Saluting a megalithic juggernaut for taking risks is a bit of a mug’s game, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been in a winningly funky mood lately, alternating the large-scale Sturm and Drang of the Avengers series with lighter, more idiosyncratic fare. (Yes, I realize that something like Thor: Ragnarok is light years away from being an indie film, but work with me here.) Captain Marvel, the long-overdue solo launch for the comic company’s most powerful female character, unfortunately can’t quite keep the left-field streak going, settling for a pretty familiar origin story delivery mode. While the pre-Iron Man timeframe contributes some novelty—to say nothing of some stellar soundtrack needle-drops—it often feels like a throwback in less engaging ways, as well. Still, even when mired in generic comic movie trappings, the exceedingly game Brie Larson and her ace supporting cast keep things buzzing.
Taking its cues from the recent comic run by Kelly Sue DeConnick, the plot follows an unstuck-in-time, amnesiac soldier (Larson) caught on the front lines of intergalactic war between fashion-plate peacekeepers the Kree (personified by an enjoyably preening Jude Law), and the spinach-chinned shapeshifters known as Skrulls (led by Ben Mendelson, about whom more later.) After a whopper of an explosion strands her on 90’s Earth and in the proximity of junior G-Man Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the flashbacks and energy blasts begin piling up.
Directors Anna Bowden and Ryan Fleck (Mississippi Grind) bring an intriguingly fragmented feel to the early proceedings, depicting the hero’s memories in small, striking chunks. As things progress, however, it becomes apparent that they just don’t have much of a touch when it comes to action, with the increasingly large-scale skirmishes seemingly coming straight from the blockbuster cookie-cutter.
Even when the choreography gets blurry, though, Larson remains engaging, investing her icon with a terrific mixture of self-assurance and yearning. Whether she’s recalling dim snippets about her former life, or blasting lasers out of both fists, she keeps you leaning in. Her appeal is bolstered by the winning buddy-comedy chemistry with a startlingly de-aged, extremely loose Jackson, who relishes the chance to play a pre-grizzled super-spy. MVP status, however, goes to Mendelson, who makes his would-be conqueror an uproariously Regular Joe, undercutting the standard villainous motions with strange asides, hilarious dithering, and even a few moments of genuine pathos. (Whatever the heck it is he’s doing, the film could use a lot more of it.) Captain Marvel may not ultimately live up to the main character’s cosmic potential, but the interactions between the cast ensures that the small goofy moments between throwdowns register the strongest. Now that the backstory’s over and done with, here’s hoping she gets to properly let it rip.