"Captain Marvel” pushes a rabid feminist agenda. Meaning: There’s a female lead this time. So that’s one more white male out of work.
It’s fun. In various ways, some better than others, you can tell the film was made by people who weren’t mapping out their entire careers to lead to the big moment when they tackle a Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise.
The results are not likely to equal the impact of “Black Panther,” in part because “Black Panther” had considerably more violence as a selling point. At its best, “Captain Marvel” is more like the first, slightly square “Captain America” movie, which was set in the 1940s and went about its business with retro assurance.
Warning: The online trolls who wanted Brie Larson to smile more in the “Captain Marvel” trailers last fall may experience some discomfort. There’s a moment when Larson’s character, Carol Danvers, is back on Earth after a six-year hiatus on the planet Hala, her memory of an ordinary childhood wiped nearly clean. She has been training with her Kree overseer Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for battle in the war with the Skrulls, and the Skrulls have designs on Earth.
She’s back home — the crash landing through the roof of a Blockbuster Video is a nice touch; the film’s set in 1995 — and outside an LA strip mall, a biker tells/asks her: “Lighten up, honey. Got a smile for me?” She doesn’t beat him up or anything, but she does “borrow” his motorcycle, and it’s one of several sideline flourishes in the film directed and co-written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, best known for the excellent in die dramas “Half Nelson” and the singular baseball picture “Sugar.”
Co-written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet, the movie acknowledges a considerable debt to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s 2012-2013 iteration of “Captain Marvel,” which endured its own fanboy blowback and anti-feminist resentments. We’re introduced to Danvers, known as “Vers” (pronounced “Veers”) to the Kree, her earthly childhood. Only later do we learn who she really was, and how she got to the planet, ruled or, rather, advised, by the Supreme Intelligence. The way Annette Bening plays her suggests a slightly forbidding, recently tenured college professor.
There’s the usual Marvel matter of retrieving an all-powerful infinity stone, one of a set. There’s a mid-movie shifting of alliances, and a homeless-refugee subplot (at one point, a despotic ruler declares that the enemy will “threaten our borders no more!”) destined to trigger cries of Social Justice Warrior Syndrome from certain basement-level quarters.
A lot of “Captain Marvel” is playfully retro, though, not bluntly topical, from the Nine Inch Nails T-shirt worn by Danvers to the uber-‘90s soundtrack. Visually, the film consciously evokes an earlier, Clinton-era style of effects work, notably in the honeycomb pattern of outer-space portals. When Danvers goes full Captain Marvel, though, the photon blasts coming out of her arms are full-on early 21st century. Some of the throwaway bits get the biggest laughs, as when a Skrull factotum, on Earth, waits impatiently for a ‘90s computer to complete a download.
How’s Larson? More than good enough. It’s not her loosest work, but few, if any, good actors deliver their loosest work in a superhero movie. Often Larson is confined to unblinking reaction shots and too few lines, while other key players — including Ben Mendelsohn as the shape-shifting Skrull leader, Talos — have their moments. What images you do remember, after the movie’s over, tend to be defiantly lo-fi, such as the Skrulls strolling out of the ocean or, more kinetically, Danvers’ speeding-train smackdown with a Skrull disguised as a sweet old lady.
A more conventional treatment of the comic book heroine might’ve front-loaded the “ordinary life on Earth” account of the early years of Carol Danvers: her setbacks, her girlhood spent surpassing low male expectations, her U.S. Air Force career alongside her best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch, a huge, heartfelt asset throughout). Boden and Fleck aren’t yet first-rate action directors. Then again, neither was Jon Favreau when he made “Iron Man,” or even Patty Jenkins, who couldn’t quite find a way to make the last half-hour of “Wonder Woman” more than a protracted destruction festival.
There’s a strong argument to be made: Whatever the studio, these movies are producer’s movies above all. Undeniably, though, Marvel producer Kevin Feige has figured out how to inject some idiosyncrasy and personality into most of his products, especially when stacked up against the leaden DC Comics line. Hiring Boden and Fleck for “Captain Marvel” took some legitimate and, I think, rewarding risk.
Once we get past the machinations and alleged farewells of “Avengers: Endgame,” maybe a “Captain Marvel” sequel with the same directors can expand on the tantalizing possibilities in this conflicted human/Kree hybrid, and really let Larson fly.
Postscript: The cat! Almost forgot the cat. How could I forget the cat? There’s a swell cat, named Goose, played by four different actor cats plus a digital version, along for the ride. The common house cat resembles the dreaded Flerken, which contains terrifying, squid-like tentacles in its mouth.
Goose deserves a franchise. And I don’t even like cats.
Directed by: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring: Brie Larson, Jude Law, Samuel L. Jackson, Annette Bening, Ben Mendelsohn, Lashana Lynch
Rated: PG-13 Grade: B+
Running time: 124 minutes