There are two types of Marvel movies. There are the ones that follow the classic superhero arc, like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, in which a good, smart, strong protagonist battles evil, and usually public suspicion, in a way that’s been familiar to audiences since 1978’s Superman (not Marvel, we know. Don’t write in). Then there are the weirdo ones, like Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man, which tend to be pretty cavalier with plot, more interested in character eccentricities and gags, so you might reach the end somewhat unsure of what just happened but certain you had a nice time. Captain Marvel has a foot in both camps, which makes it surprising, silly and refreshing, if also a tad messy.
If you haven’t already read up on Captain Marvel you may spend the first hour fairly confused. When we meet our hero, played by Brie Larson, she is already a superpowered being, known as Vers. She lives on an alien planet as part of the Kree, a race under permanent threat from shape-shifting aliens called the Skrulls, led by the ever brilliant Ben Mendehlson as Talos. She’s a skilled member of a military group, with super-strength and the ability to shoot energy blasts from her fists. Yet Vers is troubled by weird half-memories of a different life on a different planet. A near miss with the Skrulls finds her stranded on Earth, which she starts to realise is oddly familiar. It’s an origin story told in a jumble, with Vers finding out how she gained her powers then becoming a superhero.
Directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Mississippi Grind) have opted for a 1990s setting for the film. The reason why becomes clear later. In keeping with the setting, they’re shooting for a ’90s sci-fi tone – a little bit Men In Black and a smidge Independence Day – with Vers as the no-nonsense alien come to Earth, baffled by its primitiveness. Samuel L. Jackson, made 30 years younger by some flawless CG, is her startled guide, the rookie Shield agent who will eventually become the Avengers’ boss Nick Fury.
There’s so much fun stuff in this approach that it’s a shame the film doesn’t embrace it more. Last year’s Bumblebee nailed the nostalgia of ’80s sci-fi without overloading the references and this is aiming for a ’90s equivalent, but its grip is less sure. As the movie progresses the ’90s element becomes less about tone and style than soundtrack and visual reminders. Nirvana and Garbage on the soundtrack remind us when we are. What starts out weird and individual slips into Marvel formula. Good Marvel formula, with some genuinely surprising twists and strong action, but a familiar groove nonetheless.
Larson is tremendous throughout. The fact this is the MCU’s first movie with a woman in the lead puts a lot of weight on her and she carries it easily. She’s got star-power swagger and charisma to burn. The movie becomes the most fun in the last half-hour when she’s really allowed to enjoy herself, living the superhero dream the movie has promised would eventually come. The two parts, the traditional and the weird, coalesce into something nutty and exciting. If Captain Marvel is going to be one of the driving forces of the MCU after Avengers Endgame then the universe is in good hands.