It’s odd that while the folks at Warners appear to be moving away from the benighted Zack Snyder blueprint for the DC Universe to something resembling the crowd-pleasing Marvel formula, with this newest entry in its seemingly endless series the Marvel Universe has taken a turn toward the DC model. It’s not just that in plot terms “Captain Marvel” bears an uncanny resemblance to the (admittedly pre-Snyder) “Green Lantern”—both are about fighter pilots endowed with super-powers by an alien race who must learn to deal with them. It’s that the darker, grimmer style lacks the sense of comic-book fun that’s been part of the Marvel formula; yes, there are jokes and gags, but they mostly land with a thud.
Of course, much has been made of the fact that this is the first MU movie with a female at its center, though the DU beat it to the punch with “Wonder Woman.” It would be nice to report that it proves as winning a game-changer as “Black Panther,” which broke the white male mold in another way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
The Captain Marvel character has gone through numerous iterations since it was introduced as a man from outer space in comic form in 1967. A Ms. Marvel followed a decade later; she was Carol Danvers, a fighter pilot and love interest for the captain in the earlier series reborn as a superheroine, but her stand-alone series didn’t last long. She did, however, assume the Captain Marvel identity in 2012, and has since starred in a succession of mini-series, including an eleventh one, just launched. The script by directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (along with their collaborator Geneva Robertson-Dworet) is based—loosely—on this latest version.
Danvers is here introduced in the person of Vers (Brie Larson), a member of military of the Kree, an other-world race engaged in a war against a shape-shifting enemy called the Skrulls. She’s young and possessed of special powers, but inexperienced and rash, which is why she’s operating under the guidance of an experienced mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), in whose squad—among whom are Korarth (Djimon Hounsou) and Minn-Erva (Gemma Chan)—she goes on a mission to bring a Kree spy in from the cold.
Unhappily, the mission goes awry and she’s captured. During her interrogation she experiences bursts of past memories of her childhood and life on earth as—you guessed it—a pilot with ties to a brilliant scientist named Lawson (Annette Bening), who looks suspiciously like the Kree A.I. Supreme Intelligence. In escaping she sets off an explosion that thrusts her, rather fortuitously, to earth, in 1995, the era of Blockbusters, Radio Shack and very slow computers (artifacts which the screenplay is at pains to milk for laughs).
She’s soon paired up with an initially incredulous low-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, made to look younger, though rather glacéd, by the same “fountain of youth” CGI process used on Michael Douglas in the Ant-Man movies). They’re soon pursued by S.H.I.E.L.D., whose head Keller (Ben Mendelsohn) is really Skrull leader Talos in disguise, as well as by Yon-Rogg and his crew.
Why? The answer is related not only to who Danvers really is but who the Kree and the Skrulls really are. The movie eventually tells us, though in a rather laborious—some would say slapdash—way, complicated by the Skrulls’ habit of shape-shifting whenever useful (as well as uninspired direction). Instrumental in recovering Danvers’ past is an old friend, an ex-pilot named Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her spunky daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). It also reveals the extent of Danvers’ powers, which seem to increase spontaneously whenever the plot demands it and ultimately reach so enormous a level that she’s able to fend off an invasion of earth from the skies single-handedly. In all this the original male captain has disappeared altogether, but playing a prominent part in the goings-on is a cat named Goose.
There’s some pleasure to be had in the movie, which runs to a relatively trim two hours, including credits that include a couple of bonus clips, which look ahead to the upcoming “Avengers: Endgame,” in which Marvel will obvious be a significant figure. And Mendelsohn, when he’s in his Talos makeup (mostly in the last act) shows how to deliver an amusing line to best advantage.
Otherwise, though, “Marvel” is far from marvelous. Though Larson is a fine actress, she proves nothing special here; one could drop “Supergirl” Melissa Benoist into the part without noticing the difference. Jackson does his usual shtick, but you’ll probably be so fascinated by his odd appearance that little else will register, especially since the banter between him and Larson is so flat. Law sneers and spits out his dialogue, while Bening is wasted. Lynch and Akbar come on a mite strong, but they’re an agreeable pair. Reggie, the cat that mostly plays Goose (three other felines are also involved) outacts them all.
Nor are the effects all that special. Much of the pre-earth material early on is so darkly shot by cinematographer Ben Davis that the images are murky, and the final confrontation with a space fleet that provides a big finale is distinctly underwhelming. Whatever else you might say about these Marvel Universe movies, they’ve been sumptuously mounted. This one looks threadbare by comparison.
Though this is a stumble in Marvel-Disney’s plan to conquer the cinematic universe, fanboys can content themselves with the knowledge that two more MU movies are expected in the coming months—the new “Avengers” and a “Spider-Man” sequel. The deluge will go on, and further Captain Marvel pictures will undoubtedly be a part of it.