking off on an alien planet with an entirely unfamiliar cast of characters is a bold way to start your big new superhero origin story. But then directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind Mississippi Grind and Half Nelson, don’t pander to audiences. So they set us down on the alien world of Hala and throw us in with Vers (Brie Larson), a mysteriously powered amnesiac training to join “noble warrior heroes” the Kree. She scoffs at authority, drives herself to extremes and sometimes loses her temper. She’s Marvel’s first solo female lead and she is not here to play.
If you’ve been slacking in Marvel history class you’ll have to figure out both Kree and Skrull on the fly, because the film doesn’t pause for exposition. The former civilisation is ruled by an AI called the Supreme Intelligence. Vers is mentored by a Kree called Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), a charismatic leader who prepares her for their war against the shape-shifting Skrull. Guardians Of The Galaxy’s baddie Ronan The Accuser is among them (Lee Pace makes an appearance) but that doesn’t mean they’re all genocidal madmen. The Skrull, meanwhile, look like Deep Space Nine visitors, or alternatively like literally anyone, thanks to those camouflage abilities, and that sneaky power creates a rich fug of paranoia over the whole story.
This is not another cheap girl-power cliché; it’s an explicitly feminist apotheosis.
One way or another, Vers and her prey end up on Earth in 1995. The Skrull, led by Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos, are searching for Dr Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) to secure an all-important piece of tech she invented. Vers, who’s beginning to recover old memories, learns that she was once test pilot Carol Danvers and that Lawson was her boss. She connects with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, stunningly well de-aged) and old BFF Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch, nimbly avoiding limiting token-black-friend clichés) to save the tech and save the day.
There’s a lot to absorb — a few pauses in the first act might have been welcome — and the film is so anxious to emphasise Danvers’ toughness that it sometimes forgets to allow us to glimpse her inner life and (presumable) insecurities; it’s a good thing that Larson is both gifted and charismatic, or she’d be a little dull. It also feels like it’s been chopped down a lot: some glimpses of Mckenna Grace as the young Carol, showing her troubled relationship with her dad, feel surprisingly thin. You also sense that there might have been more for Bening to do, given how good she is in the little time she’s on screen.
Still, once Danvers connects with Fury, their odd-couple banter blasts the film into the stratosphere. There are small but fun fight scenes highlighting Danvers’ tenacity, and the joy of seeing Fury having things explained to him for once. There’s a friendly cat called Goose who takes a shine to Fury and threatens to steal the entire film. It all unrolls to a killer ’90s soundtrack, with bangin’ choons from such decade-defining artists as TLC, Elastica and Hole. And as Danvers spends time with Rambeau, we get our first real glimpse under her skin and into her humanity.
It’s the last act before this film truly lives up to its potential, but at crunch time it delivers in a more satisfying way than almost any other superhero film of recent years. Carol Danvers’ final battle offers a radical message and becomes a powerful metaphor for what could happen if we stop waiting to be told that we are enough; if we stop believing the people who tell us we’re too emotional or too weak. Captain Marvel says that, when we stop looking for approval, we can become literally godlike. This is not another cheap girl-power cliché; it’s an explicitly feminist apotheosis. Some people will find it disorientating to watch. Captain Marvel offers zero concessions to ease anyone in or win them over to Carol Danvers’ point of view. If that makes it hard for some viewers to relate to her, she’ll deal.