“Captain Marvel,” the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, maintains the series’ high quality; it’s the most consistently above-average superhero film franchise.
Directed by Anna Boden, the series’ first female director, and Berkeley-born, Oakland-raised Ryan Fleck, “Captain Marvel” is certainly above average.
It hits a few too familiar beats, drops its needle into a few well-worn grooves, but in the end, it has a girl-power zing that lifts and exhilarates.
The main character, the series’ first solo woman headliner, has a complex history too detailed to explain here. The movie simplifies it somewhat, but audiences still need to be on their toes.
Rather than presenting her origin story at the start, Fleck and Boden sprinkle it throughout, revealing pieces bit by bit, including switched alliances and other reveals that require a checklist to follow; still, the story eventually becomes clear.
Brie Larson plays the title character, best known as Carol Danvers, happily drawing less on her Oscar-winning somber performance in “Room” and more on spunkier roles in “Short Term 12” and “Kong: Skull Island.”
At first she seems soft, but with no-nonsense delivery, cracking jokes in a lower register, she fills in the blanks beautifully. She’s awesome.
As the movie begins, she’s part of a force of Kree fighters, at war against the reptilian, shape-shifting Skrulls. She can fire energy blasts from her hands — her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) encourages her to fight without relying on them — and she has no memory of her past.
During a mission, she’s captured by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn, also in Boden and Fleck’s excellent “Mississippi Grind”) and hooked up to a device that reads her mind. Flashes of memories are uncovered, creating a new puzzle.
She escapes, lands on Earth in 1995 — the movie has fun songs and references from the period, including a brilliant cameo by the late, great Stan Lee — and runs into a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
Together they must figure out what’s going on, who Carol really is, and hopefully stop a full-fledged alien war on earth.
The movie has so many delightful twists, so it’s better not to say more. But Marvel fans may want to rewatch 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” to help them spot the connections.
Interestingly, when the plot becomes a little much, the characters in “Captain Marvel” soar. Their instant, deep connections help the movie move forward at a respectable pace. It’s not surprising, given that Boden and Fleck are known for character-driven indies such as “Sugar” and “Mississippi Grind.
Pinar Toprak’s measured, inspiring score, the first in the series composed by a woman, also gives a boost.
“Captain Marvel” isn’t the most visually impressive Marvel movie; special effects aren’t its strongest aspect. But it doesn’t rely on them. It’s soulful and lovable, ironically earthy, perhaps closer to “Ant-Man” than to the majestic “Black Panther.”
Many Marvel movies improve upon subsequent viewings, and that could be the case with “Captain Marvel”; this three star review could become a 3-1/2 star review tomorrow.
In its final stretch, when Carol becomes the full-fledged Captain Marvel and spreads her wings, it’s electrifying, as if generations of women finally, refreshingly burst out of cocoons, took to the skies, set things right — and looked amazing doing it.
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law
Written by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Directed by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes