The tagline for “Captain Marvel,” the latest Marvel origin story, is “Higher. Further. Faster.” but I would like to suggest another. “In Space, Everyone Can Hear You Scream Whee!” As Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) pierces our atmosphere, her banshee cry of sheer exhilaration pierces the soundtrack. “Whee!” She’s having fun and so should fans of the high-flying character.
There’s a bit of backstory. “Captain Marvel” begins, as all good superhero flicks do, on an alien planet. Hala is the home of the Kree, a race of powerful ETs ruled by an AI leader called the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening). Among the inhabitants of the planet are Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), mentor to Vers (Brie, not yet dubbed Captain Marvel). She is being trained as part of an elite band of space cops, who, shooting energy bolts from her wrists, tracks and hunts shapeshifting creatures called the Skrull. An insomniac, she is haunted by nightmares and mysterious images of another life.
To find context for her existence she travels to C-53—earth—during the Clinton years. There, while hunting down Skrulls who are searching for a weapon that would make them unstoppable in the universe, she meets Nick Fury, Agent of the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson), who becomes entangled in her hunt for the earthbound Skrulls—including the world-weary Talos (Ben Mendelsohn)—and her search for her true identity.
“Captain Marvel” begins with a trippy, time-warping introduction to Vers’s past. It’s an orgy of fast cuts and establishes the film’s spirited tone. There’s a lot going on here, maybe too much, but at least it rips along like a cheetah attacking its prey. Things slow down once the film lands in 1995 California and the “Terminator-esque” story of a benevolent alien with superpowers kicks in.
The high points are lofty.
Larson finds the right tone, playing someone grappling with two identities, otherworldly and stoic one moment, swaggering playfully the next. Vers is a total girl power hero, with no love interest, other than a female best friend, she kicks but while the soundtrack blares “I’m Just A Girl” and tell her male mentor, “I have nothing to prove to you.” Larson keeps her interesting even though through much of the film Vers isn’t quite sure who she is or where she belongs in the universe.
Further separating her from her superhero colleagues is a purpose driven mission not born out of revenge but by powerful emotions and a sense of loss. Those motivations alone give the film a slightly different feel from others in the Marvel family.
Visually Vers, harnessing all the hurt of all the times she was told she wasn’t good enough or that girls shouldn’t try to do boy stuff, is a powerful feminist statement that helps drive the story and define the character. That it’s visually stunning is a bonus.
Supporting actors Jackson (we finally learn the unlikely why Fury wears an eye patch) and Mendelsohn find a balance between the film’s dramatic, action and lighter scenes.
Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, handle the character work with aplomb. Their previous films, indies like “Half Nelson” and “Mississippi Grind,” are studies in nuance, a trait lost in “Captain Marvel’s” larger set pieces. The action—and there is plenty of it, tends to be of a generic frenetically edited style. The convoluted origin story mixed with the cluttered action sequences suck some of the air out of the theatre but their take on the superhero character as both an outsider and one of us is as refreshing as it is unusual. “Whee!”