Captain Marvel veers from confusing space opera, to fun buddy movie, back to boring Marvel action extravaganza, but Brie Larson's wise-cracking and a killer 90s soundtrack keep this latest MCU film watchable
The opening of Captain Marvel is genuinely surprising – if a bit confusing. It begins with a dream, but the opening act’s mood in general is decidedly dreamlike as we meet Brie Larson’s Vers, a blue-blooded warrior hero who’s super strong and can shoot fireballs from her hands. She’s part of a starforce unit led by Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg. They fight on behalf of their people, the Kree, who are under attack from green-faced shapeshifters called the Skrull – or something.
Vers lives on a shiny planet of glass and steel, but she keeps flashing back to earlier times on Earth (or C35 as she knows it) where she was basically a female version of Maverick from Top Gun (a character called Goose makes an appearance later in the film, confirming the homage). The opening suggests indie writing-and-directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) are making a Tarkovsky-influenced Star Trek movie, which isn’t half as fun as it sounds. Things pick up no end when Vers eventually arrives on C35 with a bump: she crash lands through a Blockbusters' roof and into the acquaintance of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, who's received a reasonably convincing CGI spit and polish to shave a few decades off). If the presence of a thriving VHS rental shop hasn’t already clued you in, this is LA in the mid-90s.
Vers' memory may be MIA, but she hasn’t lost her funny bone. “Humour is a distraction,” Yon-Rogg warns her during a late-night training session, and don’t Marvel know it. What the MCU film series lacks in thrilling action scenes it makes up for in LOLs, and this installment is no different. When we’re in the company of Larson and Jackson, this warm-up to the more serious-minded Avengers: Endgame is a hoot, with Vers a sarcastic wind-up merchant who enjoys teasing her minder.
Jackson’s character has been little more than an exposition delivery system in the Avengers film so far, but he feels like a rounded human being here. As well as the unavoidable fan service moments, like discovering how Fury lost his left eye, we also learn more whimsical details about the character, like his aversion to diagonally sliced toast and his soft spot for cute felines.
Pleasingly, nostalgic gags around the 90s setting are kept to a minimum, but the period is nicely evoked through the soundtrack, which is heavy on bands fronted by fierce women (Garbage, No Doubt, Hole, Elastica). When Larson isn’t cracking-wise with Jackson, she’s reacquainting herself with other strong women from her past, including a fellow pilot played by Lashana Lynch, who brings a soulful humanity to the picture, and a mysterious science genius played by Annette Bening, who’s seriously underutilised (Bening's statuesque peers Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close were similarly wasted in their bit-part Marvel roles).
As enjoyable as Larson and Jackson's mismatched buddy act is, we know the mandatory Marvel third act carnage is coming, and like many directors before them, this is where Boden and Fleck falter. There isn’t a single interesting action setpiece in the entire movie, just generic car chases, a poorly choreographed fight on a commuter train and seen-them-a-million-times-before gun battles in cobalt coloured spaceship corridors. By the time Vers eventually discovers her true identity (turns out she’s really Earth pilot Carol Danvers) and embraces her inner flying superhero goddess, it feels like the directing duo have given up entirely and simply handed over the reigns to Marvel’s animators, who’ve cobbled together a dull, bloodless and unresolved space battle as the finale.
How this seeming omnipotent superwoman is going to slot into the Avengers team will be interesting. Maybe Captain Marvel will handle all the bad guys by herself while the likes of Hawkeye, Ant Man and Captain America hold her cool leather jacket? That would really get the fanboys' knickers in a twist.
Captain Marvel is on release now from Disney