PLOT A soldier from another planet must save Earth from an alien invasion.
CAST Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn
RATED PG-13 (action and some creepy imagery)
BOTTOM LINE A disappointingly un-Marvelous superhero.
Early in “Captain Marvel,” an alien soldier named Vers (Brie Larson) is captured by a green-skinned creature called a Skrull, who hooks her up to a memory probe. What spills out of Vers is, unexpectedly, a montage of Air Force uniforms, cocky banter, derring-do and kitschy dive bars. Apparently, before Vers left Earth, she was in a gender-flipped "Top Gun."
Adding to the weirdness, the Skrull begins to speak in an unmistakably Australian accent. “Am I the only one,” he asks, “who's confused here?”
You might raise your hand at this point in “Captain Marvel,” a surprisingly clumsy and clunky production from what is usually the slickest entertainment-factory around, Disney-Marvel. The movie is only partially groundbreaking — the "second" modern female superhero film, after 2017's “Wonder Woman” — and ostensibly long-awaited, bringing a long-running if obscure character to the big screen. Marvel is known for making gold out of lead (“Thor”), but its magic touch fails with “Captain Marvel.”
Some of the movie's problems are small but aggravating. Our heroine is initially named Vers (pronounced “veers”) but, on Earth, she realizes she was once Carol Danvers. We assume she'll become Captain Marvel — but then why are we introduced to an artificial intelligence called Mar-Vell (Annette Bening)? Also, must this superhero be such a stew of origin stories: an alien fallen to Earth, an interspecies outcast, a regular Joe who accidentally acquires photon-blasting fists? Or maybe she's more like the Hulk: “Anger,” says Vers' mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), “only serves the enemy.”
Other problems in “Captain Marvel” are large, almost galaxy-sized. For starters, the art-house directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson,” “Sugar”) seem ill-suited to this mass-market milieu. (They wrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet.) The action sequences flail around but never crackle. The comedic bits are hand-me-downs from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (knife-wielder, meet gun-carrier). The cloyingly hip backdrop of the 1990s includes only the most obvious musical cues (Nirvana, Hole, No Doubt). The Ryan-Fleck team doesn't speak fluent commercialism; even one of the last cameos from Marvel kingpin Stan Lee is winked at too broadly, spoiling the fun.
The movie is lucky to have Samuel L. Jackson as a young version of fan favorite Nick Fury. Though he looks odd — he's been digitally de-aged by about 15 years — Jackson injects some much-needed wit into this otherwise overly serious film. Ben Mendelsohn, of the aforementioned Aussie accent, makes the most of his dual human and nonhuman roles.
Last but not least: Larson, despite her Oscar for “Room,” simply doesn't convince as a superhero. She's too natural, too conversational; her one-liners never sting; her speeches fizzle. We buy into her vulnerability and even her steely inner core, but never into the sense of nobility and gravitas needed to balance out a silly costume. Only the most dedicated Marvel fans will follow this Captain.
MORE MARVEL FILMS COMING
Stay for the closing credits in “Captain Marvel” and you’ll see a clue to where the character will next appear. Here’s a quick guide to four more Marvel films due to arrive this year:
AVENGERS: ENDGAME (April 26) Spoiler alert: In the previous “Avengers” film, half of them turned to dust! The sequel promises a way out, but maybe not for everyone: It’s said to be the final film in the “Avengers” franchise.
DARK PHOENIX (June 7) The shadowy figure of Jean Grey, from the X-Men series, gets her own stand-alone movie. The all-star cast includes Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and many more.
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (July 5) The sequel to 2017’s well-received “Spider-Man: Homecoming” brings back Tom Holland in the title role and introduces Jake Gyllenhaal as the new villain Mysterioso.
THE NEW MUTANTS (Aug. 2) Don’t hold Fox to that release date; this X-Men spin-off has been pushed back twice already, and there are rumblings that studio's pending merger with Disney merger may stall the film yet again.