As a parent, I wish a film like this had been made when my daughter was young. I searched for movies with positive female role models, and believe me, they were hard to find. In Captain Marvel, Brie Larson plays a woman who comes to learn that the most important power she possesses has been inside her all along. This being a superhero’s origin story, there is much more to Captain Marvel than that…but to my way of thinking it is still the most significant takeaway.

This venerable Marvel comic-book property has landed in the hands of writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose films include Half Nelson (which earned Ryan Gosling an Oscar nomination as Best Actor), Sugar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Mississippi Grind. They have brought their indie experience to this huge production and focused on what they do best: drawing empathetic, three-dimensional characters. Marvel has enjoyed great success hiring filmmakers who haven’t made blockbuster-type movies before and it has paid off handsomely. Consider this another example.

Not being completely conversant with the comic books that inspired this origin tale, I probably missed some of the references that fill the futuristic two-hour saga, but I have no trouble latching onto Brie Larson as she seeks to discover who she is. Having been brainwashed by the Kree warriors, led by Jude Law, and sent on a mission that goes awry, she finds herself on an alien planet that we know as Earth. The time is the 1990s, which allows the filmmakers to have some fun with deliberately dated references. It is here that Vers (as Larson is called) encounters SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and decides that he may be her best ally in tracking down the shape-shifting aliens known as Skrulls (headed by a deliciously nasty Ben Mendelssohn).

Needless to say, complications ensue. Lots and lots of complications. I don’t think I’d enjoy being a parent trying to explain the shape-shifting screenplay to my youngster. Captain Marvel works best when it focuses on the human elements: friendship, loss, betrayal, and self-reliance. Larson and Jackson’s relationship is the movie’s strongest suit.

As a space opera I’m not sure Captain Marvel ranks alongside the best examples of the genre, but as a debut vehicle for a female comic-book hero it scores a lot of points. And Larson is the embodiment of smart casting. It’s hard to picture anyone else in the role.

The movie opens, as it should, with a loving tribute to the late Stan Lee, who developed so many of the ideas we see here when he was writing and editing the Marvel comics decades ago. He knew how to cross-pollinate characters and toy with his fan base by pulling some truly surprising moves. Boden and Fleck clearly did their homework when they wrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet. (Story credit is shared with two other women, Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve.)

So we’re left to wonder what’s up next for Captain Marvel (whose superhero name is never actually uttered) and how she will fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It won’t take long to find out: Avengers Endgame will be hitting theaters at the end of April.

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June 2024