The 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. "Captain Marvel" introduces Marvel Studios' first headlining female hero, but her origin story doesn't diverge far from Marvel's successful "house style" of sci-fi MacGuffins. Watching this obscure hero give rise to another franchise-building, smash-hit movie will leave viewers marveling at Marvel once again.
For this film, Marvel enlisted top talent in front of and behind the camera. Indie stalwarts Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck ("Half Nelson," "Sugar") may be Marvel's unlikeliest directorial hires yet, but the savvy choice puts a woman behind the camera for "Captain Marvel" (a la DC's "Wonder Woman") and guarantees at least a certain amount of dramatic weight to a genre that can easily run away with action melodrama.
Oscar-winner Brie Larson ("Room," "Short Term 12") stars as Vers, a superpowered amnesiac inhabitant of the planet Hala and member of an elite military unit one might as well call Seal Team Kree. The Kree people are at war with the shape-shifting Skrulls, and when Vers literally falls to Earth, her visions of once being an Air Force test pilot there intensify. Is she Vers, or is she Carol Danvers? Or could she somehow be both? The identity crisis storyline crafted by Boden, Fleck and co-screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet follows our hero as she discovers who she is and what she can do.
Because the story unfolds largely on 1995 Earth (a.k.a. "Planet C-53"), Boden and Fleck pepper the film with cheeky references (Vers lands in a Blockbuster Video, where she promptly photon-blasts the head off of an Arnold Schwarzenegger display and peruses a VHS copy of "The Right Stuff").
With top directors and a cast that includes Ben Mendelsohn, Oscar-winner Larson, Oscar-nominee Samuel L. Jackson and multiple Oscar-nominees Annette Bening, Jude Law and Djimon Hounsou, one wonders when Marvel will run out of prestige talent to throw at comic-book movies.
For now, we can be grateful that Boden and Fleck manage to inject some considered if corny thematic moments illustrating human resilience and suggesting at least one gender advantage on Carol Danvers' side (she's not beholden to foolish pride).
"Captain Marvel" also qualifies as an anti-war story that blurs the line between good guys and bad, while also slipping in a feminist smackdown here, a sly Trump rebuke there. At times, the formula can make the picture feel a little bland, and the humor tips over into cutesy when it comes to hero cat "Goose" (maybe Jude Law's Kree commander Yon-Rogg is right when he insists, "Humor is a distraction"). But the not-so-secret recipe still satisfies, while providing a sturdy origin launchpad for a new hero.