“Captain Marvel” features an alien culture governed by the “Supreme Intelligence,” which is as good a description as any of Marvel, the well-oiled hit machine behind it. Despite marking the studio’s first solo outing with a female superhero, the result feels like one of Marvel’s lesser lights – a dutiful cog in its vaunted cinematic universe as opposed to any sort of breakthrough.
Part of the challenge that the movie faces involves the dense backstory of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), who finds herself in the middle of an intergalactic war between two alien races, the Kree and the Skrulls, when the action begins.
The film essentially must work backward toward Carol’s origin story, explaining how she wound up among the Kree, a noble warrior race, in their pitched battle with the shape-shifting Skrulls, who won’t win any beauty contests in their original green-skinned form.
“Captain Marvel” does play with conventional assumptions about good and evil, and even incorporates a not-so-subtle message about refugees, as the conflict spills down to a nondescript orb called Earth, which one alien visitor dismisses as a backwater planet using a slightly vulgar if of late familiar term.
It’s there, somewhat belatedly, where the movie temporarily sparks to life, as Captain Marvel starts to remember her past, while joining forces with a young Agent of SHIELD named Nick Fury, as usual played by Samuel L. Jackson, only here with two good eyes and made to look a quarter-century younger by a digital fountain of youth.
Because the action takes place in 1995, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who also share script credit with Geneva Robertson-Dworet) have considerable fun stepping into the way-back machine – having Danvers crash-land into a Blockbuster Video store, while dealing with the indignity of clunky box-shaped computers. The song soundtrack also adds an element of nifty nostalgia to the proceedings.
Still, while the filmmakers are newcomers to the Marvel universe, “Captain Marvel” homogenously blends into that cinematic juggernaut, and as constituted can’t help coming across like an expensive intermediate step in the larger “Avengers” franchise, what with “Endgame” only about six weeks away.
The movie thus generally plays like less than the sum of its parts – delivering a few laughs courtesy of Larson and Jackson’s playful banter, or the incongruity of Fury getting all gooey about a stray cat, before eventually unleashing Captain Marvel’s powers in an action sequence that’s fleetingly stirring, then workmanlike thereafter.
Finally, there’s the tribute to the late Marvel Comics patriarch Stan Lee – in the studio’s first release since his death in November – which will surely be more stirring and emotional for many fans than anything else “Captain Marvel” can muster.
There is, alas, little that’s equally memorable gleaned from the strong supporting cast, which includes Jude Law as Danvers’ Kree mentor, Annette Bening as a mysterious figure from her past and Ben Mendelsohn (now a veteran of both the “Star Wars” and Marvel galaxies) as the Skrull leader, Talos.
After a solid stretch for superhero fare – including “Black Panther’s” groundbreaking bid in the Oscar race – “Captain Marvel” ultimately feels more obligatory than inspired, a movie that basically gets the job done and little more.
The movie does contain an empowering message thanks to its gender distinction, which is thrown into sharper focus by the period. Yet while it’s a welcome landmark, Marvel and Disney’s ambitious plans will almost surely reduce that status to a historical footnote.
Having raised the bar on expectations, Marvel is, in this case, victimized a bit by its own success. By now, though, that’s an inevitable byproduct of being part of a guiding intelligence from which “Captain Marvel,” in this guise, never quite breaks free.
“Captain Marvel” premieres March 8 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.