As the first first woman-led superhero epic from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel touches down at the multiplex with a lot of sexist monkeys on its back. Rotten Tomatoes had to ban trolls from its website who were hellbent on review-bombing the movie before it even opened. Incels are incensed that Brie Larson, the Oscar winner who plays her, has been publicly campaigning for more inclusion in these epics — as well as the critics who review them. It’s war. And now that the movie is opening, expect the white-male-virgin contingent to go ballistic.
A riot-grrrl power pulses through every frame, not to mention humor, heart and the thrill that comes from watching a genuine game-changer. Wonder Woman, the 2017 epic from DC Comics, may have thrown the first punch for comic-book-movie equality among the sexes. But Captain Marvel should have its detractors on the ropes. Set in the mid-1990’s and feeling like it was made in a time before Iron Man and the other Avengers ever suited up for the big screen, this superhero film proudly waves a retro flag. But everything in its DNA, from representation (in front of and behind the screen) to its notions of empowerment, radiates our moment right now.
There’s a lot of backstory to get to here, but co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who made their bones in the indieverse with character-based dramas like Half Nelson (2006) and Mississippi Grind (2015), cut right to the action. Carol Danvers, the Air Force pilot played by Larson, is already possessed of superpowers when we meet her in the middle of an interglactiic battle between two alien races: the Krees and the Skrulls. Her Kree mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), has trained her to join his elite team known as Starforce to banish their green-skinned, shape-shifting enemies, led by a skrull named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn).
In truth, Carol doesn’t know who she is. She’s lost her memory, and it takes a trip back to Earth to get it back. That’s where she meets S.H.I.E.L.D boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, the ultimate fun badass), who still has two eyes. The actor and franchise regular Clark Gregg, back as Agent Coulson, have been digitally de-aged to their younger days. It’s a little creepy, though there are payoffs, especially when Fury does scenes with Goose the cat. That may sound cutesy, but whether in real-life feline or CGI form, the pet steals every scene he’s in. There’s never been a movie cat like Goose — his name’s a Top Gun reference to go with a soundtrack of period songs a la No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl” that almost make nostalgia cool again.
Carol also enjoys a reunion with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (a terrific Lashana Lynch), who has left the military to care for her young daughter (Akira Akbar). It’s Maria’s connection with this conflicted cosmic protagonist that gives the film its soul. Female friendship is the factor that keeps Carol in touch with her humanity, especially as she gains in strength and faces her responsibilities as galactic guardian. And it’s in these scenes that the casting of Larson adds up. Always an intuitive actress — witness her award-caliber acting in Room and Short Term 12 — she brings layers of feeling to a role that a lesser actress might have let slide by on pyrotechnics. You see how she has lays the foundation for a character who defies male objectification and becomes akin to what Joni Mitchell called “a woman of heart and mind.”
You could carp at about how the plot is too convoluted by half, the pacing’s too casual, it’s retro style too flat in the light of the usual MCU fireworks. But the time that Boden and Fleck use to underscore how lives get lived between the not-always-rousing action sequences may be what keeps Captain Marvel in our memories. The film is burdened with the effort of becoming the origin story for the entire MCU (you’ll see the superheroine again in Avengers: Endgame, opening April 26). And it forgets that the laser power Carol shoots out of her hands is less compelling than the insights emerging from her raised consciousness. Still, the film’s low-key charm and quirky humor grow on you and create a rooting interest in what happens next. It’s doesn’t take the Supreme Intelligence of the universe (who we always figured would resemble Annette Bening) to know it’s wise to play the long game. Captain Marvel is not just another wonder woman. She plans to build an army.