It seems almost unbelievable that it’s taken Marvel 20 movies to feature a female lead, especially when Brie Larson makes it all look so effortless. Alongside a digitally de-aged Samuel L Jackson, she brings verve and charisma to what could easily have been a forgettable entry into the Marvel canon.
It’s a strange film, showing flashes of the wit and pathos that have become trademarks of Marvel’s cinematic universe, but it too often feels like a giant slice of exposition for films to come.
It starts a long time ago (the mid-1990s) in a galaxy far, far away, with Larson’s Kree warrior beset by strange nightmares about a past life. She spars with her pleasantly upbeat mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), visits an Artificial Intelligence with the face of Annette Bening, and gets involved in an age-old skirmish between the Kree and their sworn enemies, the shape-shifting Skrull. It’s a bold opening gambit, all taking place half a universe removed from the core players in Marvel’s ever-expanding universe.
And it’s not one that pays any real dividends. It’s hard to care about these warring aliens, especially the green, rubbery Skrull, who are painted as villains from the get-go.
It’s bad enough when only Ben Mendelsohn’s oily Talos is on screen, but when a dozen or more Skrull show up, things start to resemble an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Matters improve exponentially when, after a mission gone awry, Larson’s character crash-lands into Earth’s very own Blockbuster video, circa 1995. Within minutes she runs into a youthful Nick Fury, then a rookie Shield agent with two working eyes, and what follows is a kind of odd-couple buddy movie in which we learn about the origins of both characters, including how Fury really got his eye-patch (spoiler: it’s not a Nazi hand grenade, as it was in the comics).
The whole thing is written with children of the 90s firmly in mind, with a soundtrack featuring Hole, Garbage and No Doubt – something only Marvel, with its bottomless war chest, could afford – and jokes about dial-up internet and Windows 95.
Elsewhere there are echoes of the easy, staccato humour mined to such great effect in Guardians of the Galaxy, with po-faced aliens failing to understand humans’ dry sense of humour, and inflated warrior egos being bathetically punctured.
But a finale that shoots for high emotion falls a little flat, featuring the kind of world-saving action sequence that now feels rather old hat (although it would have been fairly spectacular in 1995). It’s also worth mentioning the teary send-off to Marvel legend Stan Lee, who stars in what will presumably be his final cameo.
Captain Marvel sits in the mid tier of the studio’s movies, not troubling Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy at the top of the tree, nor plumbing the depths of Iron Man 2 or Age of Ultron. But Larson is a revelation in the title role, and the prospect of her character gatecrashing the Avengers hegemony is one to savour.