Vers (Brie Larson) is a Kree warrior sent to defend her civilization from the shape-shifting aliens known as Skrulls. Captured in combat, she escapes – only to find herself on mid-1990s Earth, a planet she is shocked to discover she has visited before. Teaming up with SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) she fights to stop a Skrull invasion attempt, while working to rediscover her true identity.
Marvel Studio’s widely loved and phenomenally successful superhero franchise clocks up its 21st feature with Captain Marvel, heralded as both the first Marvel film with a female protagonist and the first to have a female director (Anna Boden shares those duties with her regular collaborator Ryan Fleck). Dwelling on either point is understandable, since both are well overdue. Dwelling on them may also be a potential mistake, since focusing on either risks overlooking simply what an effective and entertaining blockbuster Captain Marvel has turned out to be.
The film opens to a relatively messy first act, dropping the viewer into the Kree Empire and a secret military mission undertaken by Vers, her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), and a team of elite Kree warriors. From there it’s a short dash to a first encounter with the reptilian Skrulls, a crash landing on Earth, and a meeting with a younger and less cynical Nick Fury. While it takes a while for the film to settle down to a comfortable set-up, it does avoid the usual pitfalls of a superhero origin: the pace is faster, and the usual tropes of the genre are either absent or remixed into a less traditional form.
It is a great showcase for its cast as well. I am a big fan of Brie Larson’s work, and she does not disappoint as Vers. She also has a natural sort of chemistry – or, at least, it feels natural – with Samuel L. Jackson’s more playful version of Nick Fury. The film regularly acts as a gift for the more continuity-obsessed fans, not only showing off young Fury but also franchise stalwart Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson) and Guardians of the Galaxy alumni Lee Pace (Ronan the Accuser) and Djimon Hounsou (Korath). It is undertaken with a pleasing subtlety: it adds an additional layer of entertainment for the hardcore, while not getting in the way of the actual story for casual viewers.
If there is a most-valuable-player to the cast, however, it is Ben Mendelsohn’s spectacular turn as Talos, the Skrull leader and primary antagonist. Mendelsohn plays the role with a deft handle on comedy. His timing is sensational. His use of his own Australian accent when in his lizard form is wonderfully odd. He is also a valuable addition to any film, but here Mendelsohn creates one of the most entertaining characters Marvel Studios have ever had.
The film boasts strong, cine-literate action, paired with a solid sense of production design. Once the narrative settles down on Earth for its second and third acts, it presents a good balance of action, drama, and comedy. The film’s pairing of action scenes with mid-90s rock and pop music is a little on the nose, but amusingly self-aware.
The ultimate achievement of Captain Marvel is that it can be two films at the same time. It honestly works as a straight-forward science fiction action film, in which a hero discovers their true identity and learns the full extent of their alien super-powers. It also works spectacularly as a feminist text, in which a woman steps out from a patriarchal shadow and challenges a sexist male mentor in the process. It frames the story as a recognisable male-dominated world, and then breaks that world in two. It is this extra dimension that really makes the film rise above the standard Marvel Cinematic Universe fare.