Captain Marvel is just like all the other Avenger origin films. Which is to say, it’s exactly the same and also a little bit different. It follows the same general formula—CGI-heavy action, well-timed wisecracks, winking pop culture references, a certain degree of world-building, a skosh of sentimentality—but has a few defining features of its own. In this case, our superhero is a woman; the film is also a prequel—the ur-Avengers origin story, if you will.
Look, all of the Avengers films are fine. Seriously. Some, like Black Panther and Captain America, are better than fine. But I find the whole enterprise a bit wearying. And all the ’90s references (right in my wheelhouse) and girl power shout-outs (also in my wheelhouse) in Captain Marvel didn’t markedly improve the experience for me. I enjoyed it well enough. It felt…familiar.
When we first meet Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), she’s an elite fighter going by the name Vers who believes herself to be a native of the Kree intergalactic empire. She has superpowers—supercharged electric energy coming out of her hands and possibly more—that she can’t quite harness yet, and is being trained in hand-to-hand combat by her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). She also keeps having nightmares and flashbacks to a memory she can’t fully access. Annette Bening is there.
Early in the film, a mission goes wrong, she is captured by the shape-shifting Skrulls, then escapes, and finds herself on Planet C-53—aka Earth (a real “shithole” we are told). She lands in a Blockbuster Video store—in a funny gag, she nervously shoots at a cardboard cutout of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies—and blows the place up. Did I mention that it’s the ’90s? Expect the likes of TLC, Nirvana, and Hole on the soundtrack. (At one point, Captain Marvel steals an outfit off a mannequin and ends up sporting a classic NIN tee-shirt—the pop culture nostalgia is strong with this one.)
After the Blockbuster snafu, she finds herself tracked by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, CGIed to look younger) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, ditto), in the pre-Avengers days of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The more time Vers spends on Earth, the more confused she is by her own origin story. Flashes of hazy memory keep coming back: go-cart races, little league, basic training, a close friendship with another female fighter pilot (Lashana Lynch), and, yes, more Annette Bening, playing an aerospace engineer. Is it possible Vers is human?
I won’t spoil things further, but you basically know the drill: acquire powers, learn to master powers, beat the bad guys, save the world. There are a few clever wrinkles: The shapeshifting adversaries can literally turn into any creature or person they want to (Captain Marvel kicking the crap out of an “old lady” on a train, much to the mortification of her fellow passengers, is a good bit), and Ben Mendelsohn is aces as their garrulous leader. There’s a frisky and cute (and slightly terrifying, to be honest) cat that becomes the film’s de facto mascot. Samuel L. Jackson gets something to do, which is a nice change of pace for the great actor, who is generally wasted in Marvel films. As for Brie Larson, I enjoyed the Oscar winner’s droll, unflappably cool take on Captain Marvel. We’ve established that she gives good superhero. Can she go back to making real movies now?