Captain Marvel is the story of a vast, technocratic empire coldly bent on expanding its territory and squashing all dissent. But enough about Disney/Marvel. A decade into its era of cultural and box office domination, it's become nearly impossible to recall a time when the sky wasn’t spangled with the multitudinous stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s very difficult to consider any entry of the franchise individually, and not as part of a grand narrative. Which brings us to the main problem: This is a brand extension in search of a reason to exist on its own as entertainment.
We are first introduced to Brie Larson’s character on Hala, the home world of the powerful Kree civilization, whom she loyally serves in an elite commando unit that does the dirty work in the empire’s endless war with the green shapeshifting Skrulls. Her teammates call her “Vers,” but she’s plagued by flashbacks to an earlier, more terrestrial life, and another identity. The Kree are ruled by and worship a massive A.I. conglomeration of all the great minds of their history known as the “Supreme Intelligence,” which each citizen visualizes as a figure that they most admire. Vers sees a dreamy, silver-haired Annette Bening, which is admirable — Bening is cool.
When an extraction mission in Skrull territory goes south, Vers gets split up from her unit, and crashes in Los Angeles circa 1995 with a squad of sneaky alien infiltrators on her tail. Fortunately, she gets backup from Shield Agent Nick Fury, played by a hammy Samuel L. Jackson (with a layer of CGI scrubbing to “de-age” him, a process that has improved, but is still distracting). The directors (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) constantly remind us of the '90s setting with a liberal dosage of bands like Elastica and Nirvana on the soundtrack and nostalgic references that stand in for actual jokes. Hey, remember Blockbuster Video? A store where you could rent movies; wasn’t that crazy? Remember grunge? They get better mileage out of gags about the limits of computing speed back then, and from a scene-stealing cat, which, if you’ve ever seen a sci-fi movie, you know has its own secrets.
Jude Law is in fine form as Vers’s dashing Kree commander and mentor, a boss who is constantly prodding her to be her best — a tactic which he eventually comes to regret. The plot churns along in standard superhero origin mode, with everyone hunting for a magical, glowing MacGuffin, and Vers gradually shaking off her amnesia and learning the truth of her reality, the extent of her cosmic powers, how she should use them properly, and against whom. To say much more would spoil the twists.
There is certainly a bit of “girl power” edge to this story of a woman’s self-discovery and empowerment (though sorry, no Spice Girls cameo), but this stops short of a total assault on masculinity some Marvel nerds seemed to be dreading. Since this is how the world works now, with the #GamerGate wars still smoldering, Captain Marvel has been a magnet for controversy for months — with some older fans along with sundry internet types upset with the choice of the character herself, and with lead actress Larson’s frequent comments about a lack of diversity in entertainment media leading to a swarm of protests, trolling about "SJW’s run amok," and conspiracy theories. The fight got so ugly, that Rotten Tomatoes went to the extraordinary and bizarre lengths of removing the “Want to see” fan metric.
Is all this howling outrage over a movie justified? If you’re a diehard Marvel zombie of a certain age, then maybe, as the plot takes a few huge liberties with the established comic-book canon. If you don’t have a taste for decades of scriptural mythology, then this is hardly the best entry point.
If you’re only a fan of the Marvel movies themselves, then this is exactly the kind of breezy, middlebrow space opera/action comedy fare you’ve been devouring all along (posthumous Stan Lee cameo included), and one that serves as a nice weigh station on the way to the next epic installment — which, rest assured, will come along in just a few months, true believer.
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