Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Clark Gregg, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace
Director: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)
Late into Captain Marvel, the first-ever female-fronted superhero film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a series of sequences shows Carol Danvers physically falling and rising at different junctures in her life. Every small act that she completes of getting up on her feet after hitting the ground is a sort of replay of the mishap that put her the alien Kree capital of Hala as much as it is a pointer to the big flight that she is will take once she is able to figure out how and why she is meant to be an invincible superhero. Her fall-and-rise montage is at the same time a measure of the magnitude of the struggle that her ascent has been - and her battles will be going forward.
Captain Marvel, MCU's 21st movie and the first co-directed by a woman, Anna Boden, plays largely by the rules of the genre, but it juggles with its narrative sequencing to mirror the unsteady state of the protagonist's mind, which assailed by self-doubt and amnesia. This is, therefore, a solid character-driven arc: not surprising because the lead Brie Larson and Boden and her directing partner Ryan Fleck have come this far in their respective careers on the back of subtly affecting human stories crafted in the independent space.
Both the actress and the two directors, newcomers to this scale and nature of moviemaking, are able to infuse the story of the creation of a new avenging angel with a degree of freshness, both in terms of substance and narrative approach. The film might appear a touch low-key, but that could well be the principal factor that sets it apart from most of the others that have gone before. Captain Marvel, set in the mid-1990s, is an origin story but it works also as a self-contained tale of a girl who discovers that she can fly and shoot photon blasts from her "supercharged hand".
Larson is terrific as Vers/Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. She is infinitely better at etching out a believable figure than Gal "Wonder Woman" Gadot, who had to fall back on more conventional means. The Room actress brings the skills that she displayed in her Oscar-winning performance in the hostage drama to bear emphatically upon the fleshing out of a larger-than-life alien-human hybrid warrior who has to reckon with many hurdles on the way to claiming her place as one of the most powerful superheroes among The Avengers.
Larson is impressive as she moves smoothly from the discovery of her superhuman qualities to the understanding of her purpose in the universe to the emotional tugs and pulls of friendship - with her flying companion and best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), with whom she is reunited, which ignites in her mind flashes of the past as does the incursions into her memory by Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mandelsohn) - and fractured remembrances.
Footage from the next Marvel outing (The Avengers: Endgame) is revealed half way through the film's end credits. It is set for release in April. With five more Captain Marvel entries up ahead, Larson seems rather well suited for the job, but she does in ways that are markedly different from the ones that conventional screen superheroes are known to favour.
The lead actress receives great support from a cast of charismatic actors - Annette Bening (in a dual role), Samuel L. Jackson (as Nick Fury, digitally de-aged, minus the eye-patch and with a full mop of hair) and Jude Law (as Yon-Rogg, the mentor of Vers, supposedly the "best version" of Carol Danvers that the film introduces at the outset). Surprisingly, one of the most consummate scene-stealers in Captain Marvel is a cat. You sit up and expect a surprise every time the feline actor is on the screen.
Other enjoyable moments are delivered by the game of verbal one-upmanship that Carol and Fury play. In one sequence, the two banter over whether Marvel or Mar-Vell rings better. Fury mentions the 60s African-American girl group The Marvelettes and insists that 'Marvel' scores higher on the phonetic front. It is an in-joke of course, but does it contribute anything to the narrative besides a bit of mild diversion?
The rushed first quarter of Captain Marvel is strewn with moments and characters that come and go without causing a ripple. So you may not marvel at some of the film's jabs at revisionism. Yet owing to a lively pivotal performance, Captain Marvel generally flies well clear of the turbulences in its path.
When she is just Vers - an abbreviation of Danvers - a warrior in the elite Kree military unit, Starforce, Yon-Rogg advises her to "control her impulses" because "there is nothing more dangerous to a warrior than emotion". There isn't much point in the advice: she unaware why she has wound up in Hala.
The audience does know. Vers is a former US Air Force pilot, who now has super strength but does not quite know how to channel it. She is a crucial cog in the Kree wheel in the fight against the Skrulls, a race of shape-shifting aliens threatening to overrun the universe. There is too much crammed in the initial stages the two-hour film for all of it to make sense. Captain Marvel hits its strides once Carol Danvers, at the end of a botched mission, returns to Earth, crashing through the roof of a Blockbuster store.
It is the 90s and six years have elapsed since the aircraft crash that separated Carol from her best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). The reunion is inevitably emotional, if not always convincing, and it imparts a strongly human touch to the tale. Carol teams up with Fury, who is still figuring out the ropes of being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. They form an unlikely pair - not that Captain Marvel warms up to him immediately - but they complement each other as they go about defying expectations and seeking to pull off the impossible.
Of course, Captain Marvel is a superhero movie and nothing is impossible here. Apart from the slew of de rigueur action sequences, the film's sense of 'humanity' and dollops of wry humour - this despite the fact that Yon-Rogg asserts early on in unambiguous terms that humour is a distraction for a warrior - keep it flowing pretty nicely. If not an outright marvel, this script has more warmth than, and just as much power as, Wonder Woman.