'Captain Marvel' Review: Marvel's First Solo Female Superhero Movie Makes A Solid Landing

Captain Marvel is a film with a chip on its shoulder and something to prove, and it revolves around a character with characteristics to match. Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is unlike many female protagonists we've seen before: a hot-headed, unapologetic, gruff warrior with a tendency to take wild swings at her enemy before landing a solid punch. But once she connects, she connects hard.

Right from the outset, Captain Marvel comes in swinging. It takes a few wild swings for the movie to finally land, but once it does, it becomes a fun, brisk, and engaging movie — though one nestled comfortably within the Marvel movie formula. But the fantastic performances from the dedicated cast, especially Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, rescue the film from the tedium of becoming yet another generic origin story.

At this point, you can't read about a Marvel movie without mention of the Marvel formula. It's a formula that has been tried and tested since Iron Man blew up the scene in 2008, and has been overused by the studio to the point of fatigue. There are Marvel movies that play with the formula, through genre experimentation or little twists, but however far a film strays from it, it always returns to it. It goes something like this: Hero undergoes traumatic experience that gives them extraordinary abilities. Hero finds mentor that helps them hone those abilities. Hero tries to change the world. Hero experiences some form of treachery and must overcome a villain with similar powers to ultimately become a better hero.

Captain Marvel attempts to buck expectations with a few twists — the film begins when Carol already has her powers and is a full-fledged member of the Starforce, an elite team of Kree warriors dedicated to eradicating the Skrull threat. The recognizable Marvel origin elements are there, but are given a fresh makeover thanks to the film's nonlinear timeline, which jumps back and forth between the present and Carol's past. When we're introduced to the aggressive, acerbic Carol — known only as Vers by her Kree teammates — she's a Kree warrior who arrived on the alien race's home planet of Hala six years ago with no memory and more power than she can control. But under the mentorship of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Carol eagerly jumps in to join the fight against the Skrull "terrorists." On her first mission to rescue a Kree soldier, Carol gets captured by the Skrulls and mined for information, awakening a brand new set of memories that only grow stronger once she crash-lands on Earth in 1995.Captain Marvel becomes as much about Carol's investigation into her own identity as much as it is a retread of the Marvel movie formula. The blending of those two threads is simply ingenious, and gives us a window inside the walled-up Carol, as well as a unique and compelling way of displaying flashbacks — the memories bleed into Carol's reality or show up as surreal, trippy images that give the film a creative kick.

Much hoopla has been made about Carol being an unsympathetic character, that's not the case at all. Larson imbues her with an edge, for sure, but Carol is vulnerable and sarcastic, and — as seems to be in the contract with every Marvel superhero — she's quippy. As she unravels, Larson effortlessly displays the full range of emotions of a woman grappling with her own identity and self-worth. Even at her most stoic, particularly at the beginning of the film in which she's ordered to keep her emotions in check, there's clear turmoil underneath the surface. But there's an ease to Larson's performance, and easy chemistry with every character she comes in contact with. Whether she's bantering with Yon-Rogg (in which Law's inherent sensuality gives the dynamic a palpable and slightly uncomfortable sexual tension), uncovering a past mentor-mentee relationship with Annette Bening's mysterious scientist, or striking up an unlikely partnership with a young Nick Fury (Jackson), Carol easily settles into every dynamic.

Larson and Jackson's buddy-comedy routine becomes the heart of this film, and Fury's introduction is where the film finally settles into its rhythm. The two partner up after Carol crashes into a Blockbuster store, with Fury at first in pursuit of this errant alien soldier before allying himself with her upon witnessing a Skrull attack. With this duo at the center, Captain Marvel seamlessly moves from road movie, to heist film, to mystery thriller.

Larson and Jackson are fantastic, but they're buoyed by even more exceptional supporting performances from Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau and Ben Mendelsohn as the Skrull Talos. Lynch has the unenviable task of playing Carol's emotional anchor, the fellow Air Force pilot and former best friend who was as close to Carol as family. Lynch balances the duty of being Carol's "heart" and of being a full-fledged character excellently, and delivers one of the most layered performances. Last but not least, let's talk about Mendelsohn. The Australian actor is clearly having the time of his life playing the shape-shifting Skrull, using the opportunity to shift between accents and personas at the flip of a coin. Mendelsohn seems to be the only one aware that he is in a movie about blue aliens fighting shape-shifting reptiles, and hams it up to the nth degree, chewing scenery like he was a starving man. His roughshod, Australian-accented Talos is an unexpected source of great comedy and heart, and a scene-stealer for every minute he's onscreen.

Like many a Marvel movie, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck don't skimp on the humor in Captain Marvel, but happily, most of the comedy comes from character-driven moments or from the blatant '90s nostalgia scattered throughout the film. Boden and Fleck delight in the visual humor of pairing a mundane '90s object — a Blockbuster, a dial-up computer, a pager — with something extraterrestrial. It's a recurring gag that doesn't wear thin throughout the film, and plays up Captain Marvel's nostalgic setting well.

However, the biggest failing of this film comes from a common Marvel hiring practice: Boden and Fleck, who made the jump from directing indie darlings to helming Captain Marvel, have never directed a large-scale action scene. As a result, the action in Captain Marvel is on autopilot — all rapid cuts and no rhythm, and very clearly shot by a second unit who were well-versed in the technical aspects of such a scene. This doesn't become a problem until the big final battle of the film which utilizes a painfully on-the-nose needle drop of No Doubt's "I'm Just A Girl" while Carol fights off a group of villains. It's a pale imitation of the more dynamic musically-driven battle sequences in Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok. Poking fun at the fight scene with a needle drop doesn't work when the fight sequences are so listless.

While the film veers into Marvel's tendency to make light of Big Superhero Moments, Captain Marvel is a very much a sincere film. It's a Superman film with a sense of cosmic fun, an origin story in which the origin is as much a mystery to the audience as it is to the character. Captain Marvel doesn't quite become the powerful feminist movie it purports to be, but it is empowering. And that is enough to raise it to be one of the better Marvel origin movies.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10