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Captain Marvel

(2019) *** Pg-13
124 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck. Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Annette Bening, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou.

/content/films/5150/1.jpgThe 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe promises that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Captain Marvel introduces Marvel Studios’ first headlining female hero (a character dating back to at least 1968 in Marvel Comics), but her origin story doesn’t diverge far from the Marvel “house style” of sci-fi MacGuffins and earnest heroic triumph laced with special-effects gimmickry and plenty of jokey punchlines. For those who haven’t yet succumbed to superhero fatigue, Captain Marvel’s formula will feel more like quality control, and they won’t be wrong. To watch another obscure hero beget a franchise-building smash-hit movie means marveling at Marvel once again.

A key aspect of the Marvel Studios approach involves enlisting highfaluting talent in front of and behind the camera. Indie stalwarts Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) may be Marvel’s unlikeliest directorial hires yet, but the savvy choice puts a woman behind the camera for Captain Marvel (a la DC’s Wonder Woman) and guarantees at least a certain amount of dramatic weight to a genre that can easily run away with action melodrama.

Oscar winner Brie Larson (Room, Short Term 12) winningly stars as Vers, a superpowered amnesiac inhabitant of the planet Hala and member of an elite military unit one might as well call Seal Team Kree. The Kree people are at war with the shape-shifting Skrulls, and when Vers literally falls to Earth, her visions of once being an Air Force test pilot there intensify. Is she Vers, or is she Carol Danvers? Or could she somehow be both? The identity-crisis storyline crafted by Boden, Fleck and co-screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet follows our hero as she discovers who she is and what she can do, with Larson ably balancing a winking sense of humor, a palpable yearning for stability, and a fierce femininity for our modern times.

Because the story unfolds largely on 1995 Earth (a.k.a. “Planet C-53”), Boden and Fleck pepper the film with cheeky references (Vers lands in a Blockbuster Video, where she promptly photon-blasts the head off of an Arnold Schwarzenegger standee and peruses a VHS copy of The Right Stuff) and tease the idea of a Lethal Weapon-style buddy-cop action movie (first with two Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then with Vers and Nick Fury), complete with car chase. The conceit also allows Marvel to apply that mind-boggling digital-facelift software to shave a quarter-century off Samuel L. Jackson’s Fury.

The competitive nature of the DCEU/MCU rivalry (in comic and on screen) furthers the sense that the superhero genre is running out of road. Captain Marvel shows distinct similarities to Green Lantern (though the former is far more coherent and entertaining than the latter, an infamous trainwreck) and the period conceit gets in front of Wonder Woman 1984. Captain Marvel’s sci-fi otherworldliness also recalls Marvel’s own Guardians of the Galaxy (in fact, a Guardians supporting character pops up in Captain Marvel). With Captain Marvel’s directors and a cast that includes Ben Mendelsohn, Oscar winner Larson, Oscar nominee Jackson, and multiple Oscar nominees Annette Bening, Jude Law, and Djimon Hounsou, one wonders when Marvel and DC will run out of prestige talent to throw at comic-book movies.

For now, we can be grateful that Boden and Fleck manage to inject some considered if corny thematic moments illustrating human resilience and suggesting at least one gender advantage on Carol Danvers’ side (she’s not beholden to foolish pride). For all its pew-pew action, Captain Marvel also qualifies as an anti-war story that blurs the line between good guys and bad, while also slipping in a feminist smackdown here, a sly Trump rebuke there. At times, the formula can make the picture feel a little bland, and the humor tips over into cutesy when it comes to hero cat “Goose” (maybe Law’s Kree commander Yon-Rogg is right when he insists, “Humor is a distraction”). But the not-so-secret recipe still satisfies, serving up a savory origin for a new hero.

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