Captain Marvel has been widely touted as the first female-fronted film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the movie is perhaps even rarer in the blockbuster realm for giving a strong supporting role to an older woman who's nobody's mom.
Annette Bening plays the scientist mentor of the title character. Though she's dead when the story starts, and hence appears only in flashbacks and simulations, she gets to invent a light-speed craft; be a benign, craggy guru; have an awesome semi-CG cat (the movie's biggest crowd-pleaser); and chew the scenery as a villain. And Bening looks like she's having enormous fun with all of it.
The "villain" part isn't really a spoiler, because identity can get confusing in the Marvelverse. Witness the Skrull, a race of alien shape-shifters who play a prominent role in this installment. Or S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, who appears to be played by Samuel L. Jackson circa Pulp Fiction. He's been digitally de-olded, much like Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe in Aquaman, a practice that could complicate the jobs of future film historians.
The title character has her own identity problems. When we first meet Vers (Brie Larson), she's living among emotion-shunning, teal-blooded aliens and serving on an elite strike force against the Skrull. Only her fragmentary memories hint that she might actually be human, until a mission goes south and she bails out on Earth in 1995.
Many jokes about fish out of water and clunky Clinton-era tech ensue. Having teamed up with Fury to hunt the Skrull, Vers learns she used to be a U.S. fighter pilot named Carol Danvers. Several huge jolts to her worldview later, she's wearing the Captain Marvel costume.
Directors and cowriters Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck broke out with the indie Half Nelson, but Captain Marvel doesn't exhibit much of the grubby, low-key humanity they brought to that effort. The opening scenes play out like a cheesy 1960s sci-fi paperback, all glittery blues and haughty-alien tropes. We may struggle to connect with Vers, whose amnesia leaves her lacking in personality. Larson, an Oscar winner for Room, doesn't have the instant charisma of Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, and while her matter-of-fact competence is refreshing, it's not all that much fun.
In the movie's second half, by contrast, Larson increasingly wins us over with her deadpan responses to the people (usually men) who underestimate Carol. Her comedy chemistry with Jackson makes for good '90s-style buddy action, and she kicks ass in a montage set to No Doubt's "Just a Girl."
It's up for debate whether those fun aspects, or the film's none-too-subtle subplot about galactic refugees seeking a safe haven, make it worth sitting through a standard bang-pow action climax. But such calculations mean nothing to viewers who are already deeply immersed in the Marvelverse. Those who saw Avengers: Infinity War and are eagerly awaiting its sequel know that Captain Marvel is a key piece of the puzzle, and this origin story puts her in position to save the day.
Which is, admittedly, pretty awesome. The filmmakers have been sure to include a whip-smart preteen girl (Akira Akbar) who is Captain Marvel's biggest fan, while a strategically placed clip show of Carol's childhood memories connects her to all the girls out there in the audience who try, fail and try again. It's a solid message, and Larson certainly tries to give life to this character. But Bening, in her few appearances, is the one who seems to be having all the fun.