Expert script-flippage gives texture to the heartfelt female empowerment message in Captain Marvel. It begins as a war-on-terror movie, with an extraterrestrial military gearing up for a mission against the shape-shifting Skrulls, hiding among the locals on a planet that looks like Afghanistan. Later, we arrive at our more current malaise when the film’s true villain starts talking of aliens who “threaten our borders.”
Brie Larson’s brown-eyed and appealing underplaying sells this material, which isn’t the freshest. She is called “Vers,” an amnesiac soldier of the outer space Kree empire, with the ability to blast photon rays from her fists. The power is a gift from the empire’s all-highest, an AI simulation that appears to her in the shape of Annette Bening. Vers has a rep for being too unfocussed and emotional, as her superior officer and sparring partner (Jude Law) always reminds her. After a skirmish, Vers is captured by the pointed-eared Skrulls. Her dormant memories are stirred up during an interrogation by their diabolical leader, the Australian-accented Taros (an amusing Ben Mendelsohn).
Vers falls to earth like a comet into 1990s North Hollywood. The ruckus summons America’s top secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitized to a younger form and still possessing both eyes). The corpse of a dead Skrull convinces Fury of Vers’ story. As they try to round up the aliens, the jagged bits of Vers’ past keep flashing back: she recalls her former life as an air force fighter pilot and her lifelong friendship with her fellow pilot Marie Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).
It’s a little dismaying to see the great flamboyance of Jackson dimmed down—he’s a younger man, a just-the-facts military officer who hasn’t yet seen the aliens at our door, a soldier from WWII coming back from the dead and the race of Homo superior yet. But he takes to Vers.
Larson and Jackson have a smooth rapport. If Larson brings in a great deal of feeling to the role, she also brings some playfulness. Our heroine can be slightly bratty, pestering Fury at a bar about why he thinks everyone should call him by his last name—an echo of all the raffish word-bandying that went on in Pulp Fiction. “And what will your kids call you?” “Fury.”
Despite some starchy Louisiana heartland sequences, this is an effective fantasy of power used with grace and without arrogance. Captain Marvel isn’t as supermacha as GI Jane or Starship Troopers, however; the movie is not about Vers becoming a good, disciplined soldier. She finds her independence at last.
When Captain Marvel is over, one notes that a conventional romantic lead isn’t here, and also wasn’t missed. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, and the five credited writers give this heroine’s journey the same attractive solitude that male heroes—super and otherwise—have enjoyed in the movies forever.
‘Captain Marvel’ is playing in wide release in the North Bay.