Thirteen months ago, Black Panther arrived in our theaters weighed down with hopes and expectations, and it met those in a style worthy of the year’s best movie. Now Captain Marvel comes carrying similar ballast. Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it? Ah, but this is Marvel Studios, where lightning bolts rain from the heavens when they want. It’s not OK that it took Marvel 11 years to do a superheroine movie as opposed to a male superhero, and their procrastination allowed Warner Bros. to claim that territory first with Wonder Woman. However, having it come out right proves to be worth the wait.
The film begins with the Kree-Skrull war, and if you’re not familiar with Marvel Comics, this movie lays it out simply enough: The Kree are an intergalactic force of good guys battling the evil, shape-shifting Skrulls, or so our heroine (Brie Larson) has been led to believe. She’s a gifted and somewhat reckless soldier for the Kree with no memory of how she became one until the Skrulls capture and torture her, unlocking an ingenious flashback sequence revealing her past as a U.S. Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers. She escapes from the enemy, crash-lands in Los Angeles in 1995 — right through the roof of a Blockbuster Video store — and enlists the help of a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who has hair on his head and both his eyes, to help her find out who she was.
This is in the hands of the writing-directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously did excellent small-scale work with their addiction drama Half Nelson, their baseball drama Sugar, and their mental-health comedy It’s Kind of a Funny Story. None of their previous work indicates an ability to handle this sort of big-budget extravaganza, but then, you could have said the same about numerous other Marvel directors who worked out. Boden and Fleck film Carol’s past as a test pilot with the cheery bombast of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, and they do well by the action sequences, such as the one with Carol on a commuter train fighting a Skrull in the shape of an old lady and a dorky middle-aged guy in a sweater.
Yet the directors really shine in the smaller scenes, like when Nick bursts into a Marvelettes song for Carol while they’re doing the dishes or when the Skrull leader (Ben Mendelsohn) shows up and tries to negotiate a truce with Carol and Nick. Much of the humor comes from the time period — Marvel films usually give us cool, futuristic tech that doesn’t exist yet, but these superheroes have to work with dial-up internet, public pay phones, and paper maps. The soundtrack is a bounty for ’90s nostalgists: Nirvana, R.E.M., Salt-n-Pepa, TLC. A late fight sequence is set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” which is crushingly good.
The Oscar-winning leading lady is just about everything you’d want for this role: flirtatious, funny, feminine without turning into a sex object, looking capable of taking down an enemy soldier, and also looking credibly shaken when Carol finds out her Kree brethren might have been lying to her for years. She and Jackson are the oddest of couples, and somehow they work as a comedy pairing. (“Grunge looks good on you,” Fury says about the Nine Inch Nails shirt Carol spends much of the film wearing. “You look like someone’s disaffected niece.”) It helps that the script fills in little details about Fury, like his soft spot for cats, which leads to many more cat jokes than you’d expect from the film.
All this is good fun, but there’s something more here, too. It starts early on when Carol’s Kree mentor (Jude Law) tells her that her emotions are her weakness as a fighter, a sentiment echoed by the race’s supreme leader (Annette Bening) near the end during their climactic battle. This occasions a moving montage of Carol going back to her childhood, as she realizes they have been her source of strength through every setback in her life. To quote another ’90s song, she gets knocked down, but she gets up again. That’s why when she appears in this movie’s mid-credits sequence in the aftermath of the last Avengers movie, it feels like the cavalry riding in to save the day. Somehow, I feel like she’s going to pound Thanos straight into the ground. I would enjoy that.
Starring Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Written by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet. Rated PG-13.