Captain Marvel, the twenty-first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the first to have a female lead, finds the franchise taking a trip back to the nineties for an intergalactic breather before the world has to be saved from ending again. Set against the backdrop of a larger Kree-Skrull war — a conflict between two alien races: the former militaristic, the latter shape shifting — the film follows Vers (Brie Larson), an elite Kree warrior who inadvertently draws the action to Earth when she falls through the roof of a Blockbuster. Not surprisingly, she has a former, forgotten connection to the planet. A young, two-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, seamlessly de-aged to his The Negotiator days) becomes entangled.
I won’t spoil more here, but suffice to say there are twists and turns as Carol Danvers discovers, alongside the audience, who she is and what she has the power to achieve. Her past is steadily divulged through fragmented flashbacks (that are for once not unnecessarily expanded on), and through her interactions with the people from her past life that she no longer has a memory of. While Captain Marvel is an origin story, the narrative structure makes it so that she spends the whole of her film — save for those aforementioned, fragmented flashbacks — actually being a superhero and engaging in the possibilities (as well as just fun) that that allows. It helps that Larson, as Danvers, is grounded enough to be legitimately enjoyable to root for.
Set in 1995, the film goes a step beyond the expected references and period touchstone, and adopts the stylistic approaches of the science-fiction/fantasy blockbusters of the time. It regularly feels like the kind of movie Marvel would’ve released in that decade had they not been on the eve of bankruptcy then, with evocations of Men in Black, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Matrix, and Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. For much of the middle section it effectively functions as a buddy cop movie starring Jackson and Larson, with dialogue pitched somewhere between Shane Black and Joss Whedon, both of whom have written and directed previous entries in the MCU proper. The film uses the franchise’s characteristic formula as a reliable infrastructure, innovating certain aspects (competent color grading, a memorable original score) while remaining predictably fixed in others. Finally having a spotlight on Fury — getting to know his character and see him develop — lends new depth to his previous appearances, while attempts to connect to Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers prove significantly less enriching. A supporting cast featuring Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Lashana Lynch, and Annette Benning does its part to elevate the proceedings.
Partially funded by the United States Air Force, and produced by a Disney merging 20th Century Fox that will secure the company monopolistic market dominion, there’s a fascinating irony to the film’s plainly anti-imperialist bent. It works as a war film to an unheralded extent, one unmistakably on the side of its cosmic Palestinians. While one takes in the small pleasures and surprises to be had — an orange cat named Goose that’s also not a cat; the Nine Inch Nails T-shirt Danvers spends half the film wearing — the cinematic universe continues its infinite expansion. There are two more installments lined up for this year. The next one, Avengers: Endgame, will see the return of Captain Marvel. It arrives in six weeks.