Just before she won the best actress Oscar for Room in 2016, Brie Larson made a point of hugging each and every one of the sexual-abuse survivors who had been brought onstage during a performance of a Lady Gaga song about the prevalence of assault on college campuses. Only a few months later, at the same San Diego Comic-Con where the Black Panther cast was introduced, Larson was announced as the new Captain Marvel, the first female superhero to lead her own film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the time since, Larson has continued to use her public platform to advocate for issues from income equality in the entertainment industry to the Time’s Up movement. She’s also been vocal on the press tour for Captain Marvel about wanting to increase the racial and gender diversity of the panels of critics she sits down with. Larson’s earnest, politically tinged approach to tentpole movie stardom has earned her mockery from some quarters: Is she really trying to frame playing a superhero in a $152 million franchise blockbuster as an activist choice?
As a fan of Larson’s since noticing her outstanding performance as the teenage daughter of Woody Harrelson’s rogue cop in the 2011 drama Rampart, I’m inclined to defend her against the charge that her outspoken advocacy is nothing but empty grandstanding. As the commercial and critical success of Black Panther, as well as of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman, has shown, there is a real hunger among moviegoers for crowd-pleasing, action-packed comic-book blockbusters that also have something to say about contemporary issues of representation and equality. And if Larson’s ardently expressed wish that Captain Marvel not just entertain but Matter might come off as a tad self-serious, that tone is nothing if not in keeping with the character of Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel—a serious, stolid type whose steel will and laser-focused commitment to her mission make her a formidable foe even when her fists aren’t glowing orange with photon-blasting superpowers.
Like Superman, Captain Marvel is arguably too physically powerful and morally pure to be all that interesting a character, but Larson plays her with a frank, tomboyish physicality that’s appealing. It’s worth noting that, unlike Wonder Woman’s tenderhearted Diana, the captain is given no on-screen love interest, not so much as a passing flirtation to distract from the business of universe-saving. It’s hard to picture this slightly butch-er superheroine pausing mid-mission, Gal Gadot–style, to moon over a cute baby or shop for a period-appropriate outfit. When not kitted out in her Captain Marvel suit—much less revealing than Gadot’s Wonder Woman getup—she spends much of the film in a baggy Nine Inch Nails T-shirt filched from a store mannequin.
Co-written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (who earlier collaborated on such indie dramas as Half Nelson, Sugar, and Mississippi Grind), Captain Marvel is the second-to-last movie in a 22-film arc that’s been building since Iron Man in 2008.* Captain Marvel’s position as the penultimate piece in what by now has become a complex, multiverse-spanning puzzle puts a lot of expositional weight on its plot, which gives us an origin story not only for the title character but for the Avengers series as a whole.
As the grunge music on the soundtrack and the jokes about pagers and dial-up modems keep reminding us, Captain Marvel is set in the mid-1990s, when the idea of a team of supernaturally advantaged crusaders for justice was not yet a twinkle in the eye of S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). In fact, this movie takes place when Fury still had two eyes, rather than the rakish eyepatch he wears in the rest of the series; Jackson has been digitally “youthened” to appear two decades younger, with so much success it takes a few minutes to adjust to his full hairline and eerily unlined face. Fury, who’s usually relegated to the dramatically unrewarding task of getting the gang back together, gets a chance to show his more vulnerable side, even bonding with an orange tabby cat named Goose who stows away with the agents on their final mission. (No shade to the four felines who play him, but I found the movie’s overreliance on this cute mascot painfully pandering.) Also restored to youth by this movie’s hop into a time machine is Nick’s sidekick Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), a fan favorite who was killed off seven years ago in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (though he’s enjoyed an active afterlife in the Marvel TV spinoff Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
Agents Coulson and Fury first encounter the captain when she’s hurled through space from the faraway planet she calls home, dropping through the roof of a Los Angeles Blockbuster Video. As a fighter-in-training for the Kree—an alien force of what Carol identifies, unmodestly, as “noble warrior heroes”—she has been sent to earth by her commander, the exacting Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to make sure that a light-speed engine invented by her former mentor (Annette Bening) doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. The hands in question would be the green-tinged extremities of the Skrulls, a verdant, pointy-eared race of beings who are the Kree’s sworn enemies. But as the film goes on, Carol, who begins the movie unsure of her identity and even her own name, finds her loyalty torn among the Kree, the Skrulls, and the humans—denizens of the planet known to the Kree only as “C-53,” and which one alien character casually dismisses as a “shithole.”
Especially during its pleasantly meandering middle stretch, Captain Marvel sometimes resembles the kind of low-budget sci-fi that might have played on kids’ TV on a Saturday afternoon in the era when this movie is set. The Skrulls’ gift for shape-shifting makes use of state-of-the-art digital trickery, but when they revert back to their default selves they’re essentially Sleestaks: green-painted actors in bald wigs and prosthetic masks. Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, the leader of the Skrulls, with gusto, humor, and toward the end, even pathos. Unlike many Marvel villains, he has a comprehensible motivation outside of the sheer desire to wreak harm on the universe.
The motivations, backstory, and even real name of the protagonist, on the other hand, take a while to emerge from the amnesiac fog of her brain. The climactic battle between the Kree and the Skrulls is a tussle over one of Marvel’s many all-purpose MacGuffins (I won’t spoil precisely which one, but does it truly matter?), but the real conflict in Captain Marvel takes place in Carol’s head and heart as she tries to reconcile what fragments of memory remain from her childhood with the warrior ethos that’s been drilled into her as a recruit to the Kree. It isn’t until she meets up with her long-lost best friend on Earth (Lashana Lynch), now the single mother of an 11-year-old daughter (Akira Akbar), that Carol begins to question the story she’s been told all her life about her identity and mission. On the way to finding out the truth, this already stalwart fighter will grow in confidence, compassion, and photon-blasting fist power.
It’s less two months until Carol Danvers will be back in theaters in Avengers: Endgame, an all-star Marvel megamovie that will settle the fates of our current crew of super-friends. The last we saw of the Avengers, their ranks had been cut in half by the cruel machinations of Thanos (Josh Brolin), a brooding purple supervillain who proved to be the first immovable object heroes of the franchise had yet encountered. It remains to be seen what the mega-chinned Mauve One will do when he comes face to face with this new heroine’s unstoppable force. From what we’ve seen of her so far, Captain Marvel may not be the most complex or finely shaded of the MCU protagonists. But given that she’s the first woman to be charged with the duty of saving this cinematic universe, I for one totally support her avenging.
Correction, March 14, 2019: This article originally misstated that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck as husband and wife. They are not married to each other.